Angels in the Coal Mine
by Tom Kovach
Coal mining has always been hard, dangerous work. My dad was one who took such risks, long before modern equipment. Nearly all the work was done with picks and shovels, often 12 hours a day.
My father came to America in 1912, a teenager with the hope of making money to send back home to his family in Europe. My father was not afraid of work. Back in his native Hungary, he’d been working on the railroads since he was 12 years old.
He told me that in this particular coal mine, the work was especially hard. “We had a tough boss,” he recalled. “You couldn’t slack off. If you were slow or poor at your job, you were fired. No questions, no explanations. They just let you go.”
Working conditions for miners were poor and benefits were few. Any kind of insurance was almost out of the question. “We were careful, but injuries and sickness did happen,” Dad said. “We just prayed to God that it wouldn’t happen to us.”
The miners worked in crews. They were assigned to a mine shaft, and each day they had to meet a quota to produce a certain amount of coal. If you went over the quota, there was a small bonus; if you went under the quota, you could lose your job.
One day, Pete, a miner on my dad’s crew, came to work sick. “I’m not really sure what was wrong with him,” my dad said. “There were a number of different illnesses going around. Sanitation wasn’t good. The air was bad. We didn’t have the best diet. A lot of things could get you sick. At any rate, Pete came to work very sick.”
He was feverish and could hardly hold a shovel. With a wife and six children at home, he couldn’t afford to miss one day, especially when he might get fired for even going home sick.
“Pete was a nice guy,” my dad said. “We all liked him. He was a very hard worker. He always carried his load and more when he was healthy.”
It was obvious to all of them that Pete was very sick. At first, they told him to tell the foreman and then go home. Yet they knew that if he did that, he’d risk getting fired. There was no sympathy in this mine for sick workers.
The crew discussed what they could do, if anything. They were all young men, in their early 20s. Finally, Herman, a big, husky miner, wiped the sweat off his face and said, ‘Fellas, I think if we work really, really hard we can make the quota even without Pete.”
The crew looked at each other. Then they nodded and smiled. “It’s worth a try,” my father said. “It will be a challenge. Let’s try it!”
A cheer went up from the crew. Much to Pete’s protests, they got their jackets and made Pete as comfortable as they could in a dark corner. He would rest there, out of sight, while the rest of the crew worked hard. “Drink some water and get some sleep, Pete,” the crew told him.
“I never worked so hard in my life,” Dad recalled. “Yet I seemed to get extra energy. It was spiritual. We sang and joked and worked like we had super powers – and maybe we did.”
The foreman showed up once, but with the crew working so hard shoveling coal, he didn’t even notice that Pete was missing. They were making money for the company. Meeting that goal was all that mattered to him.
“We all worked hard that day,” Dad said, “but that big easy-going Herman, he looked like Superman. I never saw a man dig and shovel coal so fast.”
The crew not only met their quota that day, they exceeded it. They found it amazing what they could do when they united to do something good.
However, the extra work didn’t end after that day. “For three days, Pete came to work sick, and for three days the rest of us worked harder than we ever thought we could. We were driven – and we loved it. We actually relished the challenge and felt really, really good about what we were doing.”
By the fourth day, whatever sickness Pete had was gone. He was healthy enough to work. “I can’t thank you fellows enough,” he said with tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what would have happened had you fellows not met my quota for me. I can’t even think of what would have happened to my family had I lost my job.” Then he added slowly, “You know, fellows, one day when I was shaking with fever and looking through the coal dust, I thought I saw angels. I know that sounds strange, but I honestly believed I saw angels.”
The crew laughed and said, “No, that was just us, Pete.”
Given the magnitude of what my dad and the other miners did those three days, I believe that both Pete and the rest of the crew were right. There were indeed angels in the coal mine.
Tom Kovach lives in Minnesota.
Reprinted from Standard