Background: Tim Russert’s Wisdom of Our Fathers has hundreds of stories men and women tell about their fathers. It’s a remarkable book–to learn more, see my co-authored column America’s Father Hunger (World Net Daily, 10/13/06).
This story is “He loved his family too much to say good-bye,” from Carole Harris Barton of Burke, VA, about her father, coal miner Samuel Sterling Harris (1911-1983).
“Daddy never said good-bye. I first noticed it the year I turned five, when he used to drive Mother, my brother John, and me from our shanty at the coal mine into Madisonville, the heart of the West Kentucky coalfields. ‘Be good babies,’ he would say to John and me before he left us to wait with Mother in the car when he went inside to night school, where he was earning a certificate in mining safety that would entitle him to a raise.
“He had gone to work in the mine when he was fourteen, three years after his father died and left the family destitute. When the foreman learned that Daddy was underage, he sent him home; Daddy waited two years and went back to the mine. He had been there ever since. He didn’t complain about his lot, but he was determined that his children would have more education than he did. He worked days and studied nights to get a better job, so he could save enough money to move us away from the mine, where there was no high school, into town, where there was.
“He never said good-bye when he left for work. ‘Be a good baby,’ he would say, throwing me a wave. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Other kids had dads who said good-bye. Why wouldn’t mine?
“Finally, Mother explained. Daddy never said good-bye because he was afraid of a fatal mining accident. He thought if he never said good-bye, there’d never be one.
“It was an irrational response to a rational fear, but I didn’t know it then. It would be years before I understood the hazards of Daddy’s occupation, the risks he willingly assumed to support our family, and the fear that he and Mother looked squarely in the eye and stared down every morning when he stepped onto the ‘cage’–an open platform–and descended into the belly of the earth.
“One day a coal-blackened man appeared at our front door at midday, a sight guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of every miner’s family. The roof, the overhead structure above the seam of coal in a mine’s working area, had caved in on Daddy, the man said. An ambulance had already driven him to the hospital.
“The hospital stay was short, the recovery was not. Daddy lay in bed at home for weeks, his pelvis fractured. The only cure was keeping his weight off the bone until it knit back together.
“The summer heat was insufferable. Unrelenting humidity hung thickly in the air, plastering our damp clothes to our moist skin. It was an extra burden for an active man forced to lie in bed in a shanty with no air-conditioning, but Daddy’s only complaint was that he couldn’t go to the mine.
“As far as I know, he never considered not going back. Coal mining was all he knew; as risky as it was, it was how he fed his family, and it was how, ever so gradually, he accumulated the meager savings that allowed him, when John was twelve and I was eleven, to move our family into Madisonville. Living only a block from the high school, John and I earned diplomas. Daddy valued them for the education they represented; we valued them for the sacrifice he made that allowed us to attain them.
“Decades later, while installing playground equipment at a church, Daddy succumbed to a fatal heart attack–no symptoms, no warning, and no fatal mining accident. It was an appropriate passing. The man who never said good-bye never had to.”