I have entitled this story "Farther Along". "Farther Along" is the title of an old gospel song that Big Grandma would have me and my cousin Doug sing for her over and over again.
Farther along we'll know all about it.
Farther along we'll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We'll understand it all by and by.
Often when death has taken our loved ones,
Leaving our home so lone and so drear,
Then we do wonder why others prosper,
Living so wicked year after year.
Sometimes, Big Grandma would cry when we sang it. I asked her why and she said it was one of the songs they sang at Grandpa's funeral. I never spoke to her about the day he died or what it was like in the long years after...I was too afraid of the hurt we might both feel talking about it.
Finally, back in 1993, I interviewed my mother about the day and what she remembered as an 11 year old girl. I knew the real people I needed to talk to were Uncle Millard, Uncle James, and Uncle Willard. They were there with him the day Grandpa was killed in the coal mine. But I waited too long. Uncle Millard passed away in 1996, then Uncle James in 2006.
In 2010, I decided to call Uncle Willard. He was not in the mines with Grandpa that day, but was there to carry his body out and watch him take his last breath. There are parts of his story that I have chosen not to share in this venue, they are too personal. I will share his entire story only in the book I am writing for the family. But here is most of the story Uncle Willard told me about the day Grandpa died in his own words.
"I was to drive Millard, James, and Dad up to the mines like I always done since the bridge was out. Robert Montgomery was hauling coal in a big truck and broke the bridge over near the mine. So we'd drive my car up to the bridge, walk across, get in Dad's truck and drive the rest of the way up to the mine. Then, do the opposite when we'd come back home of the evening. That day, before I took Dad and the other boys to the mine, Dad pulled out $2.00 and gave me for gas to go to church. Mom was mad and said I didn't need to have that money 'cause I was just going up there to see girls and it was wasteful. So I grabbed it fast as I could and ran to the car. But I heard him say to Mom, "Give him the money, send him to church and let's pray for the best." It was the last thing I ever remember hearing my daddy say.
"It was Thursday, November 13, 1958, a chilly day, kinda drizzly like and we left about 2:30 in the afternoon for the mines. We all worked second shift, so we didn't start till the afternoon. I dropped them off and had plenty of time to get cleaned up and get over to the church, but that wasn't to be. On the way to church, I had a [tire] blow out. I opened the trunk to get the spare tire, but it was flat too. I still had time to run to Ben's [house] where his '51 Chevy was. Well anyone who knows about the '51 Chevy knows that it gets stuck in gear a lot. Ben's Chevy was stuck in gear and we couldn't get it out. I ran over to Burley Blondell's house to borrow a car, but it was up on jacks in the front yard and had no motor. Then, I went to Oscar Ely's house and his wife, Rosie, said he'd done gone to church, but what did I want. I said, "I wanted to go to church, but it's too late and I got to pick up Dad and the boys." See, by then I had run all over the holler looking for a ride and it was late. I saw another car in the yard and said, "Who's is that car?" She said it was Billy's, her son. He had just drove in and was sleeping in the house. She said she'd go wake him and Billy came out all groggy and said, "Well, I can't let you have it [the car], but I can drive you. I'll need gas money." So I gave him the $2.00 Dad had give me. Billy drove me back to the house to get Mom and the 3 of us drove over to the mine. We got to that broken out bridge and there was some men working there and Robert Montgomery. Mom and I walked on across and got in Dad's truck and went up to the tipple of the mine and as soon as I opened the truck door I could hear Millard screaming, "Daddy's dead. Daddy's in there. Daddy's been killed."
"I was just a crying and praying. I don't remember exactly, but I must have grabbed that railroad jack out of the back of the truck and us 3 boys ran back in the mine where Daddy was. It was about a quarter of a mile back. The boys said he was covered up. That slab was 18 inches thick, 12 feet long and 12 feet wide. People said later it had weighed 3 tons. We jacked up the rock, but the rock started to slip and I kid you not, those 2 boys, Millard and James, held up that rock when the jack fell and I pulled Daddy's body out from under [it]. Me and James got on either side of him and carried him out of the mine. With every breath he took, blood would bubble from his eyes and nose, his mouth and ever'thing. He was alive, but just barely. His [insides] were pushed out into his clothes. Mom saw us coming and was just screaming and crying. We put him in the cab of the truck 'cause now it was late in the evening and turned cold and was raining harder. [I was holding him on one side,] Mom was holding him on the other side, and the boys were in the back. Dad died in my arms right there. We got down to the bridge there and Robert Montgomery opened the door and said, "Willard, get on out now and let me take your Daddy." He felt his neck and said he was gone. I'll never forget, he pulled him out on the gravel of [sic] the side of the road and it was raining and put and old, dirty tarp over him. Robert wanted us to go on home and he'd wait for the undertaker to come get the body, but we said no. We'd stay there 'till Clyde come. [Clyde was the local undertaker.] So, we got in my car across the way and waited. [Though he did not say, it is likely that Willard's car had broke down not far from where they were on the opposite side of the bridge and was still there.] When we was about to leave then, Robert said, "Willard, before you go home, you need to stop at Wright Kirk's (he was one of the owners of the mine) and tell him what happened." So, we did and when I told Wright about Daddy, he had a heart attack right there. They said when they told Wright's brother George, he'd had a heart attack too. 'Course they was afraid, there being an accident in their mine and the insurance and all that.
"The undertaker brought the body back the next morning and laid him out in Lewey's room in the back there. He [the undertaker] told us that they couldn't bury Dad without his teeth and someone was going to have to go back in there [the mine] and get Dad's teeth. That was law [tradition] see, you couldn't bury anyone without [sic] you could find all their body parts. So he looked to Ben and Harold who were there and they wouldn't do it. Mom said to me, "Willard, you'll have to go". The coroner drove me over to the mine and he wouldn't go in with me and I went in all by myself and picked up Dad's teeth like they were corn kernels and put 'em in a little, brown bag I had. Back at the house, the neighbors and family was all there for the 'wakening' and they stayed up all night with the body." End quote
An interview with my mother filled in the last parts of the story. She said that she and her twin brother Ray had been over at their sister Monette's house. It was late when the boys and Big Grandma showed up. They first told everyone that Grandpa had been in an accident and that he was in the hospital. I guess there was some worry that Monette would loose the baby she was carrying if she got too distraught. However, Millard didn't agree with lying and said, "No, that's not true. Daddy's dead", or something to that affect. Mom said she just couldn't believe her Dad was dead. She remembers thinking that only happened to other people, not her family. It wasn't until she saw the body laid out in the house and looked at his hands, did she finally believe it. His face was terribly swollen and she didn't even think he looked like her Dad, but his hands did, and that is how she knew.
I was interested in how Big Grandma handled this horrible tragedy in her life. How could she cope with yet another great loss? Mom remembers that sometimes at night, Big Grandma would be pacing the floor holding the bloody clothes Grandpa died in and saying things like, "Why did you leave me? I could've handled anyone else dying, but you". Mom and her brother sometimes thought that Big Grandma would have rather they had died than to have lost her husband.
Mom and Ray didn't go back to school that year and by the next year they were moving to Ohio to "get the boys out of the mines". Uncle James had nearly lost his life that same dreadful November day. When Grandpa heard the ceiling of the mine starting to fall, he yelled for the boys to run and pushed James out of the way of the slate just in time. James had a large scratch down his back where the rock that fell on Grandpa got him on the way down. Big Grandma would not loose any of her other loved ones in the mines she said.
To my knowledge, Big Grandma never slept in a bed after the death of Grandpa, but preferred to sleep on a couch.
Moving to Ohio changed the course of my mother's life and ultimately mine. That one event of Grandpa dying in such a way was one of life's turning points. A turning point that put the family on another path entirely. I am sure that neither Big Grandma or Grandpa could have envisioned the grand houses their descendants would live in, the high school diplomas and college degrees that many would someday have, and the peace and plenty in which most of us live. I am sure they are very proud...I know I would be.
Note: Though Grandpa always said he was born on November 11th, 1911. However, when his birth record was found in Harlan County, Kentucky, the date of birth was given as 28 November, 1911.