My Life With Coal- A Short Story

COAL- My life story in a few paragraphs…..and in relationship to coal….

I have lived, up until this past year,…and for the short number of years I was away at college, I had lived in a little Cotton mill town all of my life. It was a great place to grow up, with regards to my own personal situation. A wonderful place really. But, things change. Things go unnoticed by most people if they don’t pay close attention to what goes on.

I know when Paula and I first moved back to Trion in 1974, we moved into a little house on Ninth street. The first 10 years or so after we moved back were “thin” years. We got by….we did get by, but on a lot less than most people would ever think or know. Our dinners were populated with a lot of fish sticks, creamed chipped beef, tuna casserole, spaghetti, and salmon patties. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still like most of those things. I still fix them from time to time. Brings back old, good memories.

One of the things about living in a cotton mill town is smoke. As I previously mentioned, we moved back to Trion to 9th street, which had always been know as “Smokey row” or smokey road. The reason it was given that title was because it was the street that led right to the mill, which was only a block away. Actually, the “back end” of the mill, where the boilers and power generators were located was only a few hundred yards from our house. When they were burning coal, hard and strong back in 1974, we couldn’t leave the windows open for a breath of fresh air at night. If we did, we would wake up the next morning with a coating of fine black dust and tiny black coal crystals covering the areas inside the house near the windows.

Of course this was nothing really new to me, having grown up near that mill. We had never lived out of sight of those gigantic tall smoke stacks at any point during my childhood. Simmons street and eighth street had been our homes and you could see the smoke stacks from both places. You could hear the “work whistle” as it blew at 20 minutes before the hour, and the hour itself at 8 a.m., 4 p.m., and 12 a.m., for all the shifts. Many times those smoke stacks would be belching out smoke. Sometimes white. Sometimes gray and sometimes black…especially when the stacks were being “blown out” As a child, I don’t remember it being as “nasty” as it was in the 70’s. Perhaps there was a reason for that. As I recall, we could go by the big coal stack as kids, and the coal was actually beautiful. Large, shiny, almost obsidian looking pieces lay all around the coal pile. I collected some of them as a kid, and took them home. You could rub your hands on this stuff and you would get very little, if any, black on them. It also burned very clean. It was what they called Anthracite coal.

You see, back in the fifties, a lot of things were still being made in America. Riegel Textile had a lot of high end goods. Baby blankets, and cloth being made into all kinds of wonderful products. Government contracts making cloth for the DOD. Riegel had one of the best dye houses in the country, with men dying cloth who could make it look like almost anything. None of these people had been betrayed…yet. And times were pretty good in that small town, at that time, for those people. Not so much for some people in other places, but for those people…at that time, the fifties, the early sixties…perhaps even into the late sixties, things were good.

Jobs hadn’t been farmed out to China and India, or Vietnam and Mexico yet by the owners of the businesses, the soon to be millionaire and billionaire traitors who traded American jobs for money in their pockets. Some of the people who are still around today, and who still have that money. Some of the people….

By the seventies, I believe they were using Bituminous coal. The dye house was gone, and Riegel Textile had turned into Mt. Vernon mills. The big thing that was keeping the mill going, and the jobs there was denim. Blue denim. My Daddy and some more hard working men at that mill had gotten the mill switched over from running the cloth of the fifties, and the owners had switched the business model around to suit the fashions of the times. Everybody needed blue jeans, and things made from denim, and they were making the best denim in the world at that mill, at that time. When I went to work for them, and they were burning that Bituminous coal, and all I had to do was walk down the street to the mill, they were running seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 364 days a year. We got Christmas day off. They were making BIG money on denim, and they were taking advantage of it while they could. I can’t blame them. But I didn’t fit in that environment, like my Daddy and his Daddy had for so many years. I left working there in 1978 after four years of that seven days a week stuff. I never went back…except for a ultra short stent in the 90’s. But that’s another story for another day. Denim rocked on for quite a few years after I had gone. I continued to live in Trion, and work out of town. But I paid attention to the smoke stacks, and the coal. If you’ve been following me for very long on Facebook, you have seen some of my photos of those stacks. I may just attach one to this post if I can find one.

Now, the last time I looked at the railroad cars that were coming into the mill at Trion, the last time, before I moved out of town…before I stopped walking that little town and left for other places, that last time I looked they were using Lignite. The lowest grade of coal, the cheapest and the kind which burns the dirtiest. Denim was not king anymore and business was again changing. Some jobs had gone other places, outside the United States. But, some of them stayed, and they have stayed, and they still stay. And I admire them for that. One of the very few who could keep some jobs here, in the face of all the change, and all of the pressure of the years, and all of the temptations to put profit totally over location. They didn’t give raises, they hired the folks coming from down South, but they have kept the doors open. And they are still open, but things are not the same…and they will never be the same. From Anthracite to Bituminous to Lignite. The story of our country in coal. It’s just a story though, and I’m a poor story teller. I have not solutions. I offer no advice. It is what it is, and it will never be the same. And that’s the shame of it….that’s the shame..

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