My mom was born a coal miner's daughter. She came from a sleepy little holler called Monongah, a small town of 2,000 nestled along the Monongahela River in West Virginia. I loved her stories about my grandfather, Liberato Delasandro, who because of circumstance became a Stregone Guaritore (mystic and healer), tending to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of what was left of Monongah after that fateful day.
On Dec. 6, 1907, Liberato and his three best friends failed to show up for their shift at the Consolidated Coal Mine. Instead, they played cards, drank wine and later that morning, Liberato planned to look for a house. My grandmother, Adelina, was pregnant with her first child, Flora. Around 10 o'clock in the morning after a full shift of men and boys had begun their decent into the mine, numbers 6 and 8 shook from the impact of an underground explosion, and 362 men and boys lost their lives, leaving 250 widows and over 1,000 fatherless children. It was the worst mining disaster in American history.
My grandfather, along with the remaining men in the town, rushed to the mine's entrance and frantically began rescue operations. Crowds gathered at the entrances of the two mines, waiting for news about their families and friends. Liberato and the other rescue workers brought disheartening news. Mine accidents rarely have a happy ending. Only one man was found alive.
They were digging for coal to feed their families on wages that were merely a dollar per day. Coal mining has been a way of life for West Virginians since the 19th century. They say that there is more energy under the hills of West Virginia than in all of Saudi Arabia. These miners dig in cold, dark, damp, dusty, gaseous and dangerous caverns thousands of feet beneath the earth.
There is a brotherhood and sisterhood created by mining. Camaraderie evolves by the realization that death stalks them every day. They share an interlocking dependence for survival as they entrust their existence to those who descend into the earth with them. Although they realize that they may never again surface, miners are busy to the point of oblivion to the dangers of their environment.
The miners do the dirty work that provides more than 52% of our nation's energy. The prosperity of our country rests on the backs of the coal miner for they bring us the 'black diamonds' that propel our economy and our standard of living.
I am haunted by the mine disaster of Jan. 2 in Sago, West Virginia, and the macabre circumstances of the initial reports citing that they were alive and yet they weren't. I was moved by the thought of those families grieving while also dealing with the knowledge that for three hours they celebrated in relief at this wonderful miracle, while in fact their loved ones lay dead under the cold ground.
Life goes on as usual for us in La Cañada but it will not for those families in Sago, West Virginia. So I dig for consciousness. Consciousness, the fabric of the world makes it possible to create a connection between us and the miners, the harsh realities of their world, the gifts of energy that they uncover, the deprivations of their loss, and the harsh realization that the survivors of those lost will once again descend into the depths of the cold dark earth to bring us the black diamonds of prosperity.
Alexander the Great was told by his mentor, Aristotle, that the only way to bring grandeur to life was through a consciousness to all life.
Liberato Delasandro survived the Monongah Mining Disaster, but on Dec. 6, 1962, his son-in-law, my uncle Nicola Caromana, perished along with 36 other men in the Robena Mine explosion in Carmichaels, Penn. I was 15 at the time but I remember vividly the waiting, the anticipating, the praying, and then that tremendous letdown. My consciousness has been in solidarity with Uncle Nicola's children, my cousins Mary Donna, Lee and Nicky Caromana. I can imagine once again their memories re-kindled by the tragic events at the Sago mine. And as I filter through my thoughts, there is one that lingers for Nicky ... he too became a coal miner. Coal mining is generational.
John Denver was right, "West Virginia is almost heaven." Life is old there and the hills and mountains are beautiful. But beneath the beauty of the hills and the peace in the mountain valleys, the mythology of coal mining continues: descending, digging, and sometimes dying. In coal towns, life eventually comes full circle.
Joe Puglia is a resident of La Cañada and a professor at Glendale Community College. He holds a doctorate in education with special emphasis in the psycho-social educational development of young adults. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.