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Poezii Romβnesti - Romanian Poetry

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Coal
personals [ Journal ]
creative non-fiction

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by [jaw ]

2012-01-28  |     | 




COAL
 J A Williams 2010

“Hey Dad,” I say. He sits at a corner table waiting for me. “Come on,” I encourage him, “come and meet CherΓ­, she owns the place.”
He gets up with some reluctance. In fact, he is unenthusiastic to be here at all. Men in their eighties have their little ways.
“CherΓ­,” I introduce them, “this is my father, Jim.”
“Oh dear,” says CherΓ­ with a wicked, jaunty grin, “two Jims. When I call Jim you’ll both answer. Imagine the confusion!”
My dad chuckles. CherΓ­’s’ good with people, she knows how to relate to them by instinct. She’s in the right profession I think. With that and her cheerful disposition.
“What can I get you Jims,” she asks with another smile.
“A coffee for me,” Dad says.
CherΓ­ looks at me and gives me a shrug that is next to imperceptible. “The dark roast I think, a grande.” She rings it up. “Your regular?” She queries me.
I nod. She punches in a grande latte.
#
“Six twenty,” Dad says, as we walk over to the fixin’s table. “That’s too much money for two coffee’s.”
“Well,” I reply, “mine was a latte, that costs twice as much as a regular coffee.”
“Highway robbery,” he sniffs, as he squeezes a great dollop of honey into his drink, then chooses cream over milk. “I remember when you could get a cup of coffee for a nickel.”
“I’m sure you thought that was too much at the time,” I suggest.
“No,” he replies, either not realizing or ignoring the sarcasm in my voice. “That seemed reasonable... then it went up to ten cents and I stopped buying coffee at restaurants.”
“Not to worry,” I remind him, I paid for it.”
“Yes,” he agrees as he takes the first sip, “I shouldn’t let you pay so much for a coffee.”
“It is my money Dad.”
“That doesn’t matter, it’s still too much.”
We find an empty, glass-topped table and sit down.
“I can afford it,” I tell him.
“Huh?”
“The coffee, you know, six bucks for two coffees, I have the money.”
“I know,” he says, “but there are better things to spend it on.”
“Not today,” I grin.
He harrumphs. He hates it when people disagree with him, in fact, it is a wonder he considers me his son at all, in spite of the blood connection and obvious resemblance. He grumbles under his breath for a few moments. I hide my smile behind a hand.
“I talked to uncle Bob this morning,” I tell him. He perks up.
“I saw him Thursday,” he tells me. “He doesn’t look good.”
“I know,” I shrug, “he has prostate cancer and emphysema. God, he smoked for fifty years.”
“Fifty-five years,” he corrects me.
“Right, fifty-five years. It’s going to kill him.”
“Glad I quit.”
“Dad,” I reply, “you quit smoking one year ago. You smoked for fifty years.”
“Fifty-three years,” he corrects me again.
“The point is, you’re not in the free and clear yet.”
He shrugs. How immortal we feel until confronted with our mortality, I think.
He takes a sip of his coffee. The satisfaction on his face is worth every penny of the dollar ninety plus tax.
“It was during the Great Depression,” he begins.
“What was?”
“When coffee was a nickel. It cost a nickel for a long time. I don’t think the price went up until the fifties. As best, I can remember.
“About the time I was born.”
“No, by the time you were born it had been a dime for awhile.”
I trust the Old Man’s memory in this. He forgets many things, but when it comes to anything to do with money, his mind is razor-sharp.
He chuckles to himself and gets a dreamy look in his eyes. He is going back, remembering the past. I feel a story coming on, I know the old guy well.
“Bob and I were young, twelve and fifteen I think. Times were hard. Mom and Bill Titus were trying to get a business started. They ran a little restaurant and things were tight.”
“Nanny had training as a chef didn’t she?”
“Yes, she was certified. In fact, it wasn’t too long before the restaurant was doing well, but it was hard for the first few months. After school, I would go down to the railroad tracks to watch the trains go by. Sometimes they would drop chunksCoal of coal as they shovelled it into the firebox and I would collect it and take it home for Mom to burn.” He chuckled to himself. “One day a scrawny dog chased the engine, and the fireman threw coal at it, which of course I collected. A thought came to me and after I ran those few pieces of coal home, I scurried back to the tracks, gathered some stones into a pile, not far from the rails, and waited for the next train.
The engineer and the fireman waved and smiled at me, until the first rock hit the side of the firebox. I had pretty good aim and almost hit the fireman once. He began to pelt me with chunks of coal. I did that every day for the rest of the winter and collected enough coal to feed the stove ‘til Spring.”
“Do you think the railroaders figured out what you were doing?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty certain that after a couple of days they knew. Probably figured we must need the coal really bad, so they kept throwing it at me, but they never tried to hit me.”
He gave a great smile and a sigh.
“So, do you want to meet next Saturday for another super expensive cup of coffee?”
“Yeah,” Dad replies, “that would be great. Pick me up though, I find the walk a little too much these days.”
Thinking of uncle Bob’s emphysema, I wonder and worry.
#
I serve him cup of honey-sweetened coffee with too much cream.
“It was at the WAC Bennet dam, if I remember correctly,” my father begins, “though it was called the’ Portage Mountain Development,’ during the planning and construction.”
“I didn’t know that,” I tell him.
He gives me a smile and a nod. “Yep, but I guess I never did tell you and you were only eleven when the dam was completed.”
I stand. “I’m for a refill, how about you?”
He pushes his empty mug over to my side of the table, “sure.”
“Thanks, son,” he says when I place his fresh cup of coffee before him. I had added the half-teaspoon of honey and the great blob of cream that he likes.
“So, what happened at the dam?” I ask.
“What dam, what are you talking about?”
The Bennet dam... the WAC Bennet dam. You said something happened there.”
“Oh, right... that dam,” he says without admitting that he has forgotten the conversation.
I think it funny... and sad. My father had an extraordinary memory in his youth, though perhaps an exaggerated belief in his infallibility even then. He also hates to be wrong.
“It was tough, you know, being away from the family so much,” he begins, reminiscing.
A smile crosses his face and I know he is there, back in his past, in his youth.
“There were a lot of pipes that needed welding and sometimes they had us up to 2600 feet high on scaffolding to weld the enormous tubes. That was scary, I’ll tell you.” He shakes his head at the memory. “It often took longer to erect the scaffolding than to weld the pipe we built it for.”
He takes a cautious sip of his coffee, as if wary that after fifty years, I don’t know how he likes it.
I give him a smile.
He frowns.
“One time,” he goes back again, “I was working with this old guy in the tailrace. We were torquing the bolts on the flanges that connect two pipe sections. I felt sorry for the old fellow and thought that I should do the heavy work. He was an engineer, so I gave him the torque gauge, and went all around the flange, tightening until he would say ‘got it.’ When we finished, he pointed at the gauge and asked, ‘What do these little lines mean?’
“I was pretty pissed off after all that work, and found someone else to help me, but this time I watched the instrument and made my helper do the bull-work.
“I think it was after about a year. One of the foremen quit and they asked me to take over. It was a big raise, and I was happy to take the job, though I regretted it a hundred times I’ll tell you. The men would come to me with every kind of complaint. Sometimes they were really stupid! Like, about the food, which I thought was great and didn’t understand, but the company always tried to fill any cravings the guys had, as bizarre as they seemed to me at times.
One fellow, an Eskimo I think, wanted dried whale, and they sent out for it, though they had to fly it in from Inuvik. Another didn’t like the porridge,” he chuckled, “it turns out his wife made it lumpy and that’s the way he was used to it. He got his lumpy porridge, though it took the cook a week to ‘perfect’ it.”
“That’s amazing... I mean that they would go to all that trouble.”
“They did things like that. It was hard to keep men on site. It was way out in the boonies, with nothing to do but work, far from our families… and there was a deadline. The company would only pay for us to fly out once every three months, so it was hard on the guys, but the money was good and there was lots of overtime.”
He sighs, then takes another sip from the steaming mug, and gives a satisfied nod. He likes his coffee strong. I’m not sure if it is genetic or a learned habit, but that is how I like mine. Sans the honey and cream.
“It took days,” he continued, “to get the first turbine up and running. We flooded the place a couple of times, because the turbines wouldn’t turn. It turned out that there was a pin that kept the it from spinning during shipment, still lodged in the thing.”
He chuckles again... another memory, in a mind brimming with them.
“It was at the pulp mill.” His eyes went away. “We installed this electric motor. It was huge, bigger than a car, though I understand from the Ironworker’s Magazine, that they are much smaller today.
“I worked with an engineer, and he gave me the specs as I installed it, bolting it down while the electrician set up an electric panel that could have powered a small town. The Erector was there, giving us instructions and watching to make sure we did everything by the book.
After a week, everything was ready. The erector himself pulled the switch to turn the motor on. A few moments passed while nothing happened, then smoke filled the air and the erector screamed for someone to pull the switch, except he was the one beside it. The motor burned out.
They burned two more out, then a friend of mine, a fellow Ironworker, Stanenlought suggested they take the clamp off that held the bloody motor from spinning during transit. I always thought that the erector, who had overseen dozens of this type of installation should have known, or at least figured it out real quick like, you know.”
I laugh. “That is strange.”
In previous versions of the story, he was always the hero. I begin to think there was some truth to the tale after all.
“How about one more coffee?”
“Sure Dad.”
I get up and stand in the short line-up. One day he will be gone and all that will be left, is the memory of these moments.

Coal


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