Chapter XXIV –  Birk Steps Up

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXIV 

Birk Steps Up

Birk and Clancy stopped to chat with the miners gathered out side St. Agatha’s hall. There were various groups of them from the different pits in the area. Some had their wives and children with them. None of them were eager for a strike and some expressed that it was downright foolishness and were there to make sure their voices were heard.

“Is your Da going to be here Birk?” Jake came over.

“Depends on when get away from the boilers.” Birk said.

“Loves them more than anything else.” Jake offered Birk his tobacco pouch and papers.

“Nah.” Birk said. 

Clancy reached over and accepted it. “Thanks. Might as well enjoy a smoke when we can.” He spread a thin line of the tobacco and studied it and glanced at Jake before rolling the paper around it. “Looks a bit stretched.”

“Yeah well there’s some ground up hay in there. Something my pa used to do. Don’t taste it much though.”

Clancy lit the cigarette and took a tentative draw on. “If the strike goes on long well have to get used it.”

William Gregory, the union rep, opened the hall doors. “Not much space in here so I’ll have to ask the women to wait outside.” 

Birk and Clancy were separated as the men pushed in rushing to get seats. Birk ended up sitting with Jake Malone near the back with another of their laneway neighbours Jim McKlusky. 

Father Patrick started meeting with the Lord’s Pray. Not all the men knew all the words and Birk mumbled along as best he could. The moment it was over Jim started O Canada and the men got louder as they went along. he could hear the women outside singing too. 

The men sat and began talking amongst themselves. Birk was never at ease when there were so many people talking at the same time. Seeing all these men here and not in the colliery wash up was like seeing some of them for the first time. So Digger Johnny didn’t always wear that same denim coverall and canvas coat all the time. He was a different person in a clean white shirt and grey trousers, held up by striped suspenders. If it weren’t for the heavy work boots Birk would have taken him for a store clerk.

  Two of the union men were going along the aisles and talking to miners quietly. 

“Good to see you here tonight b’ys” one of them shook Birk’s hand. “We’re feeling that this time we can make a difference.”

“We’ve heard that before.” Jim McKlusky said. “Birk here might be too young to remember the strike of 1918. What the fluenza didn’t kill starvation nearly did.”

The meeting got started with William Gregory reading off the contract demands, none of which, he claimed, the management was willing to discuss. “As far as BritCan is concerned there is nothing to discuss.”

The men in the back row around Birk whispered furtively back and forth with comments about what was being said on stage. Having Alf Landon there added to the seriousness of the situation. No one was pleased to hear that there’d be no government support for strike action. 

The air in the hall was thick with the smoke from the miners’ cigarettes and the cigars the union men where puffing on. His eyes were watering. He looked around for Clancy but didn’t spot him through the haze. His side of the room was the most restless and resistant to the fact that the strike would commence at midnight that night.

“Let’s get some fresh air.” Clancy suddenly appeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

They went out to the front steps of the hall and there were several men out there smoking. and passing a bottle around. He and Clancy shared the last of the Manny cigarettes.

“No hay in these.” Clancy took a long drag on his.

“You know what burns me up?” said one of the miners outside the hall. “The fact that we have to meet here in this Papist hall.”

“Not as if we have anything this size over our side of the town.” one of them said. “Fraid they’ll get their boots dusty in Mudtown.”

“Can’t expect to do this at the pluck me either.” another said passing the bottle to Birk.

Birk took a fast swing and nearly spit it out. It was some of the home made beer he’d tried at Geo’s wedding. He wiped the bottle neck and passed it back.

The men laughed. “If’n they did they would dock our pay for the wear and tear on the floor boards.”

“Yeh, I know that but it’s not as if we get anything from Rome to keep up appearance the way the good Father does.” the first man said.

“Or that niece o’his. Looks good even with that bump on her face.”

“Who you think did that t’her.”

“Maybe she did to herself.” Clancy said.

“Yeh. Tripping in the church on those things they kneel on and hitting her face on one of Jesus’s bleedin’ feet.”

The men laughed.

“I know a smack when I sees one.” Another of the men said. “Gives my missus enough of them.” He added knowingly. “Only way to keep ‘em in line.”

“Shows you care enough for ’em, too.” Another said. “They makes out that there isn’t enough for food ‘cause we stop for a pint or two on the way home from work.”

“So you think she’s … got some bloke from around here?” Clancy asked.

“I heared she has a past, you know, from Boston. Maybe the good Father had to keep her from going back. Y’ know bring the hand of God to bare.”

“The priest? Nah.”

“Remember Father Peterson. Coached us in hockey one year. Man, he wouldn’t hesitate to give any of a good kick in the arse if we didn’t do what we was told. He didn’t care if was orange or mick either. We have more bruises from him than we ever got on the ice.”

“Yeh, but that was b’ys.”

“Doesn’t matter to me now. Who cares how they treat their women. I only want them at the mine to play fair by us.” the first guy said. “No more playing favourites with the micks. Right Birk.”

“What?” Birk had been listening but not paying heed. From where he and Clancy stood they had a clear view through the window of Lillian standing by the tea trolly.

“You happy getting left in the pit while that Manny O’Dowell gets set up in the rake yard?”

“No!” Getting above ground was the hope of many of the miners. Didn’t matter where they worked or even the work was harder.

“Better get back inside.” Clancy said. “They’re finally getting to the important stuff.”

“Only important stuff is how much strike pay we can expect when we goes out.”

“An if there’s enough tea left for us.” 

When they went back in Birk saw that Blackie had arrived. Men were standing to ask questions about the strike or make statements of their particular concerns.

Jim jabbed him the ribs and whispered. “Say something about playing favourites.”

Birk stood. All eyes the room where on him. He feet got hot and he was slightly dizzy. He didn’t recognize his own voice as he spoke and when he finished he didn’t even know what he had said.

“Good on ye, lad. That’ll get those micks in a stir.” Jim said.

There were angry responses from the other side of the room. If there was an answer from any of the speakers to what he said he didn’t hear them. He did hear Seldon from the company store say there’d be no credit if they wasn’t working. When Father Patrick forced them to say the Our Father again he got up walked out with Blackie and Clancy.

The rest of the men followed shortly.

“Blackie!” one of the men shouted out. “You better be careful walking to work these mornings. Man could slip in the mud and hurt hisself.”

“Gerry Dunlop, if you show yourself on our side of town I’m not the only one’ll beat the crap out of you.” Blackie replied to the laugher of some of the men. “That is if there’s any o’you left that wife gets through beatin’ you.”

“We have to stand together.” someone else said.

“If you want a mine to come back to when this strike is settled you better stay out of my way and let us engineers do our job.” Birk and Clancy followed Blackie as he walked on.

A handful of dirt showered them. It was quickly followed by rocks and clods of grass. The three men stopped and turned to face the whom ever was behind them.

“Manny didn’t you get enough on the Dingle t’other time?” Birk raised his fists.

Manny was with several of the Catholic miners. The gang took a step back.

Blackie pulled Birk’s arms down. One of the men stepped past Manny to take a swing. Blackie reach out and the the man’s fist and held it in his hand.

“Look son.” Blackie said as he squeezed the man’s fist. “This isn’t how we stand together. Same goes for the rest of you.” He let go of the man’s hand

The man stepped away rubbing his fingers.

“Any of you on the midnight stand?” Blackie asked. “You best sober up some .”

The men turned and walked away grumbling.

As Birk walked past the company store he saw that windows had been boarded over. 

“They must have put those up while we were at the meetin’” he said.

“Seldon’s not taking any chances.” Blackie knocked lightly on one of the boards. “Last time we broke in and emptied the place. Casey Thomas was running it in those days. Mean cuss was only to happy to cut us off. The women dragged him out, tore his clothes off and chased him off the pier. Coldest February we remember. Bastard deserved it.”

“What?” Birk said. Blackie was always fairly calm around the house. Nothing his sisters, or even he, ever did unsettled him.

“Yep. Cut off credit, then cut off even selling to those who had cash to pay. Five weeks we’d had enough of no food, no coal to heat our houses in February. After we smashed into the store they brought in the troops.”

“From where. The base in Sydney?”

“Some, but mostly from the mainland. Too many in Sydney had kin here.”

“Y’ went to back to work with rifles on you?” Clancy asked.

“Pretty much. We didn’t get what we wanted and had to go back with less than we started out with.”

“Same as now?” Birk spat.

“Uh huh. Not before we did a bit of damage mind you. But not as much as they did riding their horses into the crowds in the Bay. We were marching on the mine office and they charged at us. Snipers on the roofs picked off a couple of guys, wounding them. Then church was getting out at the same time so those got caught up in things too.”

“The micks?” Birk snickered.

“Some. Most of the people that got hurt had nothing to do with the strike. That ended it. Priest then told all his congregation they better get back to work or go to Hell. They went and the rest of us had no choice but to follow.”

“This time’ll be different.” Clancy said.

“How’s that.” Blackie asked.

“What I hear is the the guys in the steel plant might go out in sympathy with us. That’ll bring things to a halt.”

“Don’t count it.” Blackie said. “Government won’t stand for that for long.”

“Lest we don’t have to worry about keeping warm.” Birk said pulling off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. “Can’t remember a hotter summer.”

They came to the lane that lead to their house.

“I’m goin’ to drop down to the boilers before I go to bed. All this talk makes me a little fearful.”

“You think they’d so something to them do ya?”

“Nah, but best to be sure or I won’t sleep right tonight.”

Blackie kept on his way. 

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Chapter XXIII: Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIII

Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

After their meal she cleared the table. Washing up in the kitchen she could heard the church bells ring to call the men to the union meeting. The tea urn took three kettles of water boiled on the stove to fill it fully. 

Between each kettle Lillian attended to her cosmetic mask. Yes, this will be ideal. She had applied more power and rouge than she had ever before. The effect was clearly artificial. 

“Father Pat,” she called out. “The urn is ready for the meeting.”

“I’ll have a couple of the men bring the trolly over to the hall. You can follow with the biscuits. I mean the bread.” He said from the other room.

When the men arrived she pretended to be working at the sink so they wouldn’t see her face. As they were leaving she said. “Could you ask Father Pat to step in a moment.”

“Yes Miss McTavish.”

A few minutes later he came into the kitchen. “You wanted to see me Lillian.”

She turned around for the lantern to catch her face in full light. Her uncle gave a small gasp.

“Lillian. What have you done. You look …”

She knew that she looked similar to those low class women who sold themselves to men. She fumed at the way he acted as if covering her bruise was an act of contrition on her part.

“I … I  did the best I could Father Patrick. It’s been sometime since I’ve used my cosmetics. I wanted to be sure the mark was fully covered.”
“It is but … Well, it’s too late now.” He took the plate of bread she had cut. “Perhaps no one will notice. There are more important things at hand to occupy their thoughts.”

“I’ll be right there. I forgot the sugar for the tea.”

“Very well.” He left the kitchen.

She grabbed a damp cloth she had set aside for this moment and with a few sure movements wiped all the rouge off her face. Too much rouge on her face would reflect on her character but the bare face with its bruise would reflect on the character of the person who had caused the bruise. Even if no one the room knew who was responsible they would know someone was.

She slipped quietly into the meeting hall. On the wall behind the dais were portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, with a portrait of Pope Pius XI on side of of them; and a portrait of prime minister Mackenzie King on the other. Between the various portraits hung the Red Ensign and the flag of Nova Scotia. Over them was a crucifix. The union banner had been hastily draped along one side of the room. 

The tea service area was in the a corner to the left of the low stage. She cautiously nudged the trolly into a better light. As the men came for a cup she turned her face casually to make sure her face was visible. She could see their eyes dart from the bruise to her eyes then away as if shamed by seeing it.

William Gregory went to the dais and rapped on it with a gavel.

“I’d like to thank Father McTavish for allowing the use of Saint Agatha’s Hall for our meeting.” He motioned for the priest to come on stage.

“We will start this meeting with The Lord’s Prayer.” Father Patrick motioned for the men to rise.

The men all stood and recited the prayer. Without prompting someone began to sing ‘O Canada’ and all the miners put their hand over their hearts and joined in the anthem. Gregory rapped the dais with the gravel and all the men sat.

Once the meeting started and she sat. This was her opportunity to look over the men who were there. The various representatives of union, management and government were seated in the first row.

On stage, William Gregory the union representative, puffed on a cigar as he set out the conditions of the contract they had presented to the management board of the mine. The demands were merely to keep the tonnage rate as it was with a five percent per year increase over the next two years. 

She half-listened to the the various representatives. Alf Landon, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly was there; Mr. O’Dowell applauded loudly when the MLA stood to address the men. She almost laughed out loud as his white shirt cuffs kept popping out from under his suit jacket. The man’s family may own clothing stores but he certainly didn’t know how to dress. 

Running his thumbs under his suspenders, Landon explained the provincial government’s position of having to be supportive of management decisions yet would not stand in the way of any fair and legal labour action the unions chose to take. Alf stressed with word fair, intimating that the unions were on shaky grounds.

Some of the men stood to describe the unfair and dangerous conditions in the mines. There were representatives of the workers from the many mines in on the Island. It became clear to her that conditions were much the same in all of the mines.

One of the men she’d spoken with the other morning stood to say something. 

“I’m Birk Nelson, many o’ you know me. M’ father is Blackie Nelson. One thing some of us men want to know is why the mic … I’m mean the Catholic’s get favoured treatment in the Colliery?”

There was an immediate grumbling from the sides of the room closest to her. She could tell that the room was pretty much divided down the middle with parishioners she recognized on one side and the ones she didn’t on the other. They must be the Protestants.

She kept her eyes on Birk. What was it about him that fascinated her? It was something in his face, the blackness of his hair contrasted with the white of his shirt. It dawned on her that he resembled those engravings of the Devil she had in one of her childhood books of Bible stories.

“Gentlemen, please.” her Uncle stepped to the front of the stage. “Let us not get distracted from why we are here. This strike, if it happens, will effect all families regardless of their faiths.”

“He’s right,” someone said loudly. “But we can’t hide from them what damage this will cause our families. We will show them our true faces for once.”

“Yes.” Father Pat said. “The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.”

“We need a united front,” William Gregory the union rep said. “Let’s not forget that. But Father I have to remind you that there is no ‘if.’ The strike has been called for and it will go ahead at midnight tonight. Not only here in Castleton Mines but in Sydney Mines, Inverness, Dominion, Glace Bay. All the collieries will be closed down and will remain so till the management concedes to our demands.”

The men to shouted their support.

“What about the engineers?” a man stood and asked. “Someone has to keep the boilers going properly. You know what happened in Caledonia when they were left unattended. They blew sky high.”

“That hasn’t been decided yet.” William Gregory said.

“It sure has.” another man stood up.

“It’s Blackie Nelson.” Several people muttered.

“I won’t desert them even if I’m the only one there. I built those babies with these hands and I won’t be derelict in my duties. My duty is to them. Not to no company or no union.’

There was scattering of applause and some boos to this.

“So you’ve decided to strike.” another man stood. “You men all know me, Daniel Seldon. I run the company store. As much as I agree with you, you know if you men don’t work there’ll be no more credit for you.”

“T’ isn’t fair.” someone shouted.

“Them’s the company rules. You all know that.” he replied. “I don’t make them but I’m obliged to follow them.”

“So we see where you stand, Seldon.” The union representative said. “The rest of you be prepared to man the picket lines starting at midnight.”

The room was silent for a few moments.

“We’ve come to the end of the meeting.” Father Pat said. “Let’s close the meeting as we opened it, with The Lord’s Prayer. Our Father …”

The men joined him. Before the Amen he added. “Father please guide these men as they embark on challenges so that they never forget they are on the path to reunion with you. Amen.”

“Thank you Father Patric.” Mr. Landon shook the priest’s hand. “And we all wish to thank your niece as well.”

Lillian pulled back into the dark corner behind her serving area.

The men stamped and whistled their approval. Mr. O’Dowell stepped past the tea trolly to bring her on stage. She held her hands over her face as if shy of the attention. Then dropped them so those who hand’t seen her bruised face fully now got to see it in the light.

She caught her uncle’s eyes then went back to her station behind the tea trolly. His expression made it worth while.

She was putting the used spoons into a washbasin when a hand roughly grabber shoulder and turned her around.

“Don’t let me ever catch you taking to my missus.” A drunk miner glared at her. “Or I’ll give sommat worse than that.”

Lillian couldn’t get out of his grip.

“Missus?” she asked.

“Jen tol me what you been tellin’ her?’ the man shoved her away.

“You mean Mrs. Hollerhan?” Lillian braced herself while looking to see which of the men were still in the hall.

“That’s right.” He moved toward her.

She grabbed the basin with water she’d been using to give the cups a quick rinse and threw it his face.

“You bitch.” He slipped on the dish water and fell hard on his back.

“What do you think you are doing?” Alf Landon grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him up. “Oh it’s you Davy Hollerhan. Mike, Robbie” he called to two men at the far end of the hall taking down the flags. They came over.

“Take Davy home. He’s seem to have had a few too many.”

“No such thing as too many.” Davy lurched at one of the me.”

“Right you are Davy. Come on we’ll have a few outside.” Robbie put his arm over Davy’s shoulder and lead him out. Alf followed them.

As the men departed her Uncle came over to her.
“What is the meaning of this Lillian.” 

“One of your drunken parishioners wanted to finish what you had started.” she mopped up the spilled water. 

It is your own doing then. You lead me to believe you would hide this. How could you do this to me?”

She wrung the rag out and poured a cup of tea to empty the urn.

“The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.” she smiled and handed him the cup of tea. “This is my truth.”

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