You know how every now and then you experience a confluence of
events that really make you think?
Such was the case for us, recently.
We stayed close to home over the kids' spring break from school,
but later in the week began to feel a bit antsy. On impulse we
bought tickets to see the musical "Billy Elliot" (at Chicago's
Oriental Theater at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts) for
Easter Sunday afternoon, booked a night at a hotel and decided we'd
spend Monday at the Museum of Science & Industry.
A sort of mad dash through Chicago before school resumed that
"Billy Elliot," a musical (featuring Elton John's music and
based on the 2000 film of the same name) about a motherless boy who
trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes, was fantastic. Billy's
personal struggle is set in the context of family and community
strife created by Britian's famous miner's strike (1984-1985). His
staunchly working-class brother, father and neighbors go on strike
and endure bloody clashes with riot police while he secretly takes
dance lessons. My kids enjoyed the performance - complete with
exhilarating pirouettes and a motley crew of "Junie B. Jones"-ish
wannabe ballerinas and a Grandma whose antics nearly stole the show
- but were eager to zip through dinner so they could wear
themselves out at the hotel pool.
You know how it is with kids. It's all about the
Our visit to the museum the next day did not disappoint. My son,
Noah, couldn't get enough of Tesla's coil and the giant bolts of
lightening, and we all enjoyed the film about the Hubble telescope
and how it's enabled us to peer way beyond our Milky Way (think
billions of galaxies, people). My daughter, Holly, was intrigued by
the exhibit of dozens of human fetuses at different stages of
development, and the not-to-be-missed on-board tour of the German
U-boat (the U-505) captured during WWII was fascinating. From this
submarine the Americans retrieved a treasure-trove of intelligence
information, including the 'Enigma machine.' (Did you know that
Riverbank Laboratories, located right here in Geneva, was the site
of major code-cracking activity which effectively ended the
Our day ended with a few games of Mindball (a game of
"competitive relaxation" in which players win by controlling their
brainwaves. Holly beat Noah - who is already pining for a rematch -
but then I beat Holly), but not before we headed into the coal
The museum houses an actual mine shaft, disassembled in southern
Illinois and reassembled at the museum. We learned that life is
exceedingly difficult for miners, who, at this mine, once earned
the paltry sum of 17 cents per ton of coal, and that children
played an integral role in the operation.
This fact of life may be unfathomable for 21'st-century parents
- who essentially believe that the sun rises and sets on their
children's shoulders (yours truly guilty as charged) - but because
young children were seen as more expendable than wage-earning
adults, they were often employed to hang out in the mines so the
level of methane gas could be assessed. If they emerged looking wan
and weary, the mines would be judged unfit for the men to work in
that day. Children as young as six were also charged with the task
of running into the mines with sticks of dynamite and running out
whilst hollering "Fire in the hole!" This practice was
discontinued after child-labor laws were enacted in the 1930's and
more sophisticated methanometers were invented.
How timely and fascinating for us to learn about the experience
of folks who make their lives in gritty mining towns like the one
portrayed in "Billy Elliot," which we saw just the previous
afternoon. Unbeknownst to us, as we descended the mine shaft the
real drama was unfolding hundreds of miles away in West Virginia,
where dozens of families waited for word about their loved ones
after another methane-gas explosion.
This eerie sequence of events was not lost on my kids.
"People still mine today?" Noah asked incredulously, as we
watched the news Monday evening. Indeed they do. On a daily basis,
each of us wears, eats and uses numerous products and fuel directly
derived from the efforts of hard-working coal miners.
Among the confirmed dead is Benny R. Willingham, a 30 year
veteran of mining - who was due to retire in just five weeks.
We watched as CNN reported that Willingham's sister, Jean, said
that her brother truly loved his work.
"He said in church the other day ... he thanked the Lord for
saving his soul, and he thanked him for watching over him in the
mines for over 30 years. And he said, 'If he takes me tomorrow,
I've had a good life.' "
Turns out he did die 'tomorrow.'
"He knew," Holly said.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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