West Virginia mining tragedy struck a chord with my family

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 Tuesday.

“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 pool.

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 war?)

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 mine.

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.

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