The Hole In My Soul

His face was a mass of wrinkles and his old eyes were dim, but at 85, with 42 years sober, his mind was still intact. More than you can say for mine at this moment. He squinted at me. “Son, there was a hole in my soul. The wind blew through it. It hurt.” I feel his words. My spirit is bruised, broken, sick, weak, lonely and racked with sorrow. My body eerily resembles my spirit. Since May 30th, I have been in three short-term rehabilitation and/or terminal care clinics, one 30-Day Rehabilitation Program, three hospitals and one intensive care unit. I ran away. I missed my wife and son. I gave up. I limped back into town beaten, exhausted, destitute.

My doctor gave me no chance. He was impatient, brusque. He dismissed me from his office with strict instructions to go to the Emergency Room. Despite my best efforts, my life had fallen into shreds. I simply was not prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual turmoil. Every time I lifted my head it seemed, something else slammed me back to the ground. I began to feel like a battered boxer, but with no hope of victory, just more punishment.

I crumpled like mist outside the ER and wept. For the first time in my adult life, I had no more hope. The hole in my soul howled with the wind sweeping off the Bay. Nowhere else to go. No chance. Nothing. My bank account stood in the negative, my meager life savings shredded in lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, and the cost of living out of one’s vehicle. I left my sunglasses on and thought of my son, my wife. How long it had been since I had seen them? July 10th. It seemed like an eternity ago, when I had burned with self-righteous anger. The self-righteousness had evaporated like mist on scorching pavement as the full realization of my offense magnified itself to me.

In desperation. I prayed. Not for me. Not for my life. Not for my sobriety. I prayed for my wife. What must she be going through? I prayed for my young son. I prayed for my wife’s family, for my friends, for everyone I could think of, everyone I had betrayed with my relapse and consequent actions. I prayed, finally, for me. For God to grant me the strength and the longevity to do what I must do. I must seek forgiveness.

On May 30th of this year, after nearly three years of total sobriety, I relapsed. There is no easy way to say this, although I have told the story so many times now that it seems redundant. I’m still dealing with the ramifications. I had promised my wife that I would never relapse. I had promised myself I would never relapse. I had sworn a solemn oath to my young son that I would never relapse. I promised everyone, including you, dear reader, that I would never relapse. I did. I bought a six pack of beer, intending on having a beer while I worked in the garden. After all, what is the harm? Other people I knew who had been alcoholics were enjoying a beer or two. I had watched them. Somewhat enviously, I might add.

One beer turned into all six which led to a bottle of tequila. I was ashamed, angry, and emotional. I must have read to my son for two hours that night, continuing on after he fell asleep. I called everyone I trusted to come help and even dove into Facebook, flirting with random women, seeking solace for my relapse. The next morning, I was awakened by my young son, who was miraculously clean, obviously fed, but very angry with me. At three, he knew something was wrong. In a fit of defiance at me, he scattered cereal all over the house, glaring at me the entire time. He then ran to the bathroom, where he proceeded to flush the toilet repeatedly. I ran after him, wondering what he was doing. There, in the doorway, the magnitude of what had happened hit me.

My three-year-old son, barely a toddler, had gathered up all the beer bottles and the empty bottle of tequila and thrown them into the toilet, where he was trying his hardest to flush them. He turned to me, and clearly asked, “Daddy, are you sick?” In a fit of despair, I burst into tears, picked him up, and for what would turn out to be the last time since, I held him alone, scrubbed the stubble of my beard over his scalp, something he has loved since he was an infant. I told him, yes, I’m sick, and I am so, so sorry. I called the doctor, the ER and finally answered my wife’s repeated phone calls. I confessed. My son and I cried together, although he possesses his mother and his late Papa’s strength of will and determination. I had never been more ashamed.

So began my descent into hell. My wife, true to her promise three years prior, left me. I was filled with indignation and rage. I did not realize at that time the depths of my addiction. True to an addict’s nature, I blamed everyone for my relapse, mainly my wife. It was her fault, I said. If she had only paid me more attention, given me more love, been a better wife, a closer friend. I denied the depths of my addiction.

I relapsed again. Again I committed myself to detox. I came out even more furious. My wife had changed the locks, taken my key, limited my visits with my son. I became angrier, blaming her even more. It was all her fault. My parents fault. Anyone’s fault but mine. The doctors removed me from the transplant list, where I had risen to near the top. Finally, after my third relapse, I checked myself into a 30-day facility, after extracting a half-hearted promise from my wife to come to counseling with me there and bring my son to visit.

Little was I to know the depths my addiction was to take me. I brooded and became morose, even though I participated in all counseling and threw myself into the rehab program. I vowed to make my wife let me see my son, and threatened to myself that I would sue her into submission. I spent the little money I had left on lawyers. They told me all I wanted to hear. It was everyone’s fault but mine. That’s their job. Then I found that my father-in-law, beloved by all, including me, the man I looked up to more than anyone, my wife’s hero and life, my best friend, one of the only to visit me in detox, had passed while I was in rehab. I had not been there for her. The magnitude of my addiction took on a knew note.

I left rehab on a shaky note, scared, but no long sure of my self-righteousness. You see, I had started to realize some things. First and foremost, for lack of a better term, and because I like the word, my paradigm of sobriety had been wrong. When I achieved sobriety three years prior, I did it out of fear. I became a willing participant in all household chores, taking over cleaning, shopping, cooking – for the three years I was the primary caregiver for our son. Despite my joy in these activities, I wasn’t really sober. I was not drinking, but I was not sober. Only an addict can understand this. You see, my fear dictated my sobriety. I was only sober because I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my wife and son.

I wasn’t really sober. My mind still operated as an addict. I built resentments, real and imagined, but mostly imagined. I carefully dictated my diet, ran constantly, practiced yoga, and became arrogant in my self-will and abilities. I wasn’t really sober. My resentments grew, built, and became real in my mind. I began to blame my wife for my unhappiness. My wife is the greatest person I know. She is the smartest, most beautiful, most talented, most faithful, most loving person I have ever met. I would have been lucky to have ever crossed her path. But she married me!!! All she asked in return was that I be sober.

That day, sobbing outside the ER, I came to the full realization of my addiction. Shaking and swollen with Ascites, confused with Hepatic Encephalopathy, jaundiced and racked with depression, still weak from internal bleeding, sweating profusely, broken in mind and body, I realized the full magnitude of my betrayal. I had betrayed her. I had betrayed my son. Most of all, I had betrayed myself.

So, I did not admit myself to the ER. For the first time, I chose to face the magnitude of my life. After all, I knew what to do. In six days, I attended fourteen AA meetings. I cleaned up my diet. I walked everywhere. I limited my fluid intake, my caloric intake. I re-enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient Program for addicts and people suffering from acute illness. I got a sponsor in AA. For the first time ever, I honestly started working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, despite what has been a tumultuous, stressful, and terrible week, I am actually getting better. I’m still not sleeping, but my hands have stopped shaking. My head is clearing. The ascites is subsiding. Most importantly, I am sober. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am no longer thinking with an addict’s brain. Will I live long? I don’t think of that. I only think of today, and what I can do to be a better person, today. Will I see my beloved wife and son again and be able to tell them I love them and that I am sorry? I don’t know. I try not to think of that, although I can’t help it. Will I run a half-marathon again? I don’t know. I’ll be happy to be able to walk downtown.

I don’t know much of anything. Except that the hole in my soul needs to be fixed. Finally, I realize: That all starts with me.

A Waterman with a Poet’s Soul

She drove towards Annapolis from Gaithersburg, a fine late summer morning. Always quiet, she was more silent than normal. As I would find out over the years, she has a penchant for dolling out information on a need to know basis. I’m firmly convinced that she doubles as a secret agent of some sort. How else can you explain her ability to vanish at will, in black socks?

I can tell something is up, but only a few months into our relationship, back in late August of 2004, I already know better than to press the matter. I relax, secure in the knowledge that she will let me know when I need to do something. I suspect that we are going somewhere nice, as she had me deviate from my usual goofy attire of camo shorts and t-shirts to khaki’s and a shirt with buttons. I had no idea.

We parked in downtown Annapolis, already in a bit of an argument. She is walking at her normal clip, which is to say just under a jog. I preferred to meander, take my time, amble along. She, on the other hand, has things to do. More specifically, we have her parents to meet. I’m irritated and feel foolish. How can we already be meeting her parents? We just met. She informs me that we met three months ago, and it is time to meet her parents.

I resign myself to the fact, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, that I was going to do as she said. My biggest question then was, “Where are we meeting?” I’m a redneck mountain boy from the hollers and hills of Southwestern Virginia, and unless my sense of direction was badly off, which it never was, we were headed in the direction of the waterfront. She looked at me, cutting me off in mid-sentence. We waited on the docks while a small dinghy puttered up, firing more or less on all cylinders.

A tall man, slightly stooped, in glasses, a hat and dark sweatshirt greeted us warmly, shook my hand, and welcomed me aboard. Whatever nervous aspirations I’d had about meeting my future wife’s parents evaporated in that moment. I have never, not once, been made to feel more welcome. He ferried us out to their sailboat, and his wife, my future mother-in-law, fussed over our boarding, set out a plate of Chacuterie, poured me a glass of wine, and made me feel as if I were part of the family.

I didn’t know I was going to marry Laura Friedel, daughter of Gerald Friedel, at that moment. I do think that she knew she was going to marry me. I didn’t know how the future would turn out. I do know that on that day in Annapolis, I met one of the greatest men who ever lived.

An engineer with a poet’s soul, a waterman to his core, I loved him with all I had. He became a father to me, someone with who I shared everything. He was the one who stepped in and helped me when I needed it as an engineer. He was the one who took me out for my very first bowl of she crab soup. He was the first to call when my own father was sick. He taught me how to plane doorways, how to properly tie off a boat at dock, how to toss a crab trap. He taught me how to eat muskrat stew and regaled me with stories of beach camping when he was young.

He took me skeet shooting and hunting. He taught me the finer points of upland waterfowl. Always keen to the wind, a waterman always, he took me goose hunting for the first time in my life. At night he and I sat and chortled over action movies, watching Bad Boys II while Mama Sue Friedel pretended to be horrified over the antics.

How proud he was of his daughter! How nervous I was when I asked him if I could marry her! I asked him in person, and he, always the romantic, cried with me and told me he would be honored. He told me the most important thing in a marriage was to always love, and always remember the little things.

Our wedding day was bright and clear, and I have never seen a man happier than Mr. Friedel. He danced with is daughter, a shimmering vision in white and I cried, knowing that no matter what, she would always be the light of his life. He placed her hand in mine and admonished me to take care of her, no matter what. I promised him I would.

Over the years, he was my closest friend, my surrogate father. When I stumbled and fell, which was often, he was always there for me, never judging, never admonishing. He stood up for me, stuck by me – a man’s man. Highly educated and prominent in the community, he was always the first in line with a shovel when “real work” needed to be done. The last thing we did together was load old carpet and a door out of a warehouse in Cambridge. I reminded him that he had already paid someone to do it – he just grinned and reminded me that we should get to share in the fun.

He cast a big shadow, and like any son-in-law, I sometimes chafed under his wisdom and guidance. I was often jealous of my wife’s affection for him and their bond, so deep between that communication was not necessary between them. His shadow, though, was deep and humble. Not once, not one time, in the twelve years that I knew him, despite the situation, did he offer a cross word or a heated exchange. Despite my bull-headed stubbornness and bewildering aptitude for doing all the wrong things at exactly the wrong time, he was patient and kind. Nor was any piece of advice he ever offered wrong.

I’ve never seen a prouder Grandfather. Nolan Gray Matney, named after Mr. Friedel and I, loved his Papa more than anything. The highlight of his day was when Papa was coming – Papa meant boat rides, fishing trips, car rides scrapple, and most importantly, ice cream. Sometimes, when the light was just right, I would look at the two of them and be eerily surprised by the similarities. Nolan possesses his Papa’s mechanical aptitude, passion for the Bay, and uncanny judge of character. Everything good in my young son is inherited from his Papa.

Mr. Friedel, I love you. You were my role model, my mentor, my father, my sounding board, my conscious. You were careful with your words, loving, and every bit the man that I wish I were. You are the father of my wife, the Grandfather of my son. You had a greater impact on my life than every other person I met before you put together. Most of all, all the way until the end, you were my friend. It was a true honor.

A waterman with a poet’s soul. Your memory will never dim.

Ronald N. Matney, II

A Long Way Back

The electrical cord banged against my calf. My headlamp barely cut through the cloud of rock dust ahead and my head rang from banging my hard hat into the top. Roof bolts stuck out at crazy angles and the wind, increasing in velocity as I neared the choke point, whipped at my clothes, intent on ripping them from me. The cloth was stiffened by repeated sweating, soakings in diesel and hydraulic fluid and then headlong falls into coal and rock dust. I was beginning to feel as though I were in Mordor, carrying some awful inheritance back from whence it came, to cast my birthright into the fiery pit of forgetfulness.  The man who was supposed to be accompanying me, twenty years my senior and spoiled from a lifetime of working in union mines, had long since turned back, handing me the end of the thousand-foot-long cable without a word. I could see the fear in his eyes, smell it on his clothes and in the air around him.

His stubble was soaked with sweat. The exertion was more than he had bargained for, when he gave up his union pension to return to work in the bowels of the earth, where the rocks groaned around us, a reminder that we were standing where no man should rightfully be. He played out the cable as I drug loop by loop forward, stumbling through the dust. Rock dust is sprayed liberally in these deep coal mines as a means of fire suppression, a feeble attempt to feign control in an unforgiving and hostile environment. It may save lives, but it chokes one’s lungs and makes finding secure purchase for your feet nearly impossible. You are forced to just stumble along, tripping and half-falling as you go, dragging heavy loads behind you.

A rock fall had forced the mine foreman to place massive pumps into the area in order to draw down the water enough to allow air, driven by great fans at the surface, to circulate through the mine, providing oxygen to breathe and ventilating carbon monoxide, sulfurous gases and methane into the outside atmosphere so that miners working underground could live. Groundwater had fallen from above from the fracturing of mining operations and drowned the shaft through which air had to pass. The pumps had shorted out and burned the cable into, causing a mine fire at the location of the fall, which was nearly two miles past the end of the track line, where diesel powered machinery could access.

Sparks flew from the ruined electrical cable as I trudged forward, my lungs screaming from the work and from the reduced oxygen in the atmosphere. Smoke tore at my lungs and I was soaked yet again as I blindly drug my cable through another area inundated with contaminated water. There was barely room enough to keep my head above water between the surface and the top. I turned my head sideways as my mouth disappeared into the bilge, breathing through my nose. I was shocked repeatedly by the current and I abstractly wondered why someone had not shut down the breaker for the electrical line. In places it writhed like an angry snake, shorting and sparking and angrily shaking its blind face in the darkness, briefly illuminated by my passing headlamp.

At times I was nearly paralyzed by fear. Despite my heritage, the last of many generations of miners who had dove deep into the earth to extract ore so that others may become rich, nothing had really prepared me for this. I could hear the rocks talking, booming with the stress placed on them by the sudden ripping away of strata. The grumbled as their slumber was disrupted, vexed by the disturbance, angry that someone had awakened them after hundreds of millions of years of peace. I begged them not to take me, to allow me to pass protected, to remember my ancestors and look kindly upon me as my whole future was still ahead.

Fear rode with me, as real as the breath that I took. I trusted that the atmosphere was safe, as I had no way to check it. I had left my canary, no longer a live breathing thing with feathers, but instead a sophisticated electrical device behind so that it would not be ruined by water. How I regretted that decision! Every mountain bump and groan made me realize that this could be my last. I could see my fear – it was green, angry, not the soft, multi-faceted green of the mountains or the sea, but shiny and hard, with shifting faces. I considered turning back, of leaving my fear in the darkness, of making my way back to the light, where I could be safe, where nothing could hurt me, at least not maliciously, where I could breathe without torture and not ring my head against the belly of a mountain. I stumbled on.

I found the pump, grounded and lifeless, drowned by water. I freed it from the mud and rock dust and muck that had cemented the intake nearly shut, wrenched it from the bottom, thankful for a moment for the water as it made handling the sheer mass of the pump a bit easier. I stripped the connections free, and wired up the small radio that I had carried with me into the live electrical line, wincing as current raced through me, stiffening my muscles and causing my heart to beat erratically. A roof bolt, weakened by its short struggle with the sandstone above it, suddenly shot out of the top and drove nearly a foot into the ground just by my bowed head. I worked on. I had put aside my fear, and I was carrying on with what had to be done.

I finished my task. I radioed out that the pump was live, and I heard a brief cheer as the water began to go down and the measured air velocity immediately jumped back into the safe zone on the computer equipment outside the mine, somewhere safe. I gathered my tools and prepared myself to return to the light. It was a long way back, working through my fear again as the mountain boomed and the old gods talked around me, their vexation palpable in the silence as the wind noise decreased. It would be a long way back, indeed.

But I would make it.

Tin Roofs

Fatigue steals over me, it’s cold fingers icing up my spine and into the back of my neck, clouding my vision temporarily. I concentrate on breathing for a moment, and lean into the moment. In through my nose, out through my mouth, just watching the colors inside my head project onto the canvas of the room for a moment. The crushing sound of women talking in an enclosed space is suddenly a roar and I am hyper aware of my own deafness in that moment as snaps of conversation, given voice inside my own imagination, burst over my consciousness. The endless chore of finding conversation through a combination of body language, mouth movements and pieces of sounds suddenly becomes too much. I see my wife in a corner, alone with three others, chatting, her spine and carriage the image of confidence. I feel rather than hear or see the sudden leaning in of the lonely wealth, the overly dressed, alienated seekers of attention of any kind and I beat a hasty retreat for the door.

The heat is sudden and welcoming. The closeness of the room was stifling, but the early glimpse of the summer to come is soft on the sidewalk. The climate of the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay has a tendency to narrow seasons, pull them closely in to one another as winter tumbles through spring and into summer with an audible clap. The bank clock tells me that it is 86 degrees in the sun and I turn my face towards it, cresting the western edge of the buildings for the last moments of the day. I spot a white haired man I recognize from earlier seated at a near table and he nods a half-hearted salutation.  I reluctantly wander my way in his direction. I can still feel the presence of eyes on my back, the attention-seeking eyes, evaluating, wondering, seeking something, anything.

I ask the well-dressed man if I may join him. He waves his left hand impatiently at the empty chair, suddenly brusque, the motion of a man accustomed to giving orders, but without the gumption to see them through. An empty gesture. A meaningless greeting. I feel my weariness once more, but welcome the diversion and the opportunity to feel the sunshine on my face before the rain moves in off the coast once more. I think of Mexico, and the mountains of my youth, of sitting on truck tailgates and simply waiting for another to speak, not acknowledging the passage of time, adhering to another standard of social conduct, one born of necessity, of hardship, or needing to know if the other could be trusted, and if so, how much and with what.

He speaks a greeting, and I follow suit. Our conversation is both guarded and open as we talk as men, ranging quickly through the mundane, the weather, avoiding politics, a quick diversion into the economy, both local and national, into travel. He speaks of planes and trains and villas and golf courses, of places where nature and native alike is forced to comply with the western white standard, of maids dressed in uniforms, of women passed over and semi-forgotten, like whiskey beading the curvature of a leaded tumbler. I think of sand and dirt and waves and places gone and remembered and sleeping under a vast canopy of stars, so many that it was an inverse carpet of winking worlds, places unreachable and unknowable and secure in their secrets from the scourge of humanity.

The conversation flows around me as I realize that he is content to just talk, to spill words from himself in my general direction, secure in their ability to impress the younger, less wealthy man. I am content to just not listen, nod my head in the right places and allow my thoughts to wander where they may. I am deep in the Baja of Mexico when his wife approaches, a thin, tight-lipped and unhappy former beauty, a woman who has aged and well, but is still bitter of the implications, of the loss of status in a world dominated by beauty and youth. I bring up an extra chair and she comments on my manner of dress, which is deliberately casual, a muse, if you will. Costumes amuse me, and I don them, as we all do, in response to variations in mood and deference to the requirements of the event.

Mexico comes round once more in our conversation, as does my boyhood home. I stiffen inwardly at the attempt to place my accent, which he does. There are some things that you choose not to shed, and my manner of speech is one of those things I have clung to. His accuracy in placing where I am from is uncannily accurate and I resent the intrusion. I realize that my mask, the outward self, the visible part of me, is slipping a bit and I pull it back into place.

I realize that she is now speaking of the poor indigent people of Kentucky, with whom she has some familiarity as her family once boarded horses at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Derby, which is coming around soon once again. I resent her stereotype, then allow it to slide over me, wondering what it must be like to be black in our society, where stereotypes are often the only common ground between race and socio-economic differences. She branches out, slightly more eloquent, describing the conditions in which people lived, in such squalor, what with their laundry hanging outside to dry, as they apparently could not afford dryers for their clothes in the trailer parks in which they lived. A general lack of education must also be ascribed to such individuals, as no one, of course, with any semblance of humanity would tarry long in such a place, regardless of their background.

My attention is now rapt on the skyline, where the sun has receded into the western sky. The roar of conversation has dulled behind me, and I await a break in conversation, for some queue from which to escape this madness. I think of my own past, nights lying sleepless beneath the tin roof of the tacked together trailer in which the early years of my childhood were passed, as we struggled to put together the monies required to build a more substantial home. Misinterpreting my silence for accession, she continues her diatribe on the poverty of other places, of Belize, where dogs are allowed to just wander in the streets and where children run unsupervised in play.

I remember my own great dog, a mongrel mix of some indeterminate breed, lying quietly in the dust of the dirt road on which we lived in the early morning sun while my brothers, cousins, and various neighboring children played our variations of games that had been around since the beginning of our race upon this earth. Tag, power struggles, small fistfights, and other amusements were enjoyed and participated in, with no parental oversight. We were gods of our own small kingdoms, secure in our aloneness, our only guardian the great brave canine who lay with ever watchful eyes upon his small, unappreciative wards. We were unaware of how some outsider, passing through, watching our world through the tinted glass of an overpriced automobile, might have considered us. Poor. Indigent. Pitiable.

I suddenly resent the two of them. Their derision and judgement, so callously delivered to one from the very tribe they berate, is palpable to me. I sit with them, yet apart. The separation between the child in the street and the billionaire in the car is so small, a knife edge could not slide between them, yet, the chasm can be a physical barrier, impossible to cross.

The door opens, and a group of women exit the gala, their voices trilling in my direction, slightly intoxicated by the free wine. I feel alone, isolated, a man on a tower, behind walls of gauze and stone. I am glad for my time in the dirt.

Heritage

My Grandfather watched me from his wheelchair, his withered arm pulled beneath his blanket so that no one could see. Even then, ten years after the stroke that devastated his body, he held himself together with pride. Barely five feet tall in life, he was further shrunken into a shadow of his former self, laid low by the ravages and the pitiless passing of time.

I was his favorite grandson. I say that now with humility. I don’t know why he loved me so. Perhaps it was my bookishness as a child, my unwillingness to fight back, or defend myself from the bullies that ruled the nightmare that was school for me. I was small for my age, prone to inner ear infections and every passing flu or viral bacteria that spread like wildfire through our tiny isolated mountain mining towns. Only recently opened up to the outside world by the construction a major highway, we were, for the first time, susceptible to the disease and infectious spread of sickness that the rest of the world had to deal with. It wasn’t without consequence.

He held his blanket tight about him, and I could sense that he was about to cry. We were both emotional, another bond that we shared. Only a few days before, while watching a movie with my two baby sisters, I had cried over an animated lion cub’s father’s death. Embarrassing. I avoided eye contact and gave him as much respect as I could. I still saw the person in the chair, covered by blankets, with only one good eye. His tears came quickly as I laced my boots, his sobbing born not of despair or self-pity, but of pride for me, for the man he was watching me become.

My grandmother bustled about, her ample behind swishing along under her faded nightgown and housecoat. The smell of crisping pork fat and lard biscuits was heavy in the small kitchen, along with the sound of eggs sizzling in about an inch of rendered bacon fat in a cast iron skillet. Her coffee was legendary, baked more than brewed, as she pressed freshly ground beans into the percolator, layer upon layer, mixed with eggshells, until the resulting brew was nearly thick. Liberally sweetened with blackstrap molasses, it was enough in and of itself to fire the nervous system of a barely twentysomething man into orbit. As immune as even I was to the effects, more than one full cup of the stuff would give me nervous jitters for hours. Combined with the breakfast for which she was also famous for, and a chaw of Red Man tobacco, it was small wonder that I could work for sixteen hours straight, loading cinder blocks, splitting wood, slinging hay bales, beating ditches for water mains through the shallow topsoil into the shale and sandstone bedrock.

As my grandfather struggled to reign in his emotions, I finished my eggs, biscuits, pork renderings and coffee. My grandmother stared out at the early spring sun. “You got no business working underground like this.” It was an old conversation, one that we had started some twelve years earlier, when an ill-timed clot had lodged in my grandfather’s brain just long enough to cause irreversible paralysis. My grandmother thought me too intelligent, too gifted to enter the darkness of the mines as my family had, willingly, for generations.

I picked up my miner’s hat, self-consciously adjusting the band so that it sat on my head at a more rakish angle. Like all my family, I wore the low-vein hat, a testament to the shallow seams of coal that they crawled through in the drift, or punch-mouth mines that daylighted on the sides of the mountains, steaming their noxious fumes into the clean winter air. It was the first day that I would be descending into the shaft mines, great underground labyrinths, conceived of by greedy men pursuing personal wealth in the form of metallurgical grade coal, shiny and hard, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a carbon-rich prize capable of burning at temperatures high enough to smelt metal. As the reserves in Northern Pennsylvania slowly played out, mine operators followed the seams south, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth, until they found what they needed in Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia.

My family had been some of the first to step foot into those shaft mines, swinging from iron buckets, laden with tools, dynamiting out platforms into solid rock from which millions of cubic feet of coal would later pour, out of the earth and from the blood of my relatives into the coffers of the rich. They profited from the blood and lives spilled in those mines, growing ever more rich as the land they pillaged became devastatingly poor.

Then, following in the footsteps of my father, who no longer swung over those caverns of space to earn a living for his family, and my cousin, who works in those mines still, I kissed my grandfather, who had gained control of his tears, grinned at my grandmother, and swung out the door into the dim light of an early morning. It was barely a five-mile drive, one that I could have done in my sleep, over the mountain to the mine entrance. The site itself was literally where the farmhouse my mother had grown up in had stood.  The mountain was where my Dad had once raced as a boy to gather the cow home for milking at the end of the day.

I myself had helped build the road over the mountain as a shortcut to the mine from the new four lane highway when I was a teenager. My family had owned the land around for generations. My uncle had helped sink the shaft into the earth, my father had designed, built and placed the methane removal equipment, now infamously known as fracking, so that mining operations could begin. The school that I was attending, Virginia Tech, had supplied the mining engineers who had designed the mining operations, so perhaps it was fate itself that led me out the door that day and into my future.

As most expected, I did not remain long in the depths of the earth. A few years later, with a Master’s Degree, I returned, briefly, if only to remind myself once more who I was. My Grandfather had passed on, along with my Grandmother. The family farm was sold, the land given up, along with the mineral rights and all that had been ours. A new shaft had been sunk, the old one relegated to age and disrepair. It was a brief stay, the mine now more deadly than ever as technology and system engineering replaced common sense and human judgement. The entire place had become a death trap.

The house I had left that morning so many years before had been sold, partially demolished and turned into an office for a mobile home park. The green gardens had been paved over, the old railroad tie bridge replaced and the smokehouse where hams had once cured was gone, pushed over into a heap of untidy rubbish.

It seems sometimes that my heritage passed with that place, that who I am, where I am from is some distant and fleeting memory, carried on only in the hazy remnants of my own recollection. I fear that my blue collar heritage is doomed to die with me, that all the muscle memory of a lifetime of working with my hands, of wresting life and pride from the earth is all for naught. I feel alone in these moments, the last of my kind, a relic of sorts, misunderstood and mocked slightly.

Then I see my son, his blonde hair mussed and curly, dirt on his mother’s gift of features, cunningly swinging a hammer, instinctively beating apart the rust on a chain so that it may lay straight against the concrete floor of our garage. I watch him carefully, amazed that he knows how to do this, just so.

I don’t feel quite so alone.

South

The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.

 

“Little old man.” Isn’t that such a derogatory term? But we use it so much, too describe those members of the greatest generation, the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, who island hopped through the Pacific Ocean in the single greatest military operation still known to man in recorded history. They fought wars, went to the moon, married, divorced, loved and lived, just like we do today, but they are different, aren’t they? They still proudly wear their ball caps, stiff and unbroken, perched high on their wizened skulls, emblazoned with the heirlooms of their forgotten stations. Fighter pilots, solid state rocket fuel engineers, Frogmen, the Marines, the Shipmen, the Seabees, the Airborne – men who were proud of what they did, who embraced their past brutality as something that had to be done in the name of war and freedom. The highest number of fatalities ever suffered in military campaigns were absorbed by these men, who fought on every continent, from the sands and screeching heat of the tank battles in Africa, to the killing fields of France, to the mosquito-laden hell of the South Pacific, they were there. These same men ignored the consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress, motoring on in their new lives, living sixty, seventy, eighty years past the traumas of their youth.

Now, they are the little old men. One such man, named Dave, collapsed this morning in a little diner that I like to frequent for breakfast. It’s a throwback, an unapologetic place that serves dishes such as two eggs, meat, potatoes and toast. With coffee. Or two pancakes, with meat. Or just meat. Or oatmeal. I like it. It’s real. The staff know you by name. I have a bottle of hot sauce there with my name written on it. You meet men named Bob, Bill, George, Chris, Stevenson and, in this case, Dave. Dave struggled to his feet and breathed carefully through is mouth and nose, alternating breaths. I could tell it was something he had done before.

The staff were courteous, leaving his pride intact while offering him an arm to help him outside into the still cool morning air, where he rested briefly on a bench. The waitress didn’t say much. She just patted his arm with an absent tenderness that bespoke of experience with such things, and of love and understanding for the people around her. Inside, I watched from my bar stool, pinned and silent with respect for the scene unfolding in front of me. The customers carried on about their business, but remained attuned to the man outside, resting his weary soul, lonely in his final years, with the silent young woman by his side, providing what comfort she may.

One by one, the customers filed out, many, I noticed, without paying. I was in that latter group, I’m afraid. I was so close to tears, and so moved by the respect and homage paid to this man of stature that I had nothing to say. They patted Dave on the arm, spoke briefly to him, but did not offer pity. Instead, they showed him respect. When he indicated that he wanted to return to his truck so he could go home, no one resisted. No one suggested they should call 911, or the police, or his family, or drive him themselves. Instead, the waitress, who, in my mind, was now an angel, assisted him to his feet, and waved goodbye as he shuffled to his car.

I was now torn, tears welling in my eyes. Only a few days before, I had wallowed in self-pity over my own weakness, brought about by what many doctors predict will end my days here on this earth, that illness that I have fought for two years now, tooth and nail. But some days, I despair.

Watching this mighty man, still standing straight despite the years gone, the memories faded, the visages of battlefields and arenas of war rounding through the twilight of his final trips around the sun, I feel lost, and loathing. Not for this hero, who swings into the cab of his truck with an unsteady hand, but for myself. For all of those like me, who dare look up at the spring sunshine, the summer storms, the winters cold frost, and complain. Who am I, to question my days here in this realm? Who am I, to be in despair for a potential shortening of my time here, when in fact there is so much to enjoy, every single day?

A little old man. If only I could be just such a person. To fade into the afterlife with my pride and memories and without shame – that is all anyone could wish for. Is that not enough?