“Clean Coal.” Really? I heard the debate the other night and the president was promoting it. Yes, tell me about “Clean Coal”! My father died of black lung. It was a slow, agonizing death, several years in the making, till at last it did him in.
Ironically, I never heard the word “black lung” till long afterwards. When I asked him what his puzzling and seemingly nameless ailment was, he’d just say, “The old machinery is wearing out.” Finally he died, totally worn out–at the age of 62. That seemed really, really old at the time; I was 16 then.
He worked in several mines, including some in Alaska, but mostly in the Bellingham Coal Mine. A lot of people are surprised to hear that there was a coal mine up there, but there was, employing as many as 250 men at its peak, and it ran for just over a century, up until 1954, when it finally closed down.
The entrance to the mine was on the bank above Squalicum Creek, and we’d pass it whenever we drove into town. There was a large superstructure, visible from quite a distance, and my father would point to it and tell me that’s where he used to work. By that time he’d saved up money and bought the farm I grew up on. You’d think he’d have been glad to be out of that awful place, but in reality he never really left it.
There’s a song which pretty well sums it up. “Dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew.” It goes, “Seek not your fortune in the dark dreary mine. It’ll form as a habit and seep in your soul, till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal.”
Well, that was my father. Although he did well with the farm, built it up and ran it in an efficient way, he just didn’t seem to be part of the farming world. To the end of his life, his favorite magazine was the United Mine Workers Journal. I can still see him in favorite chair, reading it. His friends were the guys he’d worked with in the mine, and they were the ones he continued to visit with, hang out with. They were the ones he talked about, and I can still remember the names of half a dozen of them off the top of my head.
One was a guy my dad used to go prospecting with during the Depression when there wasn’t much work at the mine. They had a claim up in the Cascades, on the North Fork of the Nooksack. His partner was Joe Crnich; we used to go to his place a lot.
Another miner was Tom Skidmore, who’d once been in the Navy. So when I was in my teens and thinking of going in the military, I asked him his opinion. But he refused to advise me on it, and he told me why. A couple of decades earlier, back in 1940, two young miners just out of high school, the Starkovich brothers, were thinking of going in the Navy. They asked him what he thought, and he told them his experience in the Navy had been pretty good, and advised them to go for it. So they joined. They were stationed on the battleship USS Arizona, based at Pearl Harbor, and that’s where they were on December 7, 1941. Tom seemed to blame himself for their deaths, and he told me he would never again advise anyone to go in the military.
The USS Arizona remains where it sank, a monument to the sailors who went down with it that day. There should also be some monument to the men who worked in the Bellingham Coal mine. But there isn’t. The superstructure over the entrance is gone, and now it’s the site of a shopping center. Last time I was there, I looked around for a plaque or something to mark it as an historical location and commemorate the hundreds of miners who’d worked there over the decades. But there was nothing. Nothing except for the miles and miles of tunnels that run beneath the town, and these have caused occasional cave-ins under the streets above. Right in the downtown business district, at the intersection of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue, a sinkhole has reportedly opened up several times over the decades, on one occasion large enough to swallow an automobile. Each time it happens they just sort of paper it over and hope it won’t happen again.
Such cave-ins don’t happen often, but given that much of the town is undermined by a network of tunnels, it could potentially happen almost anywhere at any time. It’s sort of as though the town itself has a lingering case of black lung.
Those memories came flooding back to mind after hearing the president touting his support for “Clean Coal.” Well, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “Clean Coal,” and I’m not voting for anybody who says there is. My vote is for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who was arrested for daring to enter within the supposedly forbidden zone around that debate in which only the two corporatist parties are allowed to participate.