The Miner by Milton Altschuler

Updated: Aug 31

The author, (back row left), with his family

It was the summer of 1938 in Lansford, Pennsylvania. The town’s only industry was a deep coal mine whose workers were primarily Polish and Slovak immigrants. My parents ran a small furniture store and my brothers and I were expected to help with chores in the store. I was 9 years old and my older brother was 13, so he did most of the work. I would dust and polish the furniture while my younger brother played in the store. I would finish my work before lunch then I was able to play outside. My favorite thing to do was climb the small mountain that formed one side of the valley in which I lived.


One uneventful day I loaded my pockets with a pocket knife, matches and two potatoes before I left the house. I was going to the mountain to bury the potatoes and set a small fire on top of where the potatoes would be cooked Indian style. While the potatoes were cooking I would look for fossils and Indian arrowheads.


I left the house, crossed the street and went down a small hill. I was already out of town. I looked at a large field of stunted trees and small bushes. The earth was black from coal tailings and any growth struggled to survive. There was an area of birch trees with their white bark and many small areas of milkweed and patches of grass. However, most of it was bare except for the black coal dust. Across the black field was a small two lane road, a railroad station whose red bricks were partially obscured by black coal dust. The railroad tracks behind the station curved into a tunnel in the mountain that carried coal out of the valley. Alongside the track was a small creek frequently streaked with yellow contamination from the coal mine's refuse. After crossing the track and a small bridge over the creek I would take a trail up the mountain.


I noticed a man crouched over a small bench holding what looked like a piece of wood he rocked from side to side. I slowly moved closer to see what he was doing. As I was walking he said “Yak se mas” (How are you). “Dobre” (OK) I replied. He began to talk, but I spread my hands, shrugged my shoulders and said “That’s all the Slovak I know”.


The man laughed and without looking up from what he was doing replied, “Who is your father?”


“Harry Altschuler”


“I know Harry. I bought a kitchen table from him. He’s a good man. When a table leg began to wobble he sent a man to my house to fix it. He did not charge me anything. Not like Bright’s, the other store.”


He still had not looked up but continued to move the wood piece from side to side. I moved closer to see what he was doing and saw that what I thought was a piece of wood was a homemade box, open at the top with a screen with large holes nailed to the bottom. In the box was a shovelful of coal and coal dust that he was sifting to separate small pieces of coal from the dust.


“My name is Stanislaus. Do I just call you Harry’s son?”


“No. My name is Milton.”


“Where did that name come from? It’s not Polish or Slovak.”


“It’s American.”


“That’s good. I told my two sons that they are American. To talk only American. They are not in the old country, thank God.”


With that he put his screening box down and crossed himself before resuming his task. For the first time I looked at him closely. He appeared to be about a head taller than my older brother but old and worn. His hat with its small visor, seemed to have been brown when it was new but, like everything else he wore, it had become grey or black depending on the amount of coal dust that had stained it. Beneath the cap was a well-trimmed head of white hair and his thick white eyebrows appeared to act like a filter for the coal dust surrounding him. His face, broad with high cheekbones and an expression of world weariness and stoicism, was also ingrained with coal dust and his dark eyes appeared dulled as if there were no interests behind them. His stubble beard was white under the layer of coal dust. He was dressed in a blue work shirt and a pair of blue jeans, stained black with coal dust and with threadbare areas around his knees and thighs. His heavy black work shoes were scarred and scratched. He was sitting on a homemade stool that appeared as long as his shoulders were wide. It had two wide loops of leather, one nailed to each end of the bench.


Stanislaus worked for several hours without stopping. He was strong. While he worked he would cough intermittently from deep within his chest and spit phlegm into the side of the dirt he was not working on. Stanislaus never looked up while I was looking at him. I had moved close to him and sat on my haunches.


“What are you doing?” I asked.


“I am screening for small coal to use in our cooking stove. I am almost done for today. See?”

He held up a canvas bag in which he dumped the coal left in his screening box. He put the bag down, put one hand on his bench and lifted himself erect. He leaned over and put a loop of leather from the bench through each arm and it rode on his back as a knapsack. He picked up his sack of coal, his shovel and his bench and said, “Do you want me to teach you another Slovak word? Dovidenia, it means goodbye.”


“Dovidenia, Stanislaus.”


“Dovidenia, Milton.”


He turned and walked up the small hill to town. I looked at my watch. I didn’t have time to play on the mountain, but I felt good about talking with Stanislaus. I wondered if I would see him again.


About a week later as I was making my way to the mountain I noticed a figure bent over in the coal field that I was crossing. I changed my course and was happy to see that it was Stanislaus. Before he could say anything I shouted “Yak se mas, Stanislaus.” Without looking up he said “Dobre, Milton”. With that I came close and held out my hand. He gravely put his hand on mine and we shook hands as old friends. My hand now was covered with black dust. He was screening for coal and I sat on my haunches silently watching him swing the crude screening box with the coal dust sifting out of the bottom and covering both of us with a soft layer as if were snowing, except it was black.


“Why don’t you buy the coal?” I asked.


Without looking up he said, “When I was working I could buy coal, but there is little work left in the mines. Each meeting at the Union Hall I would ask, Why is there less work? The answer always is that people use as little as possible because of the depression. Sometimes the Union representative is able to give me one or two days’ work a week. He knows that without that work we would only have what our garden provides and we would have no money for any meat or chicken and nothing except what my wife is able to can for the winter.” Stanislaus coughed and became silent again.


“Do you have a cold? You cough like you have something in your chest,” I said.


Stanislaus laughed. “I wish I had a cold. I worked in the mines for 30 years and all I have left is a small house and this cough. We know that if we work in the mines a long time, we either die from a flood or a mine explosion or a cough. I once was in a new shaft and when we set the explosives, water began to fill the shaft. Fortunately, the alarms were heard and the colliery sent down an elevator before the shaft filled with water. The water was up to here!” He pointed to his mid-chest. “I was scared I was going to drown deep in the earth. There was no light since the lights were shut down and we only had our hat lights. I was lucky. I remember it always. If you are lucky and live, your children will support you in your old age.”


“How old are you, Stanislaus?”


“I will be 47 years old this year. I have two boys and two girls. The girls are already doing piece work when they come home from school. My boys just left home. I told them I did not want them working in the mines.”


That was the most he said to me at one time. I looked at my watch and said I had to get home and do some chores. I noticed he hadn’t had anything to eat while I was there. It had been almost three hours.


“When will you be back, Stanislaus?”


“Maybe in two weeks.”


“I will look for you. Dovidenia, Stanislaus.” I got up. My pants were black from sitting in the coal. I rubbed my hands on my pants and now my pants were black in the front and the back.


Stanislaus looked at my pants and hands, laughed, coughed and said, “Now you are like me, Harry’s boy. You are a miner now. Don’t forget to get undressed outside so you don’t bring the coal dust into the house.”


When I got home, I took off my dirty shirt and pants before I went into the house. I did not see Stanislaus for 3 weeks when I went to the mountain to play. It was August and school would be starting in a month. I was looking forward to it. My friends were between 10 and 11 years old and were experiencing growth spurts secondary to puberty. Since I was the skinniest and had terrible hand-eye coordination, I usually was not picked to play any baseball or football games, so I stayed mostly with myself or one other boy similar to me.


I had joined a book club and the first book I received was titled, Les Miserables. When I first looked at the book I was discouraged. It was long and had small print. Not what I had expected. The subscription took most of the money I earned dusting and cleaning at the store during the summer. I was determined to read the book. Only after reading the first few chapters did I realize it was a great adventure story. I read it at night while I worked and played during the day.


As August was coming to a close and the weather was still warm, I loaded my pants with two potatoes, salt, matches and my pocket knife. It was going to be my last trip to the mountain for the summer. I had done well. I found three arrowheads and dozens of fossils. I threw most of the fossils away, but kept six of my best which showed entire leaves.


As I was walking through the coal field, I saw a man stooping over with a screening box close to the railroad station, far from where I used to see Stanislaus. I veered in the direction of the railroad station and was happy to see that it was him.


“Yak se mas, Stanislaus.”


“Dobre,” he replied. He did not look up from his screening box and didn’t say my name. I moved close and told him that I missed talking to him. He didn’t say anything for a few moments and with a deep sigh he said that his oldest son, Michael, had joined the merchant marines and was going to be gone for Christmas. His younger son, Christopher, couldn’t find a job in Philadelphia and joined the Army. He was also not going to be home for Christmas.


“Just think, Stanislaus. They both have jobs and your daughters are working and in school. Would they have that in the old country?”


“No. We were very poor peasants there. I worked harder in the mines there with less pay. Sometimes I worked in the salt mines. You would come home covered in salt and it would sting your skin. My girls would have no education and my boys would be working in the mines.” He coughed almost to remind himself of what working in the mines leads to.“They have never been away from home. I guess that is what God has planned. The first time I left home I did so to come to America. The streets were supposed to be lined with gold but I didn’t find gold. I found dignity and my children would be able to work hard and move up from being a peasant. I did not have to take my hat off for the mine owners.” He looked at me. “Harry is not going to let you work in the mines. You’re too skinny. So what are you going to do when you grow up?”


“I want to be a doctor.”


“Zids (Jews) make good doctors. Don’t work with their hands. Have other people work for them. Good for you. Maybe you will be able to cure miner’s cough.” He laughed.


I took the potatoes out of my pocket and said,” If I could borrow your shovel, I’ll roast these potatoes. Are you going to be here for an hour? I have one for each of us, and salt, too.”


“Your father was a peasant. Only peasants eat potatoes with salt and call it a meal!” He laughed and handed me the shovel.


I moved some of the coal until I had a clear area about two feet in diameter and dug the dirt about six inches deep and piled the dirt around some stones so the coal would not catch fire. I buried the potatoes in leftover dirt and built a small fire with dried twigs and branches I found in the area. We kept talking for the hour it took to roast the potatoes. Carefully we spread out the burning branches. After we cleared the area where the potatoes were buried we uncovered them. Then I put water on the still smoldering branches to be sure the fire was out. The skin of the potatoes was crisp and the inside was moist. We salted the potatoes, talked and ate. Then Stanislaus became quiet and I remained silent.


“You know that hospital in Coaldale that the company runs?’ Stanislaus asked in a low, melancholy tone as he broke the silence.


“Yes, I had my tonsils taken out there.”


“I am going into the hospital for my cough. I’m scared. Too many of my friends went into that hospital and never came out. My wife insists. She has been after me for years, but I always found a reason not to go in. I don’t know when I will be back. You are a good boy. You have kept me company when I was alone. We ate together. God bless you and your family.” He made the sign of the cross and was silent. He got up off his stool slowly, put his arms through the leather loops, and picked up his screening box, shovel and canvas bag holding his coal. He was ready to walk up the small hill back to town when he stopped and said, “Do you want to learn a new word?”


“Yes.”


“Dovidania, moj prietel, Goodbye, my friend.”


I watched as Stanislaus slowly trudged up the hill and then lost sight of him. I never saw him again although I would look for him when I would return to the mountain in the summer.


Milton Altschuler

I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1929. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate school. My education was interrupted by the Korean War. After serving 4 years in the Air Force I began medical school at UTMB in Galveston, TX. Following a rotating internship and residency in Psychiatry I practiced in Houston, TX for 54 years. Following retirement I joined a small group of retired physicians who were interested in writing their memoirs about their personal and professional experiences.The detail of this short memoir I have remembered over the years since he was the first adult (besides my family) with whom I had long conversations regarding his life in the mines in Poland and Czechoslovakia. I did not know then but I know now that he probably died of black lung disease.

















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