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Proud to be a coal miner's daughter

Published October 23. 2010 09:00AM

When rescuers pulled the Chilean miners to safety after they were trapped in a mine for 69 days, I was like millions of others riveted to the coverage.

First I prayed for the miner's safety, then I cried tears of joy as each man rode the capsule to freedom. I couldn't turn away from watching TV until the very last miner surfaced.

I empathized with the families for a special reason: my father was a coal miner who worked for years as an anthracite coal miner in several independent mines.

From the time I was a young child, I listened to conversations about what it was like to work underground.

My dad never used words like "danger" or "life threatening." He didn't have to. All too many times the town mourned as a miner lost a limb or a life.

My dad and several of his coal mining buddies had blue marks on their faces from where they were hit with falling pieces of coal. Mishaps like that were commonplace and were brushed off as "part of life."

But what every miner and mining family feared was a complete cave in. While working in every underground mine is dangerous, digging coal in an independent mine was even more precarious. Fatal accidents happened all too often.

I never met my Uncle Chick. He died in the family mine right before I was born.

Chick, as the older brother, was the mine boss. One day, when there was too much water in the mine to work, Chick sent my dad to the surface to get another pump.

Shortly after Dad was out of the mine, an explosion from inside the mine sent him running back to the mine opening. He heard his brother's screams as Chick burned to death. But Dad was powerless to help him.

My father never got over it. But he went back in the mine as soon as the funeral was over because there was no choice.

I often asked him how he could work in a mine where he courted danger every day. "A man does what he has to do," he would answer.

There were times when he came home from the mines too tired to pull off his boots. I lovingly did it for him.

Sometimes, rats nibbled on his sandwich while he was tying to eat lunch. Other times, the men would lighten the gravity of their work by playing jokes on each other. Dad always recounted those stories with humor and I hung on to his every word.

There are things we learned from our parents, not because they teach us, but because they show us. Almost through osmosis, we absorb their values.

What I learned from my dad was the value of hard work. I learned not to quit when things got tough. Every mining family learns that.

I was always proud of my dad's character and courage. I loved the way he was so joyful despite his tough life.

When the anthracite mines closed and there was no longer any mining work in the coal region, my dad went to the Philadelphia area to apply for a job. He heard the shipyard was hiring.

But instead of going straight to the plant to apply, dad went to the library and studied about turbines. When he understood the work being done at the shipyard, he applied there, claiming experience he didn't have.

It worked. My dad was soon promoted to leading erector and took great pride in his work.

When the plant got a contract to build submarines, Dad's background was checked carefully. They learned his only experience was working in a mine, not with the turbines he claimed when he was hired.

When his boss called Dad in and asked him why he lied, Dad had a question of his own: "Did you ever have two hungry children and no money to buy food?" he asked.

The boss understood. Dad wasn't fired. When I heard that story, I was proud of my dad for having the fortitude to learn new job skills, even if his learning was from books rather than job experience.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I went dancing at a club where those at my table were being downright pretentious.

"My father owns the biggest department store in the county," bragged one guy.

"My father is the town mayor," said one woman.

"My father is an engineer," lied my girlfriend whose father was a school janitor.

"My father is a coal miner," I said proudly.

That stopped people in their tracks.

"What, are you poor?" asked the son of the department store owner.

"No," I told him. "I'm rich in heritage and rich in pride. I'm proud of my father and his mining background."

At the time, my dad was no longer a miner. He was a leading erector at that shipyard I told you about. But I wanted to make a point and I think I did.

I've gone on in life to do many things and to establish a few identities. But one identity that I will always hold with pride is coal miner's daughter.

That has given me a rich heritage and an appreciation for every little thing in life.

This week, with what's going on in Chili, I remember my roots with pride as I relate to the families of those miners.

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