“Well, all’s well that ends well,” Stenger intones as he opens the glass door to his store and then says brightly out of habit, “Come again, Miss Myers.”
On the way out of town I make a point of going past the church to see the soup line. There are dozens of fellows, mostly white with a few colored mixed in, and I’m happy to see that the African Methodist Episcopal and the Saved by Faith Baptists have joined forces and serve all races.
I study the men as we drive by: thin, hollows under their eyes, cheeks sunken in, clothes greasy and torn, and I wonder where their women are. Staying with the children and kin, I imagine. But the men must leave home and keep on looking for work. They can’t stop. Whatever it takes, just like me, they must find work.
The Joes in the line turn to stare at our vehicle, and one tall fellow in overalls waves with the stump of an arm. That’s Holly Wetsel, I realize. One-Arm Wetsel! The doc saved his life a few years ago when men from the sawmill carried Holly to the clinic in the back of a pickup. He’d run his hand through the roller and crushed it so badly it couldn’t be saved. Isaac amputated the torn stump and stopped the bleeding, while I provided the anesthesia. He didn’t charge a cent for the surgery. That’s how he was . . . generous when you didn’t expect it, but otherwise a skinflint.
As we pass the church, Isaac turns. His face doesn’t change, still the blank stare, but there’s a shift of the head in what looks like a nod. Maybe he’s thanking the men in the soup line. . . . I take a deep breath. Not likely.
Horse Shoe Mine
“Thanks for coming with me, Becky,” Patience says as we bump in her Olds down Salt Lick Road. “It’s a lot more fun to have a pal at a delivery and also safer if something goes wrong.” I’m bracing my feet against the floorboards wondering how I got into this.
Thinking it over, there wasn’t much choice. Blum and I were at the Hesters’ returning their push mower when Patience got a call and the person on the phone mentioned blood. Then when Patience asked me to come with her to the delivery, what was I going to say? “No thanks, I’m busy?” She clearly thought I’d be happy to attend, as if assisting a woman in labor was a big honor.
Daniel gently led the doctor off to the barn. “Come on, old buddy. I got something to show you. We’ll leave the birthing to the ladies.”
“I get so tired sometimes,” Patience goes on as she expertly bounces around another hole in the gravel road. “But since Mrs. Potts died, I’m the only midwife in Union County. . . .”
“When we get there, can you sort through the birth satchel and resterilize the scissors and whatever else we’ll need? I just had a delivery yesterday and didn’t get around to it. This is Thelma Booth’s fourth child. She’s been calling me every few days with one thing and another.”
Patience takes a sharp left and passes a wooden sign that reads HAZEL PATCH.
“You know about Hazel Patch? That’s where Reverend Miller and his Negro followers live. It’s a village of about a hundred folks who migrated up from the southern part of the state to work the Baylor Mine, until the cave-in in ’24, when seventeen of their men were killed, seventeen men and two boys.
“They say you could hear the trapped men calling for help, but no one could get to them through the boulders. They screamed for a week and then the cries got weaker, and then they stopped. Those who weren’t killed won’t go underground again, no matter what, and now make a living as subsistence farmers.
“I spent a lot of time in mining camps,” Patience goes on. “Did I ever tell you? I was married to a union organizer for the UMWA, the United Mine Workers of America. The camp we’re going to today isn’t unionized. It’s abysmal. The houses are little more than the shacks that the hoboes build under the bridge in town.”
She takes another sharp turn and follows a narrow gravel road along a bubbling creek where the water is a shocking golden color and the rocks are covered with orange slime that comes from acid runoff out of the mines.
“I worked at Scotts Run as a public health nurse when I first came to West Virginia,” I tell her. “Up there, even some of the nonunionized camps had nice schools and churches and a clinic with a doctor, but that was over ten years ago.”
“That’s the way it should be. Unions, just by their presence, stand for improved living and working conditions, but now that the economy has fallen apart, the coal barons can do anything they want. They know the men won’t strike. It’s not like there are a lot of jobs to choose from and they’re lucky they have one.”
As we continue into the hollow, I see shacks perched on the hillside and a company store, but nowhere a clinic or school. Miners, wearing metal hats with lights on them, their faces so black you can only see their eyes, are just coming out of a massive dark hole. Some of them lift their heads as we pass, but only one fellow waves.
“You remember Thelma?”
“I saw her at my Women and Infants’ Clinic, years ago. Had to explain everything to her twice; she’s a little slow.”
Patience takes another sharp turn and we pull up in front of a plain wooden miner’s house, all one story. I’m surprised, in such dismal circumstances, to see that the trim around the windows is painted a sea green, with a matching sea-green door. Purple pansies bloom in green window boxes in an attempt to bring cheer to an otherwise gray world.
“Miss Patience!” cry three freckle-faced kids sitting on the porch. “Miss Patience! The midwife! Ma, the midwife is here.” You’d think she was Santa Claus.
“Okay, baby dolls, you calm down!” A very pregnant redhead, with an angelic freckled face comes to the door.
“Come in. Come in. Why, Nurse Becky, I didn’t know you were in town. I’ll make us some tea.”
“Thelma! What are you doing out of bed?” Patience squeals. She rushes forward, pushing the children aside. Fresh blood is visible on the insides of the woman’s calves and stains her worn pink house slippers.
“For god’s sake, you’re bleeding, Thelma! Becky, can you bring in the birth satchel? I’ll get her back to the bedroom. You children stay here. Where’s your father?”
“He’s working in the mine, down under,” the oldest boy, around eight, answers. “Might do a double if he can. We need the money.” Patience sighs and propels Thelma down a narrow hall.
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