Chapter 7 continues
The story so far: “Fresh-off-the-boat” Milo Blatnik descends into the mine.
When the cart stopped, an old man pointed to him. “You, come with me.” Milo followed. “And you.” A young Italian immigrant did the same. When they got to the end of the vein, next to a huge pile of blasted ore, the old man handed them each a shovel, talking nonstop. “Careful with your shovels, now, boys. You’ll be paying for their use at the end of the month.” They took the shovels.
“Ain’t big talkers, I see. Probably can’t understand a blasted word I say. I slept with your mother. Both of yourn. At the same time.”
Milo and the Italian stared expressionless at the old man, who laughed. His voice echoed eerily throughout the tunnel and Milo felt chills go up his back.
“Lucky for you, you don’t need no English to be a mucker. Don’t need no brains, neither, which might work to your favor. This here’s how you do it.” The old man took his shovel and scooped the heavy rock into the tram cars. The “fresh-off-the-boats” did the same. “We get paid by the carload, not the hour. So, as the company men say, your workday starts now.”
“Work,” Milo said.
“Work,” the Italian said.
And work they did. Sometimes the rocks were too big to shovel. They used a pick and hammer to break down the ore. To prevent their backs from giving out, they spent part of each hour on their knees working the larger boulders. By the time the whistle blew for lunch, Milo’s knees were bloody. As he ate the meal Ana had prepared for him, with the old man and Gino, the Italian, he felt the wounds starting to scab over. Then he went back to work for five more hours.
When the cage door opened into the breeze above ground, at the end of his first day, Milo gasped for air. He felt as if he had swallowed a cat, and he coughed for a good ten minutes before locating Leo. His face and hands were grimy. His back hurt and his knees stung. Milo wanted to quit. One day in the mine was enough. But he could not quit. He owed the company store for his overalls, his hatband, the shovel, the axe, the hammer, the candles and the matches. He owed the Zalars rent.
So he went back, morning after morning. He worked six days a week, for at least twelve hours a day. He went to work in the dark; he came home in the dark. He didn’t see the sun until his first day off, Sunday, which he realized was the most aptly named day of the week.
His life fell into a pattern. Before their arrival home, Ana heated water on the stove and boiled white strips of cloth with eucalyptus leaves. “Can I help with your boots, Ata?” little Danko would say to his father.
“What a big boy you are!” Danko tugged at Leo’s boots, falling to the ground when they finally came loose from his leg. Then Danko helped with Milo’s boots. The two miners slipped out of their overalls and rolled their long underwear up to their thighs, revealing dark red patches of blood where their knobby knees had pressed against the sharp ore. Ana laid the warm, white cloths on their scabs and let the men sit with the poultices on their wounds until supper was served.
Some nights, after dinner, Ana convinced Milo to take out the guitar he had brought from the old country. He played familiar chords in unfamiliar patterns. He composed new melodies, the tunes he made up at work while trying to stay mentally alive, but Ana had little patience for that. She was tired of new. “Play something from the old country,” she would say. Milo did, and Ana sang along.
Milo worked first as a mucker, then a trammer, then a trackman, until he was finally assigned to a position where he was considered a real miner. He became a driller and experienced a slight raise in pay, at least in theory. There were four men on his crew, and only he spoke Slovenian. He learned how to say “run,” “help,” “look out,” and “bossman coming” in Italian, Swedish, Finnish and English. He could cuss in even more languages. The miners always knew when the bossman was about to walk through. There was a simple system they had worked out to communicate with each other about a slew of things. Four rhythmic shovel whacks followed by two short ones clearly told the miners on the level below that the bossman was coming down. If the miner spotted the supervisor on his own level, he moved his candle slightly off-center, to the left.
Milo learned how to do his job at just the right speed. He learned to take breaks, but not for so long that his back would stiffen. He learned to drill through only the rock the trammers and muckers would be able to load. If a crew loaded less than the quota, they received lower pay. If they loaded more, they received more pay, but then the foreman would raise their quota for the next month and they’d have to break their backs just to receive the same pay they would have gotten for loading fewer cars the month before. This scheme, which prevented the miners from ever getting ahead, was called the contract system, and the workers despised it. When his English was better, Milo would quietly listen to other miners discuss it.
“Only way to get rid of the contract system is to strike,” he heard Gino say one day. Gino had come from Italy, where workers knew how to organize, he said.
“Who’s going to organize us?” another worker said. “You?”
“Could happen,” Gino said. “Don’t forget it was an Italian mayor who got electricity on the streets and a school built.”
“You know the mayor? What? He invite you to his parties? Let you date his daughter? Next time, you sippin’ whiskey with your Italian friend, you tell him this for me.” The miner made a gesture, and the men laughed.
Tomorrow: Chapter 8 continues.