Chapter 34 continues
The story so far: The marchers hit location towns; Katka writes of the wretched poverty.
The crowd increased its volume. A Russian woman with a particularly strong accent, who had joined Katka and Lily in the buggy, tapped Katka on the shoulder. “What is this word we sing? ‘vunion’? What it mean, the ‘vunion make us strong’?”
“Union,” Katka said. “The union makes us strong. It means that poor people are not like rich people. We have to work together. Like ants.”
Two more men joined Pebble-eyes. They conversed among themselves, pointing to the crowd and gesturing back to the cage. No weapons visible. Katka heard the unmistakable sound of the cage being lifted. The clang when it landed above ground. Katka returned to her frantic scribbling. Would they come? Would they join us? Will we fall?
Twenty-one men emerged from the small cage. They had left their shovels behind to accommodate more men. All of them joined the strikers’ parade. The cage was lowered again and the remaining miners rose to the surface. The last man to join the procession was the cage operator. He was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Pebble-eyes and his friends were paralyzed by our numbers. They just stood and watched. This is what dawn feels like. The band began to play and the march continued to the next mine, less than a mile away.
During the next two days, they walked to nineteen more mines and stopped at eight location towns. At each stop, they were greeted with the same response. Every worker at every mine walked off the job.
Katka wrote pages of notes, conducting countless interviews with men and women who rode for brief moments in her buggy. “The memory of a worker who has been oppressed is a long one. Here on this march, men who have forever been afraid of complaining about work for fear of losing their job found freedom of expression that was no doubt imagined by the founding fathers of this young nation. It was not until they walked off the job of their own free will that they found the courage to curse it. For how can you curse a place where you choose to work? That is like cursing yourself. They had given their bodies to the company. They had lost limbs and loved ones in the mines below. Their backs were permanently bent and pneumonia had robbed them of their breath. Some will undoubtedly say that today, they forfeited even more; they willingly gave up their jobs. However, this is not how these brave workers think. They think not of the position they have lost (which will no doubt be temporary), but instead they think of the dignity they have gained. “I am not afraid to work hard,” one man told me. “But I want to be treated like a man, not a mule who works in the dark until he topples over. It is not until the mule is dead that they haul it out of the mine into the sunshine.”
One by one, the men spoke to Katka. They were tired, they said. Tired of working thirteen-hour days, six days a week. Tired of being paid by the cartload, not by the hour. Tired of wet feet, missing fingers and being forced to work without partners because the oncoming war over the sea demanded more ore from the company. They were tired of going to the company store on payday, only to discover that they owed more than their paycheck was worth. They were tired of looking at the mine bosses’ houses, sitting on the hills, or on the shores of lakes, while their own families were holed up with leaky roofs in the location towns.
“What do you hope to accomplish today?” Katka asked an old Polish worker who spoke excellent English.
He paused. Then he beckoned for her to come closer to him and he spoke in a tone barely above a whisper. “Don’t repeat this,” he said. “Do not write this down.”
She closed her notebook.
He nodded. “Okay, then. What do I hope for? I hope for everything. But I am not a stupid man. I expect things will get worse for me, for my wife too, who has the rheumatism.”
“Worse? How could they get worse? If no one works, they will have to give in to the demands of the union.”
“You would think so. And I’m glad you do. It means you are young and I love the young.” He smiled.
“But I am no longer young. I know this: He who makes sacrifices expecting change for himself is a foolish man. A revolutionary does not reap the rewards from the sacrifices he makes. The rewards are reaped on his sons, who never appreciate the blood spilled.”
“Well, not my sons. But they have noodles for brains. Still, if their children attend a university or a teachers college in this wonderful country, it will all be worth it.”
“That seems like a long time to wait,” Katka said.
“Change takes time. But shh … Don’t tell them. If people knew how long it took to change the world, no one would bother trying.”
The Polish man gestured to the crowd. “They think their lives will be different in a week. If they knew the truth, they wouldn’t be here. Revolution requires many things. One of them is stupid optimism.” The old man hopped off the cart. “Thanks for the ride, young lady. And the soda pop.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 34 continues.