There was this man I knew. At first glance, he didn’t seem to be anybody special. He wore blue jeans before blue jeans were “cool”. He never knew he was special and he surely did not act it. He was like so many other Logan Countians, just “a plain ‘ole coal miner” trying to rake out a living for a family full of children.
This particular gentleman was one of eight children born to his coal mining parents. Like his mother and father, he believed in hard work and, coming from the hills of rural Wayne County, where he was born and raised, this man knew what it took to provide for family, whether it was plowing a mule to clear a garden, picking wild greens, or killing a squirrel or rabbit for that evening’s dinner. He was a “crack” shot with a weapon and there was little this man could not do in support of his clan.
Most evenings, you could find him, along with many of his coal camp neighbors, sitting along the railroad tracks with a razor sharpened pocket knife, all of them whittling away, each with a piece of cedar wood. After the shavings piled up, it was routine for the “gents” to build a “gnat smoke” to keep the insects away while the men discussed “the problems of the world.” All of the men were either coal miners, retired miners or disabled miners, so the conversations didn’t stray much from the black gold they had helped to mine in their West Virginia hills.
One day in the 1960s the life of one of these “whittlers” would change dramatically. There were many diseases which had by this time period been conquered with good science, the crippling disease of polio being at the top of the list. However, tuberculosis, better known as “TB”, was still abundant and contagious; so much so, the United States government set up small mobile x-ray clinics at various post offices throughout the county and encouraged citizens to be tested.
So it was that this particular gentleman, a veteran of World War II, chose to be tested. The results proved devastating as the tests showed the man to have the deadly disease which affected the lungs. He was forced to leave his wife and family, as well as his coal mining job. He was placed in a “sanitarium” at Beckley, West Virginia, and his family was tested weekly by the local health department. His wife struggled to provide for six children who remained at home and were not allowed to see or visit their father for one year.
One fortunate day, a Huntington physician, while at the Beckley location, examined the x-ray charts which had landed the man in the seclusion of the sanitarium. The doctor looked at the charts closely and asked the patient one simple but important question: “Sir, have you ever had pneumonia?”
“Yes, I had double pneumonia in France during World War II,” was the reply.
The doctor flung the charts across the room. “Get this man out of here,” he quipped. Those scars on his lungs are not tuberculosis, they’re from pneumonia.”
By this time, the coal industry was struggling and no jobs were available. While forced to accept welfare for the benefit of his siblings, he was enrolled in barbering school in Charleston as a part of the welfare program. He had long wanted to be a licensed barber as he regularly had cut his own sons’ hair, usually while the boys were seated on their front porch.
After about a year of the school, he proudly received his license and went to work at the barber shop in Logan, now known as “Choppers”. He enjoyed the work and, even without a driver’s license or automobile, managed to make it to and from his workplace six days a week. As the late 1960s came to a close and the “long haired generation” began its hippie spiral, along with the decrease in the local population, it became difficult to earn a living as a barber. Fortunately, he was able to tend a large hillside garden about a mile from his house and the results of his labor there were always fruitful for the family. In summertime, it was not unusual to see him walking the railroad tracks with a bushel basket of produce on one shoulder and a burlap sack full of more produce on the other headed for the confines of home. Occasionally, one of his sons would accompany him on the mile or more trip to the garden.
As the mines made their comeback in the 1970s, he became a coal miner again at Youngstown Steel’s location at Dehue. During miners’ vacation in the summertime, he and his family rarely were able to go anywhere and sometimes were about the only people left in the coal camp during those times.
On weekends and some holidays, the man could be seen walking up the railroad tracks with his black brief case filled with his barbering equipment and selection of pocket knives. The knives usually were traded with some of his “customers”. He would stop from home to home, cutting one person’s hair at a time and swapping knives. There was no charge for the haircuts.
After his death from cancer at the relatively young age of sixty-two, the family received many stories from fellow mine workers all saying that he had worked for two years very ill trying to live long enough to secure his UMWA retirement. He never made his family aware of his illness. Less than a year after he retired, and six days before his February 12th birthday, he succumbed to the illness. He had given his “all.”
It was only late last summer at a family reunion that members of his family found out just how special this gentleman was. Like so many veterans of all wars, men and women choose not to rekindle their memories of military action. He never spoke of World War II or its atrocities, at least not to his immediate family. However, according to his youngest brother, he apparently felt the need to speak to him about certain things from his military service.
“He said that once in Germany, he and a bunch of men from different units wound up together in a bombed out house. There was a young soldier who had just received a new “kodak” camera as a present from his mother,” the brother explained. “The rumble of airplanes enticed the young fellow to want to go outside and take photos to send back home, not knowing whether the planes were friend or foe. The veteran soldier advised him that he should not do so, but the young man went outside anyway. He immediately was cut in half by the guns of an enemy plane.”
As it turns out, this same man was in every major battle of the war in Europe and was the recipient of five major medals, of which he never spoke about.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the man I’ve been writing about was my father, Carlos Williamson, who along his wife, Ethel, raised seven children. My dad’s youngest brother was Rudy Williamson, himself a Vietnam veteran.
This story is dedicated to all the people who I’m sure have stories of their own to share with their family and others. HAPPY FATHER’S DAY.