J. Lewis (Popaw) Clark and the Coal Mines
My grandfather, James Lewis Clark started working in the coal mines when he was twelve years old. At twelve years old, he was still a child. He was not yet in his teens. But in the early 1900's the boys and girls grew up fast, and were given adult responsibilities at an early age. He once said, he went into the ground before sunrise and didn't come out until after sunset, his only day off was Sunday.
As a little girl we lived in Dehue. Our house was right across the road from the coal mine entrance. It was a big cave that went back into the mountain. The entrance was all concrete around and the steps went down into the mines. The miners walked those steps twice a day.
My dad worked there and also a lot of my relatives, at one time or the other. In the mornings the miners would punch their time clock and walk down the many steps to get to the coal. In the evening they would trudge back up the steps, so black you couldn't tell one from the other except for the shape of the body or how long the legs were.
The coal mines had whistles that blew at certain times of the day. One at 7:30 a.m. for the work day to start, 12:00 noon to signal lunch, 12:30 to go back to work, and at 3:30 p.m. to end the day. The whistle was so loud all the "coal camp" could hear it. We didn't need clocks. The mines told us the time. And at night time we didn't need a clock. When it got dark, we went to bed.
When the 3:30 whistle blew, my brother, Bobby and I would run to the front of the yard, hang over the fence, waiting and watching for Popaw Clark to come out. He would be just as black as the next man, but he identified himself with a wave of the hand, knowing we were watching for him.
He never owned a car that I remember, but always rode to and from work with about five or six men in the back of a truck. The truck was owned by Uncle Chess Eldridge and he and others would pay a small fee to ride. Once in a while I would get to ride home with him.
When we arrived at his home, he would need to wash off the coal dirt and my grandmother would have a big zinc tub with buckets of water waiting. My aunt, Gay Clark Womack, told me every morning in the summer, she and Bereda and Clip would draw water from the well, put it in buckets and leave them out in the sun to warm up for the bathtub. If it was very hot, he would go to the creek that ran in front of the house and take a bath in a dammed up area the kids used for a "swimmin' hole"
Later in the evening we would sit on the front porch and look up at the trees silhouetted against the darkening sky. There was a bear, a lion and one in the shape of a band member marching along with a drum. Popaw would tell about the Squidggy-Ma-Squee. "You had to watch out for them," he'd say. "They'll swallow you whole, and then swallow themselves. Then there would be no trace of them or you." We never did find out what the Squidggy-Ma-Squee looked like but we were scared of them anyway.
When all was alseep, and Popaw started snoring, you could hear him all over the house. We could swear the Squidggy-Ma-Squee was after us. Or a big, old growling bear trying to get in the house.
~ Judith Peyton Marks 2/6/01