Coal Dusters – Chapter XV  Birk Rides the Dingle Dandy

Chapter XV 

Birk Rides the Dingle Dandy

At the dock a ferry, The Dingle Dandy, was ready to set out to cross the small bay to North Sydney. The Dingle Dandy plied a small circuit around the area starting in New Waterford with stops here, then over to North Sydney and Sydney Mines. There were about a dozen men waiting to board. Tonight it was doing a couple of special runs between Castleton Mines and North Sydney for the fight.

“Ever think of goin’ out of the boats.” Clancy asked.

“The sea don’t call to me. Too wet. Too tr’cherous.” Birk replied.

“You saying coal damp isn’t tr’cherous?”

“Not the same.” Birk took a few running steps and pushed up reaching for the spar that stretched over the wharf. He missed it with his left hand but caught it with his right hand. He swung there for a moment – let go and grabbed with his left hand as he turned to face the others.

“You are more monkey than I thought.” Clancy shouted over the laughter of the others.

Birk let go and dropped lightly to his feet.

“How did you learn to do stuff that that?” Clancy asked.

“Don’t know if I learned ever. It was something I could do.” He stepped away from the group and did a quick back flip.

“What! You didn’t even move. You must be part …”

“Monkey is right!” one of the guys said. “You should see him on the pipes around the coal yard.”

“You should be in some circus Birk.” Another of the guys said.

“Ma’d never let me go.” Birk grinned foolishly.

“That all you got?” Clancy nudged Birk’s shoulder.

“So, there’s finally something you can’t do?” He pushed Clancy back. It felt good to know he had some ability that Clancy didn’t have.

“No denying that. At least what I can do serves some use. Not as if you can hop around the mine that way and get more coal out of the seams.”

“Fine by me.” Birk flipped over to his hands and walked to the edge of the dock then somersaulted back to his feet. “But I can save a bundle on shoes if I have to.”

“You mean something other than those work boots of yours?” one the guys flipped dirt onto Birk’s boots.

“Hey!” Birk shook the dust off, “These are my going to town boots. M’work boots is at home.”

“On the back stoop airing out I hope.” Clancy chided him.

“Right next your drawers.” Birk replied and backed away for the men. 

“Don’t let’em get to you.” Clancy said. “It’s all in fun.”

“Maybe.” Birk tucked his  faded blue shirt into his pants wishing he had a real belt instead of the woven burlap cord he used that tied in the front. 

The bell clanged for boarding.

When they disembarked in North Sydney it was a short walk up from the dock to the street car stop. The car filled quickly.

“Almost same as being jammed into the cage to go to the face.” Clancy said.

Birk watched the stores and people flash by as the street car rolled along. It stopped and started smoothy to let people off, take more people on.

“This how taking the train feels?” He asked Clancy.

“No. Train seats more comfortable and don’t stop often either.”

At each stop it clanged and the conductor called out where they were stopping.

“Arena.” he shouted out. “Fight tonight.”

The car emptied and started back.

“Such a waste to send it back empty.” Birk said.

Birk was glad they had sprung for these tickets before the shifts were cut. All they could afford was the standing room tickets. 

There were posters of the boxers pasted up outside the arena. Jamaica Jackson was so dark that his eyes were popping out of his head in the fighting stance he was pictured taking. There was no photo of Bodak only a woodblock drawing. The posters promised the fight of the decade between the mainland great and the hometown favorite.

“Is this Jackson a black man?” Birk asked.

“Sure looks it.” Clancy said.

Inside the North Sydney arena there was lots of talk among the men about the fighters but mostly about the troubles in the mines. Castleton Mines’s wasn’t the only colliery caught up in unrest and unhappiness about the way both management and the union was treating the miners. Shift cuts and tonnage cuts were being implemented in all the mines. Since the war the demand for steel had declined which forced the Sydney Steel Plant had gradually cut back on production and as a result needed less coal. Worse yet was the fact that for the same reasons the plants in Ontario and Quebec also need less coal.

Being in the crowd of rowdy men made Birk restless. The men in the pits he knew, here he saw very few faces he recognized. Seeing them smoking, some swigging from bottles even though Prohibition meant they weren’t supposed have access to booze at all, put him on the alert. The over-made up women around the doors and the men drinking made him feel this was the den of iniquity his mother warmed about even though he wasn’t sure what iniquity meant.

All the prime seats where already bought, by what Clancy referred to as the ‘upper muckers.’ The the standing room view they had barely allowed Birk to see the head and shoulders of Jamaica Jackson. Being taller Clancy could see a little more but not enough for him to get caught up in the fight. It only lasted four rounds with Jim Bodak’s knock-out and the crowd disappointed dispersed.

Birk and Clancy decided to walk back along Commercial Street to the harbour checking out the store windows on the main street. Hotels, tea rooms and O’Dowell and South’s recently opened department store. Three stories high in alternating dark and pale red brick. The display windows were filled with stoves, gleaming kitchen wear, clothing for men women and children, sports equipment, bicycles.

“All this in one place.” Birk was amazed. “How’s anyone afford such things.” 

He stopped at a window of manikins wearing what a sign proclaimed as “The Latest Thing For Modern Men.” at their feet were tidy arraignments of hats with gloves, motoring caps with car glove, a colourful pile of suspenders & three tiers of shoes for “True Gents.” What’s Argyle socks?”

“Which?”

“The one’s here with the weird patterns. Almost looks like a tartan.”

Clancy stepped beside him to take closer look.

“It’s a tartan alright. Not big enough cover what a kilt covers through.” Clancy laughed.

“No, but surely would cover what hides under the kilt.” Birk shook his head. “Where would one wear the likes of this.” He looked at the middle dark-grey suit with a “Hundred Percent Mohair” notice pinned under the breast pocket. 

“Funeral. Most likely.” Clancy said. “Sure not anyone at the colliery. Not even the office.”

“A shirt that white wouldn’t stay white long around here. Why’s there a piece of tie in his pocket?”

“Very smart to match your tie with your hanky.”

“Hanky? You mean they’d blow their nose in that?” Birk began to laugh.

“Yeah. Too many buttons on the sleeve to whip your nose on.” Clancy wiped away a tear as he double over laughing.

“He’d have to use his Argyle socks.” Birk stepped back to steady himself on the streetlamp. 

“You ever have anything like that?” He asked Clancy as they continued on their way.

“Can’t say as I have. Ma knitted all my socks.”

“You ever have anything store bought, I mean, besides food.”

“Those shirts of mine I bought new. Rather my ma bought new from Eaton’s catalogue.”

“Lucky guy. I can’t remember having something to wear that wasn’t a hand-me-down. Ma’d remake Geo’s old clothes to fit me. Even his wedding suit was borrowed.”

“What did you wear?”

“Clean white shirt. Even my work boots were a pair of … Jake Malloy’s … they had been re-soled for me after he died in the mine.”

“Not afraid to wear a dead man’s boots.”

“Gotta make use of everything to get by. But I wonder what that’d be like.”

“What?” They stopped at the path down to the pier. “To be dead?”

“No. To have something store-bought new that one else ever owned or wore. I think even all the dishes at home came from Ma’s family. I got nothing to really call my own.”

“There’s those that can afford new and then there’s us working folk, that breaks our backs for the coal they sells so they can buy new goods while they make sure we never can.”

“You talk same as those union guys.”

“I suppose I am but even those union guys can’t afford to shop here. We can’t and probably never will.”

They waited on the dock for The Dingle Dandy to return after taking its first load of passengers over to New Castleton.

“Look who it is.” Manny O’Dowell came along the dock with a couple of other miners Birk recognized. 

Birk could tell they had been drinking from the careless way they walked. Manny flicked the cigarette he was smoking into the water.

“Sometimes I get out from underground.” Birk said.

Manny took a step closer to him and sniffed. “You don’t stink o’the pits either. That was the best part of getting that promotion. Getting away from the stink of you.”

Birk’s fists clenched.

Manny turned to his friends. “Sometimes I wondered if he ever wiped that hairy rat’s ass of his.”

Manny and his friends laughed.

“Or if he wiped with one of the rats.”

“You fat …” Birk fist darted out and sent Manny sprawling into his friends.

Manny got up and came at him, flailing his arms. He was too drunk to put much force behind his blows.

His pals began to laugh and pulled him back.

“Manny you certainly isn’t no Jim Bodak.”

Manny reeled around to his friends. “I suppose you guys think you can do better?”

The Dingle rang it’s departure bell and they got on.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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