Homemade screen doors are thrust open up and down the street and are left to slam, the oppressive evening heat driving the workworn mothers out of the sweltering kitchens when the evening meal is over. They are exhausted after their daily battles with the prolific bedbugs, clandestine cockroaches, and the ever-present, all-invading coal dust.
They join the bone-weary fathers who have worked with difficulty in the night filled caverns of the earth during the daylight hours, and have emerged safely one more time. Porch swings screech and groan in protest as they are pushed back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm.
Dunce caps of light line the dirt streets. The numberless, tireless children gather beneath them using the splintery lamp posts as bases for their endless games of tag, run sheep run, and “Mother, May I?” The noise of their piercing childish voices carries in the shadowy evening.
Houses are like grey ghosts, haunting the night, identical in their weather-scarred structures and resigned look of poverty, thirsting for a coat of paint, a touch of beauty to distinguish them from their neighbors. Nothing unneeded had been added in a community that struggles for survival and is afraid of tomorrow. Windows are blind eyes, heavy-lidded with blue-green shades. Curtains are as varied as the numerous races who live in this ugly town.
Behind the oilcloth blinds in my home hang lace curtains, hand-washed, heavily starched, and dried on wooden stretchers in the blazing sun. They are the pride of my over-tired mother who does not have much of which to be house proud.
The glow from the coke ovens lights the evening sky, their fires, feverish eyes, burning holes in the sultry darkness. Rock dumps stretch ghostly fingers of smoke toward the distant stars. Acrid fumes permeate the heated night. I do not notice. This scent has been with me all of my life; only its absence would demand my attention.
I sit on the top porch step eating saltine crackers, being careful not to move unnecessarily because of the rough wood and the ever-present danger of splinters. Penny, my small, brown, mongrel dog, is beside me. The crackers are crisp and the salt brings floods of saliva gushing from my tastebuds and they fill my mouth. I stroke Penny; her hair is short and stiff under my hand. She curls up on my lap and goes to sleep.
This is my town; the dirt streets run through with deep cracks due to the miles of mine tunnels dug beneath their surface, the coke ovens burning nonstop, the reeking rock dumps, the company houses, even the stale odors that hang around like unwanted visitors. I am to learn in the years to come that this is a depressed area. Now I only know that I am surrounded with love in a home where luxuries are unknown, but where a box of saltine crackers can always be found in the kitchen cupboard. I am allowed to have my dog, who is with me every moment except when I am in school.
..At this time in my life, I do not ask for more.
Lucille Beistel Hagens, class of ’45