I want to tell you about Jim. He would be shocked if he knew anyone cared, so long after his death. But this is important, I think. I want to tell you all about Jim.
He was old. When I was a little kid, he was old. And short. Yeah, he was not a big guy. He was short. And skinny.
He was a coal miner. He was proud of that, in a perverse way. Why do I say that? Because he told me of his life. And in the mine, it was hell. He gasped for breath his last few years and died of the black lung. That is why I say it was perverse that he was so proud. Of course, maybe he was proud of just surviving. That really is an accomplishment. A great one.
Let me tell you about Jim.
He was pulled out of school at age seven. That was considered enough to be literate back then. And he was. He was smart as a whip and could read, really well. He liked to read the newspaper and books. Lots and lots of them.
Why pull a kid out of school at age seven? To work in the mine. His father did not have a choice. His family was starving. Also, there were no other opportunities in life that he could see. Jim's dad was correct. There WERE no other opportunities for him. Not there, not at that time. And his family was in virtual slavery.
Jim told me that the mines liked little kids back then, because they could crawl into really tiny spaces and their hands could work on things that were really narrow. Think “Schindler's List” here. And they paid them nothing, the mine owners paid a few pennies per hour to the parents.
Jim buried three wives. I don't mean that literally, although, knowing him, he may have. He was married and his first three wives died. At least one in childbirth, although he said two (I do not doubt him, but nowadays I think we would call it “ectopic pregnancy”, probably for both). Of course, since life begins at conception, I suppose they had it coming. If you believe that bullshit. Oh yeah, one of his wives had cancer, from his descriptions to me. Bone cancer. It must have been agonizing, but Jim told me that she never complained once. He loved her, so much, that “big, fat, Swedish woman”.
Jim told me that he went to a KKK rally once. He did. Only he did not know what it was. A guy he was working with kept hassling him to come; he told him it was a “cook out”. Jim told me that after he got there and found out what they were all about, he was horrified. He said that he would not talk to the guy that invited him anymore. He said something pretty funny to me. He said, “Down in the mine, we're all pretty much black.” That was Jim. Jim had black friends, lots of them, before it was cool.
Jim and his fourth wife adopted a daughter. He was in his sixties then. His wife then abandoned him and their daughter. Jim raised her alone. He was used to it. He raised all of his own daughters. Jim did not have any sons (who survived to adulthood, anyway). Jim bought her a car when she turned sixteen. And then he put a really strong spring under the gas pedal when he caught her speeding. She bitched like hell. She graduated from high school, and Jim was so proud. Actually, all of his daughters did. It was so important to him.
Jim could pick wild berries like no one I have ever seen. And he could walk through the woods and tell you whatever tree you pointed at, what kind of tree that was. He did that. He made us a nice inlaid, parquet end table from the trees in our woods. He cut off branches with his pocket knife and did that. He was pretty talented, I think.
He was our friend. He left my mom his old truck when he died. It was really old. A '49 Studebaker. God, I wish I had that thing now. It was kinda cool (despite the fact that it was painted really badly, with a paintbrush the last time before we got it, and his phone number stenciled on the side).
Jim was a great guy, a good man. He was a lifelong Democrat, a union man (back when “union” was a matter of life and death). He was a big Roosevelt fan. He loved Kennedy, too. But he was really pissed that Oswald was killed. He told me (more than once) that Oswald should have been taken alive, and then... Well, according to Jim, we should stick him in a pit with water running in it, with just a handpump to keep him from drowning. Jim said that he should stay there, pumping, twelve hours a day. There was a gleam of vengeance in his pale, blue eyes as he told me that. I asked him, why? Why would you do that to any living person? That is torture. Jim laughed. “That was my job, after I grew up. For five years. Let him do it for one.” That was Jim's idea of Hell. His former job. For one fifth of that time he did it, he could not bear to sentence anyone to longer than a year.
I miss Jim.
Roots run deep here in western Pennsylvania.
We simply need someone who can remind of us of that and tell us that we are worth something. Oh, and run on something we actually care about.