Within a matter of weeks, Chester J. Gangaware went from the heady glories of the football field to the cold, dank depths of a coal mine.
It was 1942, and Gangaware, freshly graduated from Coaldale High School, where he was a standout running back for the Tigers' football team, headed to the only work around: Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.'s No. 8 mine.
"I got out of high school and went into the mines. That was the only place around here to work," he says.
Now, with a spring in his step and energy that belies his 90 years, Gangaware is, as far as he knows, the sole surviving No. 8 contract miner.
"All of the ones I know are gone," he says softly. "All my friends are gone."
One recent day, Gangaware sits at the wooden table in his spotless kitchen, chatting with his brother-in-law, William Gaddes, his daughter LaRue Pogwist and his son, Chester M. Gangaware. Talk turns to Gangaware's days in the mines. He leaves the room to retrieve a large framed copy of a May 11, 1952, newspaper photo story chronicling a day in the life of a miner – Gangaware.
The photo essay, in the former Call-Chronicle, was done 10 years after he started working in the mine. It depicts Gangaware having breakfast with his young family, working, coming home and reading to his children.
From football field
to the coal chute
Gangaware was no stranger to coal: His father, Chester L. Gangaware, was a miner. His parents used it to heat their home, and as a young lad, Gangaware routinely hauled buckets of "picked" coal from the banks to his family home, a common chore for boys for that era.
"My father never bought a ton of coal until I graduated," he says with a laugh.
Gangaware started out as a laborer, cleaning the gangways, walking at least a mile-and-a-half to get to and from his job, then at least a half-mile through the mines to get to his job site.
"I shoveled all the stuff out between the tracks, and shoveling it in the cars," he says.
All the while, Gangaware knew he would eventually be drafted into the military as the United States entered World War II.
"I knew I was going to go," he says.
Sure enough, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in November of 1942, about six months after starting work as a laborer in the No. 8 mine. He fulfilled his patriotic duty as a dog handler and member of the Military Police at Baltimore Harbor. It was there that he married Jean Gaddes, the love of his life. The couple shared 60 years together until Jean's death in 2008.
After mustering out, he returned to the No. 8 mine, eventually working his way up to the job of contract miner.
The steps included doing loading for "a couple pennies more," then putting three years in doing mining. He had to take a test and pass certain requirements to become a contract miner.
The job, which paid about $2.48 an hour a good wage at the time was fraught with danger.
"It was all bull work. You had to know so much. When I first started, they put me with an experienced miner, and we worked for 10 years together," he recalls. "You learn as you go. It's a very dangerous job."
That peril struck close to home as Gangaware worked one Sunday in 1946 or 1947.
"We were working on the third level. We were blocking up chutes so the air wouldn't get through. We cemented the chutes closed so the air wouldn't go to the surface," he remembers.
When the workday was done, an operator dropped a "cage," down for the men to ride back up to the surface.
"Everybody got on the cage but me," he says. "It started to move up, and I jumped to get on, and I was hanging by my elbows. When the cage goes up so far, it closes in solid, like an elevator it would have cut my legs off."
Fortunately, Gangaware's fellow miners pulled him to safety.
"I just got my legs in time," he says.
Gangaware was also working in the mine when explosions rocked the place.
In one, on Dec. 21, 1946, three men, Edward Butts, John Michalko, both of Coaldale, and Michael Contraday of McAdoo, were injured and one, Joseph Dobosky of Lansford, was killed, according to a brief in the Reading Eagle. Gangaware helped to carry out his body. Another time, he carried two bodies out of the mine after an explosion.
The No. 8 tunneled down about 1,200 feet underground, or eight levels. The No. 9 mine was 4.5 levels, or about 600 feet deep. The danger of explosions from accumulations of gas was ever present. Miners carried lamps, and kept a close eye on the flame.
Gangaware speaks in the present tense: In his memory, he's still underground.
"Sometimes you're working and working and working, and your lamp is hanging in front of you. You look up, you're getting weak, and you look at the lamp whooo, that blue flame shoots up in the air, you grab it and get out of there," he says. "You've got to watch yourself all the time."
Among those fellow miners Gangaware counted as friends was primitive artist Jack Savitsky. He and Savitsky became buddies when they both worked in the No. 9 mine. They hunted and fished, and Savitsky's wife would pack extra cookies in Jack's lunchbox for Gangaware.
Savitsky, who had quit school in the sixth grade to work in the mines, began painting in 1959, after retiring due to ill health.
"He gave me a whole stack of paintings, he said 'here. Go through them and see what you want'."
But Gangaware, not an aficionado of the folk art style, declined the offer.
"When they closed the mine up, he was still not known," Gangaware says. "About a year later, he gets known."
Gangaware saw Savitsky at a local grocery store some time later, after he had become famous.
"I asked him, 'Jack, where's my picture?' Boy, was he mad. He said, 'I sold your damn picture'," Gangaware says, laughing.
Savitsky, who died in 1991 at age 81, went on to be considered to be one of the prominent American Folk artists of the 20th century. His art has been featured in numerous museums and galleries, including the Smithsonian Institution; Lyzon Gallery, Nashville, Tennessee; the American Folk Art Museum, New York City; the Outsider Folk Art gallery in Reading, Berks County and the Graves Country Gallery, Lodi, Calif.
Farewell to King Coal
In Feb. 1960, the miners made their way out of the shaft for the last time; the mines were closed, and allowed to flood. About 5,000 men had lost their jobs.
"When they closed, I was out," Gangaware says.
Gangaware, who worked 14 years in No. 8 and one year in No. 9, found a new job with the Fuller Company in Catasauqua.
Again, he started from the ground up.
"I started as a laborer, then I went to machine operator, then I went to an assembler, then I went to an electrician," he says.
He ended up as the "boss electrician."
"I ran the whole plant," he says.
Twenty-eight years later, he retired.
Now in his ninth decade, Gangaware remains physically active.
"I walk three miles a day, six days a week," he says.
His exercise regimen doesn't include hefting buckets of coal and ash.
"I heat with oil," he says, chuckling.