Confrontation

The mid-day sun penetrated the haze of coal dust, sizzling the thick humid air that wrapped Kostyuk like a damp feather comforter. Hotter than the banya, he thought, as he put down his “weapon,” a heavy stick, to wipe the sweat from his forehead with his already damp and dusty hankerchief.   He looked at his fellow striking miners.  The big guys were suffering.  Adam’s shirt, soaking wet, clung to him, emphasizing the bulk of his belly.

“Harder than down in the hole, for sure.” Pyotr said to no one in particular.  Kostyuk nodded in agreement, but not because it was so tiring to stand out in the sun.  But because it was so boring, so meaningless  to block the scabs from the mines.  In the end, the companies would win.  Like always.

“Look what happened over in Ohio,” he had tried to explain to Borek the other day.  “National Guard comes in.  Tramples over the miners.  Shoots a few.  Dirty strike breakers get into the mine. If that happens here, what can we do?”

“We’ll never let them, we’ll fight them.” Borek slammed his stick in the ground emphatically. 

“With sticks and stones?” Kostyuk picked up a rock and tossed it in the air.

“Load of scabs comin’ in by train. Let’s go!”  Gyorgy, unofficial leader of the strikers at number three mine, shouted. The dozen miners ran with him toward the station,  their heavy boots kicking up tiny clouds of dust. 

Sweat stung Kostyuk’s eyes and blurred his vision.  He panted as a prickly sense of fear crawled under his shirt.  The mining camp’s make-shift train station was less than a quarter mile from their post.  When they were within a few hundred yards, Gyorgy stopped abruptly.  He pointed toward the station.

At least fifty men in uniform — National Guard or some kind of police, not just the coal company’s hired goons ——  stood on the platform.  And each one had a rifle. 

The approaching train whistled and the guards tightened their grip on their guns, then formed two columns, facing each other a wagon door’s width apart as the train slid into the station. 

Twenty to thirty men, dirty, disheveled, some unsteady on their feet, climbed down the train car  steps.  The guardsmen drew closer together and began to escort the “scabs” away from the platform. 

The miners looked expectantly at Gyorgy for guidance, but he didn’t offer any.  Kostyuk didn’t see a truck or wagon to transport the strike breakers to the mine.  That meant they would be walking.  Walking directly to where he and the other strikers were standing.  Twelve men armed with boards, sticks and a few bricks and rocks, against 50 with rifles.

A shot hit the ground near the head of the procession.   The guardsmen stopped, formed a circle around the scabs and raised their rifles. 

The coal miners lunged forward together as one organism, poised with their poles, sticks or stones in their hands.

The guardsmen had noticed them.  For a brief moment, maybe only a second or two, the two groups faced each other — neither sure what to do next.

Kostyuk glanced at Borek bobbing up and down, pulsating with the prospect of a fight.  On his other side, Adam was breathing heavily, his stomach moving in and out with each tortured breath.  Gyorgy in the front stood still, not a muscle moving.

Then another shot gun blast, this time from behind the station.  The guards swiveled their guns in that direction, away from the miners.   Gyorgy laid down his stick and pointed back to the mine.  The other miners turned and half-walked, half-ran back towards the patch until they were sure the guards weren’t following them.

“Is old Sol selling beer?”  Adam asked, licking the sweat from his lips.

“Nah, he got scared.  Mebbe Baba Masha got some. Let’s go that way, back toward National Road.  Anybody got money?”

They all shook their heads.  Kostyuk had a quarter in his pocket, but he had promised Kulya he would buy some salt and sugar. “Well, if Masha’s got beer, she’ll let us pay later.  She’ll understand we need it.” Gyorgy said.

“Oy, oy, what we got here?” the elderly woman asked as she opened her door to the men.  They stank of sweat and something else she couldn’t name, but that made her think of the dog when it flattens its ears and growls under its breath.

“Get yourselfs inside fast.   So no one sees youns.  You want beer? Can you pay?”

“Ah, Maria Yegorovna,  you got help us.  We nearly got ourselves killed.  We pay you later. “  Borek said.

The quarter felt heavy in Kostyuk’s pocket.   Finally, he fished it out and handed it to Baba Masha.  She grabbed it before getting the beer from the ice box on the porch.

The luke warm, flat beer refreshed their dusty mouths as they took turns drinking from Masha’s three glasses and it stimulated their imaginations as they described the encounter with the guards. 

“I damn near lost my shit when I heard the shot.  Who you think fired it?  Couldn’t be one of uses.”

“Maybe some rabble rouser from the company.  Want to start big war.  Get us all deported,”  Krzysztow had lived in the U.S. longer than the others and could read the newspaper a little.  “In Pittsburgh, they put whole bunch of foreigners on a boat.  Said they were Bolshies, sent here to stir things up.”

“Anyway,  the big union guy, Lewis man, he not want big trouble here.  Mebbe he not care about us, only about real Americans.  The other ones, NMU, theys telling us to keep striking.

“NMU wants revolution.  Lewis want deal with company.  Me, I want more beer.”  The men laughed at Adam and Masha went to get another keg from the ice box.

Although the sun was inching down behind the mountain, it was still blazing hot as Kostyuk walked home.  He reached for his bandana to wipe the perspiration from his head, but then realized he had left it at Masha’s.  HIs sleeve would have to do.  If the mines had been open, he’d be coming home after a hard day, dirty, tired, but satisfied, with a piece of bread saved from his lunch to give to his daughter or son.  He felt so poor now, so useless. 

“Kostyuk, everything okay?” Kulya asked when he got home.

He shook his head.  “I’m okay.  But they brought in guards with the scabs.  Armed.  Don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Just after midnight, Kostyuk woke, wet with sweat.  The night had not cooled down much, but it wasn’t the heat that had wakened him.  He had heard loud voices, shouting outside.  Then banging on the door.  He crept down the stairs to not wake the rest of the sleeping family.  Gyorgy was at the door, a flaming torch in one hand.

“National Guard.  Pouring into the patch.  I think you are okay, here on Lava.   But keep the women inside.  Come with me if you want.”

Kostyuk laced up his boots, their steamy dampness unwelcome on his feet.  He wasn’t sure why he was going, what he could do, but he felt he had to follow his colleague.

Gyorgy put his arm around Kostyuk’s shoulder and they walked quickly toward the approaching guardsmen. 

They entered the dense community of small houses owned by the mine.  In the light of the torch, Kostyuk saw that the paint had worn off the clapboard sides, the porches sagging, steps broken.  Many of the immigrant miners had hung American flags from their porches.  

The guards ran up the unpaved, steep streets, waving their rifles, shouting something incomprehensible.  Gyorgy and Kostyuk joined up with a group of fellow miners.  Some had picked up bricks and stones; others had planks or broom handles.  They stood still, defiant, solidly clutching their makeshift weapons.

A handful of women bunched together off toward the side, holding cooking pots.   As if given a signal, the women began to bang their metal pans with wooden spoons. 

The guardsmen stopped abruptly at the sound of the clanging.  They looked around for the source of the noise.  The women continued banging. 

When the guards realized that the racket was only women with pots and pans, they continued their raid on the patch.  The women’s clamor seemed to propel them foward and they ran faster, shouting more loudly, as they ran up the street. 

“Pyotr, where you go?”  Gyorgy called after one of the miners who had slipped away from the group and was heading toward the guards, waving his plank. 

Gyorgy started after Pyotr, but Kostyuk pulled him back.  The guards slowed and turned, rifles raised, toward Pyotr.   The other miners crouched down, but Pyotr continued running. 

Adam, the closest to Pyotr when the guard fired, ran over to him as quickly as his stocky legs, rubbery with fear, allowed.  The guardsmen didn’t pay any attention to the stricken miner.  They resumed their charge up the hill.

The rest of the miners joined by the pan clanging women gathered around Pyotr.  Blood had already darkened his sleeve, where the bullet had grazed his arm.  Pyotr’s wife, Anya, sobbed as she tore off her scarf to wrap his arm.  The blood seeped through the bandage.  Other women tore off part of their skirts, their scarves, whatever excess dress they had to bind the wound. 

The first guardsman to reach the houses jumped onto the porch, grabbed the flag and threw it on the porch floor, trampling it under his feet as he pounded on the door.  Kostyuk took his eyes off his wounded friend to stare at the guard.

The house was empty.  The inhabitants had dispersed to the woods, to family and friends’ house outside the patch or had joined the group around Pyotr.  The guards moved on, each time tearing the flag from the railing, each time finding the house empty.   They banged on the door of the company store; it, too, was empty. 

“Kostyuk, you strong.  Hep’ me move Pyotr. “  Kostyuk’s turned his attention back to the injured man.

“Where we take him?” Kostyuk asked.

“Don’t know.  Your place?  You got lots of room.”  Pyotr’s bandages fluttered like brightly colored ribbons.    It was after one a.m. when they reached Lava Avenue.  Pyotr was nearly unconscious by that time.  They laid him down on the floor in the large, but unfurnished, great room. 

All the family and the boarders were waiting downstairs.  Vera, who had been too weary to wash dishes only a few hours ago, sprang into action, boiling water to clean up the wounds, tearing up an old petticoat to dress it, andfetching some moonshine to ease Pyotr’s pain and everyone else’s anxiety.

Before he went to sleep Kostyuk searched for the notebook that his brother-in-law Wasil  had given him many years ago.  He found it among a pack of other important papers — his discharge and immigration documents, train ticket stubs from his travel to Michigan, and letters from home.  He started to re-read the letters, but stopped himself.  He opened the notebook.  The first pages were filled with names of railroad stations in block letters in English.  Then there were pages of weather reports.  Some lists of words in English with Russian translation.  Many blank pages after that. 

21.07.1931  National guards. Walk on flag.  He wrote on the next blank page.

He looked up flag in the Russian English dictionary that he had bought in Muskegon over ten years ago.  It was the same word in both languages.  He drew a little flag beside the entry, then carefully copied the word down in Latin script.