Teaching and learning sometimes occur at serendipitous times and in surprising locations. This is a story about one of those times and one of those locations.
Allow me to introduce Jonas S., a fifty something man who was born, raised, and grew up in my small hometown in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. He held a number of jobs in his lifetime, though the one relating to this story was his job working for a mining company – a company that eventually closed and left Jonas with no work. He decided to do what he knew best, so with a partner, he became a bootleg miner. A bootlegger is a miner that enters a shaft that has been already excavated but is now abandoned because it is no longer profitable. There is still coal there and if someone wants to get it, more power to them. Well, technically it was not legal, but that is why it got the bootlegging label. This was the way that Jonas and his partner made a living. They never did get rich, but that should be no surprise. They did not work with explosives or drills (too dangerous in an old mine shaft), but they used the abandoned carts and rails to enter the mine and pick away at what remained of the anthracite vein left in the mountain.
I met Jonas shortly after I was discharged from the navy in 1972. I was floundering around, not sure of what to do with my life and so I went to work at a place called the Penn Dye Company. I was paired up with Jonas who became my mentor – teaching me how to run a framing machine. We took 12 foot bolts of recently dyed fabric, still wet from the dye vats, and hooked it up to a series of two inch pins on a framing machine that ran it through a huge dryer – the framer ran about 40 yards in length and threw off tremendous amounts of heat. The temperature would often be around 100 degrees even on a winter’s day. If the fabric ripped, as it often did, we had to crawl around and in the machine, and rehook it so it could start running again. I worked the front of the machine and Jonas worked the back as the fabric came out of the huge dryer. We had to practically scream at each other because of the din created by the framing machine. About a hundred yards away were the dying vats, full of hot water and colored dye (reds, yellows, and blues). The dye was mixed in the vat using powdered coloring agents. I bring this up because the air was full of the powder and often when we would sneeze, our handkerchiefs would be the color of the day. If we wanted to earn extra money we were encouraged to stay after our shift and load the bolts of fabric onto trucks for two or four more hours. I must admit that Jonas did this a lot more than I did.
I learned a lot from Jonas. He taught me that factory skill of using a huge machine and we would talk whenever we could catch a break. He taught me what it meant to persevere. He taught me how to enjoy listening to and telling stories. That is how I learned about his past work in the mines. He knew that I was not crazy about working there and in talks with him I began to realize that just maybe going to get a degree was not such a bad idea. The lesson of all lessons from him came the day that we were sitting around on one of the catwalks of the framing machine. It had run so long and so hot that it broke down and we had to wait for the mechanics to fix it. He said on that occasion, “Bruce, working here is like stealing money!” He said it with a huge smile that must have come deep from within him.
Jonas has since passed away but the memory of this working class man and the lessons he taught me are not forgotten.