She should have thrown salt over her shoulder. Knocked wood. Spit onto her fingertips. Anything to fight back the evil spirits. Instead, Mary Wakenshaw practically invited them into her house.
“Dear Bud,” she wrote to her husband. “I’m glad I’m a coal miner’s wife and thankful for it.”
She was comparing herself to the women she saw all around her on a California military base in 1943. Those wives — the unlucky ones — were hugging and kissing their men for what they knew could be the last time. The soldiers’ wives had come from all over the country to say their goodbyes before the men crossed the ocean to fight for the best American values: Democracy, with all of its fair play and justice, and Capitalism, which paved the way for anyone to realize his dreams of wealth and freedom. Those wives were making a noble sacrifice. Still, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye.
“Really,” Mary wrote, describing the sad scene, “it’s pathetic to see them grasp the few minutes of happiness they can.”
She was on a road trip with her daughter, Fannie, a tall girl with a confident smile. Fannie had come to the base to marry her high school sweetheart before he shipped off. She adored the young man so much that she’d saved the butt from the last Camel cigarette butt he’d smoked before leaving Bearcreek six months earlier and pasted it in her scrapbook. Now, finally, she’d get to be his wife. Mary, Fannie and the boy’s parents and brother had traveled 54 hours by train from their homes in a tiny Montana mining town called Bearcreek. They drove two hours to the Billings, Montana train depot, boarded an overnight that took them past snow and mountains and more snow before stopping in wet Portland, Oregon, where they switched to another sleeper that would bring them to California. The trains were crowded and dusty, with overpriced coffee and cheese sandwiches for sale. Mary’s hands were always dirty. Fannie slept on her mother’s shoulder, but Mary couldn’t get comfortable. Instead of resting, she wrote letters to Bud, sometimes twice a day.
“I pinned the balance of my money in a rag and in my girdle, so hope it’s safe enuf,” she wrote.
She told him about the soldiers who mobbed the train platforms, and the pair who were escorting a prisoner of war. Though the country had been at war for more than a year, and it had touched Mary in the form of ration books and tire drives, this was her first up-close look at it.
“Bud, you couldn’t imagine in a million years what war is like till you see it out here,” she wrote in one of the letters. “I mean soldiers, huge barracks built in the hills and soldiers, soldiers everywhere. It’s a beautiful day out. I hope it stays nice.”
The train swayed and her pen jumped. She had to stop writing when she lost her daylight to the eclipse of a tunnel, but she never stopped trying to connect with Bud. She was only 38, but they were coming up on their 20th wedding anniversary. They’d buried three children, raised one to adulthood and seemed to be doing a decent job with their boy, Bobby, who’d celebrate his 12th birthday in a few weeks. The only real trouble they’d had with him had been in December. Seems a boy at school had called him a Jap, probably the cruelest insult to spit at someone in those times, so Bobby slugged him. The teacher banned Bobby from the annual Christmas pageant, so he had to sit in the audience next to his embarrassed mother and watch instead. But if that was their son’s worst behavior, Mary and Bud could consider themselves lucky.
They were lucky in love, too. They’d reached that stage in their marriage during which so many couples — even those who’ve held on to respect and affection – become more business partners than romantic ones. But Mary and Bud seemed to have preserved the tender parts of their relationship. She asked often, in her letters, if he missed her. And she signed every one of them with a plea for his safety: Take care of yourself.
Because she knew that their family was making a sacrifice, too. Bud was a coal miner working more hours than ever because of the war. Coal fueled those trains that took the soldiers and their wives all over the county. It powered the factories where the girl riveters worked, making bombers and ships for the war. The very coal her husband cleared from the Bearcreek hills went directly to the Army and Navy. Mining as much coal as possible was considered a patriotic duty. Bud’s mine ran 24-hours a day, six days a week.
So, unlike the soldiers’ wives, who were new at this game, Mary sent her husband into danger every day. But when the possibility of death hovers for most of your life, as it had for Mary (first her coal-mining father, now Bud), it didn’t feel as scary anymore. It became normal, and unnoticeable. Maybe, in order to get up every morning and watch a man go into the earth, you need to numb yourself a bit.
While Mary took in America’s landscape that February, Bud spent his time immersed in its internal riches. Every working day he walked into a cave full of coal and blew things up. He was a shooter at the Smith mine, one of the crew who drilled holes into the walls, stuffed explosives in those cavities, set them aflame and ran for cover. The coal blasted from the earth, filling the air with dust. When it cleared, hours later, other crews operated machines that collected the coal and loaded it onto open boxcars. The cars brought the black hunks of profit out of the mine, where it was cleaned and sorted, loaded onto railroad trains, sold to big companies and little homeowners, and, finally, burned for fuel.
Unlike shaft miners, who climb into a little cage and then drop down to the coal bed as if they’re taking an elevator from the penthouse to the lobby, the Smith men rode straight into the mountain to harvest their coal. Once inside, a hoist lowered the cars they rode in, called a mantrips, to the main tunnel, which sloped down gradually and lead to a honeycomb of smaller paths and rooms. There, they worked and ate and became best friends. The men divided up into crews based on skill — shooters, trackmen, timbermen – and, sometimes, language. It wouldn’t do anyone any good for an Englishman to be paired with a Montenegrin if they couldn’t communicate. For one thing, they wouldn’t get as much work done. And, of secondary importance to some, they wouldn’t be able to protect each other if they couldn’t shout warnings using the same urgent words.
It was dark and airy in the mine, the black walls shiny like patent leather in spots. It was never too hot or too cold since the temperature stayed about 57 degrees all year round. When the weather outside was frigid or sweltering, the men appreciated their temperature controlled workplace. And when they saw their fathers stooped and bow-legged from decades of crawling and crouching as they mined, they appreciated the height of the Smith. The ceilings were luxuriously high; high enough for Bud, who was 6’2 “, to stand tall.
Bud had been working in the mine for 18 years, but he aimed higher. He already had a second job as the Bearcreek constable, but he dreamed of becoming sheriff of Carbon County. He ran for the job in 1942 on the Democratic ticket. He came up with a campaign slogan and had it printed on business cards: “Pledges Efficiency and Economy,” people read when he passed them out. He rigged a poster advertising his candidacy to the top of his maroon Ford to remind anyone he passed on the road of his hopes. His chances looked pretty good, until he got lied to. The sitting sheriff had promised Bud that he wouldn’t run again. Then, maybe because he saw how popular Bud was becoming, he changed his mind and entered the race at the last minute. The county seat was home to a large Finish population, and the incumbent was a Finn. He won the election, and Bud stayed at the mine. His life would have turned out quite differently if he’d left mining for a clean uniform and an office in the courthouse.
Mary worried so much about losing her money during her California journey — she apologized for spending thirty cents on a writing tablet and envelopes and documented the cost of tourist-priced cigarettes in those letters to Bud – because she knew what Bud gave up to earn it. Sure, he was making more now that he and all the other miners were working so many shifts to supply coal for the war effort. But it was never enough to compensate for the danger. He’d already been hurt once, back in the twenties, while trying to link two coal cars. When he stepped between the cars to insert the pin that would hold them together, one of them rolled. Chomping down like a nutcracker, the cars trapped and crushed his leg. Bone snapped in two places. His buddies threw down their tools and rushed him to the hospital. The doctors examined the wound and talked about amputating Bud’s leg below the knee. For some reason, they decided to wait and see if it would heal instead. They set it in a wooden trough weighed down with a bucket of sand, and he stayed still until the bones fused. When he could finally walk without crutches, he swayed a bit, because the injured leg had healed shorter and more angled than the healthy one. His gait reminded Bobby of John Wayne.
So many things could hurt a man underground. Falling rocks, fire, blasting powder. Even breathing was dangerous.
“Man, the air was foul today,” Bud had said more than once at the dinner table.
He and his union brothers didn’t push for cleaner air, though. It was wartime, and getting the coal out was the priority. How would it look if they beefed about their conditions when the kids in the armed forces were suffering so much more for the country? At least coal miners got to come home to their women every night.
Mary was a 17-year-old housewife when they met, though she’d never been married. She cooked and cleaned while her younger brother went to high school and her father mined coal. It wasn’t the life her mother had planned for her.
She’d been born in Czechoslovakia in 1905 and toddled onto American soil three years later. Her parents settled in northern New Jersey, where the smokestacks clouded out the sun. Her father worked on the docks and her mother took in ironing and cleaned houses, when she could breathe. When her asthma got too severe, she took herself to the doctor. He predicted she’d die if she stayed in New Jersey. Go West, he said, where the air is still clear and dry.
Mary had been a city kid, shooting marbles on the sidewalks, jumping rope double dutch and following the neighborhood organ grinder and his monkey around. The wild west was nothing like home. She was ten when her family got off a train in southern Montana and began to homestead 320 acres adjacent to an uncle’s land. Mary and her brother, Godfrey, went to school in town during the year, but in the summer they worked harder than children should to keep the farm going. They planted wheat and fence posts, hauled spring water for miles, burned sagebrush and killed rattlesnakes. Their father worked at the local coal mine. Their mother stewed cottontail rabbits for dinner in their one-room house.
Their ranch was in Crow Indian country and Mary and Godfrey befriended an old Indian who herded sheep near their ranch. He let them ride his pony and look at the world up close through his field glasses, something they’d never done in the city. Their mother trimmed the man’s hair and gave him eggs.
At one time in her childhood, Mary’s life actually intersected with Bud’s. She and her Godfrey always passed a big rock on their way to school. Their father had told them a legend about an old man who had stopped at the rock to rest during a February blizzard back in 1905 and froze to death. That summer, when the snow finally melted, a rancher found his body. He was lying with his legs crossed and his hands on his chest, as if he were just napping, and still wore the coat, vest, striped pants and fine shoes he’d tied on the day he died. He had a watch, a pair of glasses and seventy-five cents in silver in his pocket. The local coroner settled him into a box and buried him by the rock. A few months later, Adam Wakenshaw — Mary’s future father-in-law — got word of the John Doe. He hadn’t seen his father in a while, but since the old man tended to move a lot, he hadn’t been worried about him until he learned of the mysterious body. Adam contacted the coroner and helped him dig up the body. There he was: Thomas Wakenshaw, Adam’s father, Bud’s grandfather, and, possibly, Mary’s cupid.
It was a story Mary’s mother would have no doubt appreciated, but by the time Mary found out about the coincidence, her mother was long gone. She died when she was just 38, shortly after her children had left the house for a trip into town. Mary, who was 15, was heading back home from her errand when she saw her father on a horse in the distance. He was riding toward her, and she could tell, just by watching him ride, that she didn’t have a mother anymore. He’d been was rushing to town to get the undertaker.
After the funeral, Mary’s father sold the farm and moved his teenagers to Bearcreek, where he’d be closer to the mine and where Mary would be able to find a future.
And there he was, sitting in the stands at a baseball game.
Robert “Bud” Wakenshaw was 19 when he glanced over at the girl he’d spend the rest of his life with. She’d grown up to be a petite brunette with twinkling eyes, high cheekbones and a narrow but perfectly shaped smile. He had a job in the mine, as his father did, and spent his free time working at his parents’ ranch. He’d grown up around the ranch, the beloved only child of a happy couple.
His mother, Maggie, had suffered more than one miscarriage and had given up on trying to bring a live baby into the world by herself. She and her husband, Adam, decided to adopt. But they were firm about one requirement: they wanted a girl. They arranged to meet some nuns from a Helena children’s home at a nearby train station and adopt a newborn girl from them. Two nuns stepped off the train, one with a boy and one with a girl. Maggie insisted on taking the girl, but the nuns said she was already spoken for. Bud’s parents were about to leave, childless once again, when one of the nuns pulled a classic trick. Hold the baby while I use the bathroom, she asked Bud’s mother, and handed her the boy. Maggie cradled that baby, looked into his soft eyes and gave into fate. By the time the nun returned, Maggie realized she couldn’t let go.
They named the baby Robert, but everyone called him Bud. He grew into a quiet man who was strong in spirit and body, the perfect balance to Mary, who was as delicate as she was vivacious. They got married seven months after they met, at the Pollard Hotel, which was and still is the fanciest establishment in the county. Visitors see the same broad center staircase when they walk through the main entrance and look out at the street through the same tall, arched windows as the young couple did. Their wedding day coincided with Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day of 1923, so people believing in signs could have predicted that the marriage would be either a miracle or a joke. Bud wore an elegant suit with a silk tie and combed his thick auburn hair back off his forehead. Mary teased and curled her bob, then styled it so one perfect s-shaped curl fell onto her forehead. She stepped into a dress with a bodice made of two layers of lace. After the kisses and cake, Bud and Mary honeymooned at his parents’ ranch, then moved into a hilltop house in Bearcreek. It had cold running water and an outhouse. Three months later, Mary was expecting.
It must have been so exciting, knitting booties and day-dreaming about the baby who would be born right around their first wedding anniversary. By summer, Mary would be proudly pushing a pram all over town.
But the pain started too early. She was only seven months along and the contractions wouldn’t stop. The doctor arrived, but he was helpless. All he could do was catch the premature baby. It was a boy. Then two other boys, children she hadn’t even begun to dream about, descended into the world. The triplets were perfectly formed, with all their fingers and toes and tiny noses, but they were much too small to survive. She named one baby after Bud, one after her father and one after his father. Robert, Frank and Adam lived for an hour and a half.
Her father built them a coffin that wasn’t much bigger than a cigar box. A friend draped silk handkerchiefs on top of the babies, and a horse-drawn sled pulled them through the snow from the house to the Bearcreek cemetery. Mary and Bud said their prayers over a small, white gravestone shaped like a pyramid. It was carved with the words no mother should ever have to see: Wakenshaw Babies.
Whenever things got bad, Mary told herself to keep pushing. So she pushed through her grief. A year later, Fannie was born. Six years after that, Bobby arrived. Life settled down. Bud and Mary hosted potluck dinners, dressed up for dances, and attended all the school events, where she talked to everyone. She went to ladies club meetings and he went to union meetings. They camped by mountain lakes with other mining families in the summer. He was the town Santa Claus every December, passing out candy and fruit, courtesy of the union, to kids in the center of town. His act fooled even Bobby until the boy discovered the big red costume in the closet.
Two weeks after her trip to California, Mary was home in Bearcreek waiting for a basketball game to begin. It was a Friday in February, and she was happy to be back to her routine. Fannie had gotten married, kissed her husband goodbye like all those other young wives, and returned to business college in Billings, though she was spending the weekend at her parents’ house. Bobby, who’d stayed at his grandparents’ ranch while his mother was away, was back in the nest, too. And she didn’t have to remind Bud to take care of himself anymore; she was there to do it for him.
It was the last normal day of Mary’s life.
None of her children played on the Bearcreek high school basketball team, but that didn’t matter. Everyone in town went to the games, just as the adults attended the high school dances long after they’d graduated. And Mary had been rooting for the squad since she was a teenager and her brother played on the town’s first official team. Since then, the Bearcats had gotten better and better every season, bringing trophies and banners home to the high school until 1939, when they won the biggest contest of all, the state Cass B championship. The whole town had celebrated with a big banquet. Since then, though, the team had gone downhill. This year they’d posted more losses than wins.
Mary, Bud and Bobby sat in the bleachers. It was an unofficial game, but important just the same. The referee stood in the center of the court and held up the ball. The players froze in their positions until he blew the whistle. Then they exploded up the basketball court, intent on giving their fans the happy ending they deserved.
After the game, Mary and her family headed home. On the way, Bobby looked over toward the slag heap by the mine buildings. The pile of coal waste was always burning, so it glowed, like magic, when the wind blew through it. He was surrounded by undulating mountains and the glorious Montana sky, but the smoldering slag heap was his favorite nocturnal sight.
Inside their narrow rectangle of a house, Mary and Bobby got ready for bed. Bud got ready for his next job. As town constable, he needed to make his nightly rounds. There hadn’t been any serious crime in Bearcreek since early in the century, when one guy killed another at the pool hall, and, later, when a boarding house resident shot his roommate to death for annoying him and stealing his liquor. These days the constable just broke up brawls or found drunks a safe place to sober up.
As Bud got ready to leave, Bobby took a prized box of candy out of his dresser drawer. Walnetttos, chewy squares of caramel dotted with walnuts, were they boy’s absolute favorite. He broke the package in two, and offered half to his father. He probably wouldn’t have shared his stash with many people, but he adored Bud. At 11, he was still young enough to worship the man who took him sledding and surprised him with gifts. One morning, Bobby woke up to see a Popeye lamp in his room. Bud didn’t drink, but he went to the local saloons to play pitch or poker. When he won, he’d spend his take on punch cards, which were like lottery tickets that paid out in prizes: sometimes candy, sometimes a rifle, sometimes a sailor man leaning on a lamppost.
Now Bobby wanted to pay back that generosity with Walnettos.
“Not right now,” Bud told him, as he grabbed his blackjack, a small but deadly weapon made of leather and weights. “I’ll have one later.”
Then he hurried out the door.
His dad got home from rounds very late and went to the mine very early, so later would mean tomorrow after his shift. That was ok, though. Bobby would save his dad’s Walnettos until he saw him again.
The next morning, February 27th, Mary placed a three-minute egg in its cup and presented it to her father-in-law. Adam Wakenshaw, who lived close enough to the family to join them for every meal, had been eating the same breakfast since he was a boy in England, cracking off the top of the shell and scooping out the yolk with a spoon. Adam had a lot of long-standing habits. He almost always wore a dress suit. And he’d been mining coal for most of his life, too. At 72, he was the oldest miner at the Smith Mine.
It was no place for an old man. But with all the younger men fighting the war, the retirees had been called back into service. Miners weren’t allowed to quit unless they found a replacement, but that was almost impossible. Soldiers on the home front, one politician would later call them. Bud wasn’t old enough to retire, but if the country hadn’t been at war, he would have been farming. He’d already made a deal for a parcel of land; he just had to wait for peace to cultivate it. And Mary’s father, Frank, a 65-year-old who shared a bedroom with Bobby, should have been should have been relaxing, too, instead of breathing in coal dust all day.
But this morning, as Mary served all three of them their eggs and bacon, they were actually excited to get to work. After working at the same mine for 18 years, today was the first time they were ever scheduled for the same shift.
While the men ate, Mary packed their sandwiches and filled the bottom compartments of their cylindrical tin lunch pails with fresh water. Outside her kitchen window, she could see the sun shining over the mountains. It was going to be a warm day, the kind that melts the snow just enough so that it sparkles. A perfect day for welcoming spring.
That’s just what Mary had planned. Once the men left and the kids got out of bed, she was going to drive to the train station in the next town and pick up a shipment of chicks that were on their way from Billings. After Bud’s leg had been crushed in the mine all those years ago, he used his workers’ compensation money to buy some Anaconda chickens. He’d been raising them in the big chicken house out back ever since, and he’d just gotten word that his fluffy new babies had arrived. Mary’s big chore of the day was to bring them home. She’d do some shopping in town, too, and before she knew it, it would be time to feed these men again.
Their shift ended at four. They would be hungry for a hearty dinner.