Chapter 8 continues
The story so far: Bloody knees, empty pockets and talk of a strike.
Milo listened to the men talk about politics. They talked about a man named Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of a union called the Industrial Workers of the World, and another named Eugene Debs, who wanted to become the president of the United States. Milo listened intently, but every time he got lost in the English.
One night, after work, Gino asked Milo to stop off at one of the Italian taverns to grab a beer. “Can’t,” Milo said. “I saving my pay.”
“For what? A woman? They ain’t that expensive. Couple bucks will get you a decent one at Crooked Neck Pete’s.”
“Not a woman, no.”
“What then? Got family back home to support?”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to tell Gino, because he was afraid he’d laugh at him. But Gino was already laughing, so what did he have to lose? “Last Sunday. Man came to the location with big cart. Ana, she wouldn’t go to the door. Said she had no money and don’t need temptation. So me, I go. And the man, he show me what in his truck.”
“Women?” Gino said.
Milo shook his head, smiling. “Book.”
“Bibles? You are saving your money to give to a Bible salesman? Listen Milo, ain’t nobody less Christian than a Bible salesman. Better to spend your money on moonshine.”
“Not Bible. Cyclepedias.”
“That what I say.” Milo explained to Gino how beautiful the volumes were, and that he figured by the time he got through all the volumes, he could consider himself a learned American man. Milo didn’t tell Gino about his fear: that working in the mine was dulling his brain. He wanted desperately to stay sharp. His father had studied music for a brief time in Vienna and made his living playing the cello in a small orchestra in Ljubljana, and by giving music lessons to the sons and daughters of rich Austrians who lived there. His father had wanted Milo to attend university and had tried to reestablish a Slovenian language university in Ljubljana, where he had promised to teach music. Every time his father and his comrades had come close to fulfilling their dream, the Austro-Hungarian government shut them down.
“Salesman said be back in two month,” Milo said to Gino. “That why I save.”
Gino listened and did not laugh. “Tell you what. I’ll buy you a beer. When you get your books, let me borrow them. I don’t want no Slovenian thinking he smarter than me. In the meantime, I’ll get you some things to read.”
The following Sunday, Gino showed up at the Belgrade location. When Milo opened the door, Gino reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out some magazines. “As promised,” he said. He handed Milo three publications: the Industrial Worker, the International Socialist Review and Solidarity. Milo spent the next month sounding out the words in the magazine and reading out loud until the sentences actually made sense.
About six months into the job, when he could understand English adequately, he turned to one of his coworkers, a Finn named Johan Koski. “If the miners, we strike,” he asked, “will you?”
“Tried that in 1907,” Koski said.
Koski paused. He leaned on his shovel. “Back then, there were a lot more Finns working these here mines. Brave sons of bitches. They led the strike.”
“Yes. And my papa got the blacklist, which was better than some, who got killed. We were hungry. Many families, they left the Range. Those who stayed moved to the country, carved out homes in the land, tried to make a go of it there.”
“But a strike would be different now,” Milo said. “There’s a war coming.”
“I am Finn. I read. I go to the socialist hall and listen to the speakers. I know there’s a war. I see no sense in it. I know there is talk of strike again. I think about that too. I don’t know if I believe in a socialist takeover. I don’t know if I believe that owners don’t deserve more pay than we get. But I do know this: The poor will always stay poor if we do not get together. A rich boss is not going to give one man anything at all. You don’t like your job? Go somewhere else. But a rich man cannot tell thousands of men to go away. If he does, he won’t be rich anymore. He’ll have no one to make his money.”
“So you will support a strike?”
“Only if there is a plan.” Just then, they heard four shovel whacks followed by two short ones coming from above. The entire crew picked up their equipment. Milo started drilling. They were all working in earnest when the foreman walked through. They did not take another break until lunch.
Milo and Johan Koski sat together at lunch. Another Finnish worker pointed to Milo and, his tone hostile, said something to Koski, who swore back at him in English. “What I do?” Milo asked.
“Finns, as a general rule, don’t like your kind,” he said to Milo.
“What kind?” Milo asked. “Nice looking kind?”
“Slavs. Croats. Montenegrins. None of you Austrians.”
“I never been Austrian.”
“Well, you is to the Finns. And we don’t usually talk to none of you, except when we have to, at work.”
“Seems like you talking to me. Must be my charisma, no?” Milo had just learned that word. Charisma. In Slovenian, it was almost the same: Karizma. Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World had charisma. Eugene Debs had charisma. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had charisma. Milo read that in one of Gino’s magazines.
“I don’t know what charisma is,” Koski said. “But I do know that your people broke the strike in 1907.” The whistle blew, indicating that workers needed to return to work. “Lunch is over. But I want to warn you. Don’t talk unions or strikes at work. Don’t ask me questions. If the bossman heard us talking, he’d get some cousinjacks to roll giant boulders down the shaft and our whole damn crew’d be dead.”
“You lie,” Milo said, closing his lunch pail.
“Ask around. It’s amazing what the Oliver dubs ‘accident.’ Keep your talk to the taverns and halls. There are spies everywhere in these mines. How do you know I am not a spy, ready to report you today?”
“Because you asked me that question,” Milo said.
Tomorrow: Chapter 8 continues.