Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Playing to and Praying for the Whistle

On more than one occasion I have made mention in this space of the fact that for as long as I can remember Bruce Springsteen's music has served as the soundtrack of my life. His may not be the only songs available in the jukebox of my mind (not to be confused with the old Wurlitzer that Kelly and Rich Perrego restored all those years ago, which in my mind's eye looks something like this) but they certainly seem to occupy most of the available spots. My love for Springsteen's music, a love that I have passed on to Rob (Suz has always been more resistant to Bruce's musical charms and for the love of peace and tranquility do not get her started on the topic of his Missus), was instilled in me as a boy by my brother Bill.

I know enough to know that I am essentially a simple man. And I am not musically inclined. Thus, I know that I could not at gunpoint, save myself by pointing out the technical reason why I have always enjoyed Springsteen's music as passionately as I do. I know simply that it speaks to me - regardless of the situation. And in that knowledge there is great comfort. A feeling of being a bit less alone in the world I suppose. The ominous feeling that wish as we might it is not only the sing-along songs that end up serving as our Scriptures.

The world can be a tough racket. For some of us, it never eases up. The combination of genetics and geography ties our fate to a future that is the by-product of inevitability and not of choice. We do who we are. And we become what we do and who we are by virtue of the fact that it is what and who are fathers were before us and their fathers were before them. We are indeed born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past.

My favorite Springsteen album has always been Darkness on the Edge of Town. I recognize the wisdom of convention points to the opus that preceded Darkness as Springsteen's de facto classic contribution to rock and roll and I too love Born To Run. Yet my entire life Darkness has spoken to me far more loudly and more clearly than its renowned brother. Maybe it is my Gaelic soul. I know not. All I know is that the stories told on Darkness - a record whose release was delayed by three years while Springsteen and his manager Mike Appel beat the living hell out of each other in court - are told in a voice that I recognize more closely with my own. It is no longer the voice of a young man convinced he could grab the world by the balls and escape the town full of losers in which he found himself. It is the voice of a still-young man but a man whose time in the fire left him at the very least singed around the edges and with his eyes far more open as to this world's meanness than he was only a few years earlier.

Death has yet again visited the coal mines of West Virginia this week. I cannot fathom the intestinal fortitude needed to get up every day and go to work in a coal mine. I do not believe that I possess it. I exaggerate not when I say that I hope to hell I never, ever have to find out. There are countless thousands of people in this country who earn their living daily by working in America's coal mines. People doing a job daily that I would not wish upon the person who I most despise - or any of the other inhabitants of my Top Ten. Reading this quote from the piece on MSNBC, "There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of a church near the southern West Virginia mine. "It's not something you dread every day, but there's always that danger. But for this area, it's the only way you're going to make a living.", made me think of The Outlaw Josey Wales and the scene in which Josey Wales kills the bounty hunter who has been chasing him. Immediately before Wales kills him the bounty hunter tells Wales that he had no choice but to come after Wales; it is after all how he earns his living. Wales responds, "Dying ain't much of a living boy" and then a moment later shoots and kills his pursuer.

Perhaps it is simply my level of unfamiliarity with the business of mining that has me so pissed off about this particular story - this latest disaster in the mines of West Virginia. Consider for a moment that you have not been able to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV or radio in the past 90 days without hearing the stories (some of which have been manufactured out of whole cloth apparently) of people's life and death encounters with Toyota's Prius. Toyota has taken a beating in the media over that model's difficulties. Me? I think the Prius is about the most pretentious, emasculating little piece of tin ever cobbled together to house an internal combustion engine and if you are the type of snooty little priss who drives one, then you deserve whatever Hell befalls you once you get behind its wheel. Relax - I am kidding. At least you hope I am; right?

My point is simply this: Toyota has gotten savaged for its allegedly clandestine handling of the problem when it initially surfaced and - as a result - it has been heavily fined by the Federal government. Toyota has been kicked and stomped upon in the most public of fashions. But what about the fine fellows who run Massey Energy, which MSNBC describes as one of America's Top Five coal producers and among the industry's most profitable. Massey Energy? I for one am forced to confess that until this week I had never heard the company's name. Apparently no one gives a rat's ass about Massey's "spotty" safety record - including its perpetual indifference to violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where twenty-five of its employees have died this week. According to Tuesday's Charleston Gazette, "it was reported that Federal citations and enforcement orders at Upper Big Branch doubled between 2008 and 2009 to more than 500. Fines assessed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration tripled over the same period to nearly $900,000.....And last year, more than 10 percent of the enforcement actions taken by MSHA at the Upper Big Branch Mine were for "unwarrantable failure" to follow safety rules, compared to about 2 percent at mines nationwide." Toyota has been kicked and stomped upon in the most public of fashions. Massey? I for one am forced to confess that I had never heard of them until this week

"Unwarrantable Failure". I am no scholar and have never worked a minute for the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration so I do not have one of their decoder rings. But nevertheless I get the impression that if one was to invert the first letters of "Unwarrantable Failure" one would see pretty clearly that Massey is telling the Feds and the people who risk their lives daily to help coal be king exactly what it thinks of those pesky safety rules.

It seems to me occasionally as if the train has jumped the tracks in this country and sadly that derailment is not confined to the coal car. The Golden Rule, irrespective of what it once might have been, is now, "He who has the gold rules." In the coal mining country of West Virginia, the ones with the gold are never confused with the ones who mine for coal. And somewhere along the way it appears as if the ones with the gold have been allowed to - if not encouraged to - view those who do the digging, who do the mining and too God damned often do the dying as less than equals. They are assets, not individuals. They are property, not people. Once I cease to see you as a person, it makes it far easier for me to do whatever the Hell it is I want to do; regardless of what it does to you. My sole focus becomes what it does FOR me. You? You are no longer part of the equation.

A working life should still mean what it once meant. It should still be considered to be something of value. It should not be mean a death sentence. And certainly should not mean "unwarrantable failure".

Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,somebody's gonna get hurt tonight,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.

Because they are not and cannot all be sing-along songs, those which are our Scriptures. If only they could.

-AK

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