Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Power of Love: A Story of Coalwood

The Coalwood Community Church circa 1959

The Power of Love
Homer Hickam

            When I was a boy, my mother overheard me say, "I love peanut butter." I was saying it because I was having an intellectual discussion with a friend of mine, a boy who also loved peanut butter and we wished to confirm our proclivity for that most wholesome of jarred elixir. For most boys who grew up in the West Virginia coalfields, this was a natural thing to say because we sincerely believed peanut butter was just about the best thing that could possibly be smeared between two slices of white bread. Life, however, was never easy when you were the son of Elsie Hickam. Later, when she had me to herself, she admonished, "You do not love peanut butter," she apprised me. "You like peanut butter. Love is a word you should use for people. For instance, you love me."
            "I do?" The question sprang forth thoughtlessly from my young mouth because, actually, I'd never really given it any thought as to whether I loved my mother or not.
            Mom's hazel eyes registered hurt. "Don't you?"
            Well, of course I did, especially now that she'd put it that way. To her apparent relief, I said so even though her advice still confused me. Love was just a word, right? I was to learn not so.
            One day, a fellow arrived in Coalwood. He was a junior engineer, those pitiful and pitiable creatures the steel company that owned our coal mine and our town sent to us from time to time to be trained in the ways of our world. Since I was at the time the owner, editor, and primary reporter for a rag I grandly called The Coalwood News, I approached him as he stood in the street and identified myself as myself. "Is this the bachelor quarters?" he asked, nodding toward the grand facility before him.
Coalwood Club House
            "It's the Club House," I said, marveling at his ignorance of our structures, "where rooms are allotted for various workers and if you're a bachelor I guess it will do since it houses a splendid cook named Wilma."
            "You use big words," he apprised me. "What are you, eight years old?"
            "Nine," I informed him and took out my pencil and paper. "Your name and purpose for being here?"
            "Frank Miles. I'm an engineer. Why are you writing that down?"
            "I told you about my newspaper and you're officially news," I replied. "And you're not an engineer. You're a junior engineer. It takes a lot to get the rank of engineer around here. Tell me a little about yourself."
            "About myself? Well, right this minute, I'm hungry." He provided me a wan smile on his otherwise unhappy face. When I didn't smile at his little joke, for it was very little, he apprised me, with an odd weariness, that he'd recently been a pilot in the United States Air Force serving in the war in Korea.
            "Did you shoot down a MiG?" I asked, holding my pencil at the ready.
            He pulled up the collar on his cracked leather jacket which I presumed he'd stolen from the Air Force. "I guess I'll go on in. Good to meetcha, Sonny."
            He'd chosen not to answer my question but I let it go. Whatever he'd done in Korea would come out soon enough. The people of Coalwood would see to that.
            Sure enough, I learned everything there was to know about Frank Miles in the coming weeks. He had indeed shot down a MiG whereupon the Chinese had returned the favor, shooting him down and generally making him the wreck he turned out to be. I heard all about him from listening in on the coal miners discussing him at the company store. They were pretty unforgiving. After all, they depended on everybody at the mine to do their jobs and nervous ones made them nervous, too. The way it got back to me was that Frank's hands often shook and loud sounds made him jump, and he drank far too much of the illegal whiskey John Eye Blevins made up Snake Root Hollow. No one in town gave him much of a chance of ever doing anything worthwhile, not in Coalwood or anywhere else. In short, he was doomed without half trying.
            I happened to be there when the next thing happened. Frank met a young woman by the name of Teresa Donatello. Teresa was the daughter of Alfred and Ducet Donatello who'd, not so long ago, had arrived in our coal camp from the country of Italy where, I was confident from the patient instruction of my teachers, the city of Rome was located and was also, due to God's little joke, shaped in the form of a boot. Otherwise, I didn't know too much else about the place.
            The thing about Teresa was she was dying. Her heart was paper thin, according to the company doctor, and she was so weak she could hardly stand and there was nothing to be done. She was young, not more than eighteen, but the sands of her time were rapidly draining from the glass of life she'd been given. As soon as their eyes met, Frank and Teresa made a connection. I felt it even through my nine year old brain. Frank put down the soft drink he was raising to his lips at the company drug store and removed his hat. Teresa smiled demurely and ordered a soft drink for herself. He spoke, she spoke, and then she laughed and then he laughed. I got closer to hear what was being said but it wasn't much, just how do you do and I'm doing fine and how are you enjoying Coalwood and I guess I like it fine and that kind of stuff. How those words would make Teresa giggle and Frank's face light up like a flaming candle, I surely didn't know.
            Frank paid Teresa court, as required by both the rules of Coalwood and her Italian parents. He came with flowers, plucked with permission from my mother's rose garden, and sat on the porch swing and there they spoke of many things, still secret from even the ace reporter that I was at the time. Frank stopped drinking and he stopped shaking and he stopped being anything but a good man. When Teresa felt strong enough, he walked her to church and there he sat with her while the choir sang and the light streamed through the windows across our congregation who sang all the heartier in praise of the divine since two people who needed each other were in their midst.
            She died suddenly, Teresa, never waking one morning. Her father walked to the Club House to give Frank the news, catching him just as he walked outside to go to work. Frank walked back to the little company house and there he sat beside Teresa's bed and held her hand until the men arrived with the stretcher to take her to Doc's office where she would be prepared for burial in our little cemetery.
            Frank stayed in Coalwood for a few more years after that although a day didn't pass while he was still with us but what he didn't go to Teresa's grave, there to sit with her and tell her of his day, and all the things that was happening in town. He asked permission from my mom to take a slip of one of her rose bushes and plant it alongside the grave. He no longer shook or drank or did anything but what he was supposed to do. He was respected by all in the town. I wrote up a little story on it but when I showed it to her, Mom said I shouldn't print it. "It isn't our story," she said. "It's theirs and it's too fresh. Let it rest for now." I let it rest. Until now.
            The cemetery in Coalwood is abandoned these days, as is much of the town. A few overturned tombstones can be found amongst the trees that have grown up there to shelter that which was and never will be again. On a recent journey to my old hometown, I climbed the hill to see what was to be seen. It was as I described, nothing much left, until my eye found a spot of color. I walked to it, there to discover a most surprising artifact. It was a rose bush turned wild and unruly but with scarlet buds yet shining forth with the power of love.