Tamaqua native Victor Merkel always had great respect for coal mining.
Merkel, 68, lived in New England Valley until he was 18.
While he never worked in the mines, he participated in bootlegging activities in his youth. Mining touched his life in another way as well.
About 1950, his sister-in-law lost her father to substandard mine supports at one of the big coal companies. They pulled him from the mountain, his body, crushed by tons of coal ore. Safety, during those times, suffered from questionable standards and enforcement. The loss and sense of injustice gnaw at Merkel to this day.
It's those experiences that prompted Merkel to write an electronic book, or ebook, titled 'Misery Mountain.'
Fittingly, the project will benefit families of victims of a mining tragedy. One hundred percent of the proceeds of the ebook will be donated directly to First Community Bank, Mine Disaster Fund, for the 29 families who lost loved ones in the Big Branch Mine, Montcoal, West Virginia.
Merkel, of Phoenix, Ariz., told the TIMES NEWS that he never realized how special his bootlegging experiences were until he retired from his career in sales and had time to think about things.
"I always considered it unimportant, until I retired. Then I realized how special it is."
With the guidance of his kindly old mentor, Merkel entered the world of bootleg mining and said those early experiences were worthwhile because he was able to help those who needed the coal most.
"An older gentleman who spent most of his life doing it showed me the basics, how to bring it up to the surface, crack it into smaller pieces, put it into burlap bags, sew the bags closed and sell them in town."
He acknowledges the inherent danger.
"There was always that risk."
Borrowing pigeons from local farmers, he lowered them into mountain digs to test for methane. As for safety standards, none existed. Since these types of illegal ventures operated in the shadows of legitimate mining, accidents might never be reported or bodies recovered.
Merkel said his customers were typically poorer people who couldn't or wouldn't buy coal from the coal companies. They were people who lived in despair, hand to mouth on a daily basis. With early exposure to such harsh circumstances, Merkel developed an awareness of the value he brought to those needy souls.
After graduating from Tamaqua High School, Merkel entered the U.S. Army, after which he completed his education at Elgin College, Elgin, IL. He married and went on to work in sales, retiring in 2006. Merkel credits the bootlegging experience for helping him to acquire sensitivity to the needs of others, which inspired him to excel in the field of corporate sales.
The ebook was a 10-year project, and while it's classified as fiction, the story is based in fact.
'Misery Mountain' is available as a download in all the popular formats Kindle, mobi, Epub-home printing, RTF-word processor, LRF-Sony reader, Palm Doc PDB -palm reader, and HTML-online read at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/2723 .
'Misery Mountain' is also available in ebook format at http://www.barnesnoble.com .
"Fifty years have gone by since I bootlegged coal in the mountains around Tamaqua," said Merkel.
He said he hoped safety standards would have evolved over the decades, but it just seems as though it hasn't happened.
"People still die in mines," he said. The recent tragedy in West Virginia moved him deeply.
"It shouldn't be so. In my heart, that shouldn't have happened."
In a sense, the ebook takes Merkel's life full circle.
By completing the work and donating proceeds to the families of the mine accident victims, Merkel continues the mission of helping those who need it most – a role he first filled 50 years ago at a bootleg mine in Tamaqua.