My father at 100

Posted: June 16, 2012

My father was born a hundred years ago. He went to work before he finished high school. Though he was a smart man, school did not agree with him. But work did.

My father did not immediately go to work in the coal mines, but he eventually followed the path that most able-bodied men in town and in his family took at the time. Unlike his own father, he may not have had to. My grandfather had fought the battle before him, skipping his childhood, going to work as a breaker boy when he was 7 or 8, and eventually working his way up to become a boss.

I suppose my dad wanted to get on with life as he saw it. I'm not sure what his first coal-mining job was, but at some point, he became a fire boss — the guy who enters the mine before everybody else and checks for buildups of gas that could cause an explosion. Anthracite coal is notoriously gassy, and a century of Pennsylvania mining saw thousands die in explosions, fires, and cave-ins. When I was a kid, in the 1950s and '60s, such entombments of anthracite miners continued, but on a smaller scale that matched the shrinking of the industry.

Dad took a few years off from the mines for the Navy. He came back with some burns from the kamikaze that took the lives of many who served on a destroyer with him.

He returned to the mines for a while, until my mother convinced him that he should trade his $100-a-week mining job for a $23-a-week opening at the power and light company. She was right, of course, as she had a habit of being in such matters: Ten years later, she still had him, and he still had a job, while most of those who had stayed in the mines were out of work or would be soon.

Dad's time in the mines was enough to damage his lungs, but that would not become totally clear until he was in his 50s. I wish my mother had known enough back then to persuade him to stop smoking. All those Chesterfields, Camels, and Lucky Strikes, along with the coal dust, would do him in before his time. His last years were spent close to oxygen tanks and "breathing machines."

Fathers and sons have had struggles for the few thousand years that humankind has had the skills to record them, and it is a safe bet that they battled long before that. My relationship with my father was not without its sparks. He had little tolerance for the protests of the '60s and maybe even less for all the hair.

After a while, though, he came to take a hard look at the way the country was moving. Some who now judge the era harshly forget or ignore the common ground of the young and not-so-young that evolved finally, if painfully. My father and many of his friends who had survived an economic depression and a war became old rebels of a sort for a time — rebels against a war they came to see, decades after fighting their own "good" war, as a mistake.

My father was born a hundred years ago. He died a long time before he reached the age of 100. But he was there for me.

Michael Carroll is a Philadelphia writer.

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