The cover photo was taken in August 1968 inside the Clubhouse in Coalwood, West Virginia at my going away party.
Seated L to R: Charles “Tafon” Hylton, Herbert “Hub” Alger, Casey “Long Ass” Gauntt and Gene “Ringo” Kirk
Standing L to R: Zachary “Squirrel” Fleming, James “Muss” Alger, Marty Valeri, “Big” Pete Burnett
Welcome To Coalwood
On June 9, 1968, I tip-toed into West Virginia and was met at the airport in Charleston by Tim Bowman. Tim was my age, 18, born and raised in Coalwood and recently employed by Case America, a subsidiary of my family’s Chicago based construction company Case Foundation. Tim had black hair and a dark complexion—”that’s why they call me Mex”—and was outfitted with tan pants, long sleeve shirt and flat-billed railroad engineer’s cap perched high and back on his head. Tim was super friendly with a big wide grin and quick laugh. I was transfixed by his southern drawl. I don’t have a photograph of Tim from back then, but he reminded me of a younger, more handsome, Sheriff Andy Taylor from the very popular Andy Griffith Show that ran from 1960 through 1968.
We talked non-stop the next two hours—can’t remember a word we said—and by the time we arrived in Coalwood we were friends. Tim helped me get settled in the Clubhouse, a splendid three story boarding house-hotel with enormous white pillars framing the porch and entrance to this centerpiece of the town built in the early 1900s. My room was on the second floor. The Clubhouse was owned by the Olga Coal Company, which also owned the coal mines that employed most able bodied men in Coalwood, as well as practically everything else in town. The Clubhouse was run by Junior Chafin and his wife Carol, both employees of Olga. Junior, aka “Deputy Dog,” was also Coalwood’s town constable, wore a uniform like Tim’s, chain smoked Camels and enjoyed his bourbon. They lived in the Clubhouse with their two teenage daughters Kim and Theresa. The Chapins were nice people and very good to me. Carol made breakfast for me every workday morning and packed me a lunch.
Olga contracted with Case America to install a ventilation shaft for a new section of the coal mines. This was one big hole: fourteen feet in diameter and, upon completion, 2,000 feet deep. George Foster was Case’s man in charge of running the shaft job, and Jim Walton was the project superintendant. Jim and my Dad served in the Army together during World War II and both had been working on and off for company founder and my grandfather, Vern Case, since returning from the South Pacific Theatre in 1946. Each of them struggled with their demons from the War, and Jim found some peace in the bottle to help him with his, resulting in some involuntary work cessations—aka getting fired. As my Dad mentioned in the letter he wrote to me that summer I was in Coalwood, “I sent down what I hope to be a reformed Jim Walton” to work on the job. I’d known Jim from the time I was born and thought of him like an uncle. He was gregarious and just made you smile and laugh when you were around him. He would have been around my Dad’s age, 48, in 1968.
George Foster had also worked before with Vern Case, but I’d never met him until that summer. George would have been in his late fifties at the time, although he had the weathered face and sunken cheeks and eyes of a heavy smoker that made him look years older. George brought the Coalwood job to Case, although hand-mining a 2,000 foot ventilation shaft was a very unusual job for the company. Case Foundation’s work primarily focused on big-rig drilling of deep foundations for large buildings in Chicago and other cities in the Midwest, but nevertheless George Foster convinced them to do the job.
Tim was born in the middle of six kids each two years apart— three boys and three girls—and like me had just graduated from high school. He went to Big Creek High School in nearby War—same one Emily Sue Buckberry, Homer “Sonny” Hickam and the other Rocket Boys matriculated from eight years prior. Before going to work for Case, Tim washed cars and mowed lawns to make a few bucks and help out his family, and that’s how he came to meet George Foster. Tim told Hilary and me the story during his visit with us in San Diego in November of 2010.
“One Saturday afternoon a bunch of us were sitting on the porch of the Clubhouse—Junior Chapin, Mr. Foster and some other boys. Mr. Foster was living in the Clubhouse as he was just getting the shaft job started at the time, but later he and his wife moved into the Gunner house. At some point Mr. Foster asked me ‘Tim, what do you charge to wash a car?’ ‘Two bucks’ I said. ‘What would you charge to wash that car’ and Mr. Foster pointed to his brand new yellow Lincoln convertible parked in front of the Clubhouse. ‘Well, I don’t know, Mr. Foster. I’ve never seen a car that big. I suppose the same- two bucks.’
“’Mr. Foster tossed me the keys. After I finished washing his car, I came back up the Clubhouse steps. As Mr. Foster pulled a wad of bills out of his wallet I began to protest: ‘Mr. Foster, before you pay me don’t you want to look at your car and check out the job I did?’ Mr. Foster gave me a hard look and said ‘I don’t need to do that Tim. I’ve already checked you out around town. I know you do good work. I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I didn’t know you’d do a good job. I don’t need to inspect it.’ He handed me $25 and I practically fell off the porch steps—I swear to God! I was speechless. Mr. Foster then said ‘I want a receipt.’ ‘A what?’ I asked him. ‘I’d like a receipt, Tim—that’s how I do business.’ I told him ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Foster, I don’t know what a receipt is.’
“Mr. Foster pulled the pack of unfiltered Camels from his shirt pocket and removed the slip of paper between the cellophane and the pack. He wrote on the back “Car wash—$25.” He handed it to me and said ‘Sign this. Now, once I week, I’d like for you to wash my car and mow my lawn when we move over to the Gunner house. I’ll pay you $25 per job. And I expect a receipt. Will that be ok with you, Tim?’
“And shortly after that, Mr. Foster hired me on part-time with Case America picking up parts, running errands and anything else they needed me to do, like picking up folks like you at the airport. Mr. Foster was a darn fine fella.”
Tafon, Hub and Rat
Charles “Tafon” Hylton, a 25 year old thickset block of muscle with a mop of reddish brown curly hair, was my shift boss on the shaft job that summer. Taf had a cigarette perpetually stuffed in his fist except when we were down in the hole. No smoking was allowed for fear of igniting the methane gas that would occasionally seep in from the coal seams we’d bored through. In fact, before the commencement of every shift, someone would be lowered into the shaft to test for gas using an old fashioned wick burning lantern, which always seemed counterintuitive to me. After I got my certificate as a duly authorized methane gas tester in the State of West Virginia, I did that job, too. I would imagine the rest of the shift crew lounging around top side when the huge explosion occurred and a ball of yellow flame shot out of the hole; the top-man casually remarking, “Looks like Long Ass found some gas,” followed by laughter. Red Man chewing tobacco was a fine substitute, and arguably safer, for smokes in the hole.
Herbert “Hub” Alger was a few years older than me, a long and lanky six and a half feet, with a grin as wide as the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. Hub was naturally built for drilling and easily punched out twice as many holes as me during a shift. Someone told me Hub got his nickname “cuz His ass is Up Between his shoulder blades.” Hub’s older brother James “Muss” Alger didn’t work on the shaft job. He and their older brother, Frankie, worked in the coal mines.
Hub was a real character and Tim shared with me a couple more stories to prove the point. A few months before I got to Coalwood, Tim and some of the boys had gone to watch a softball game in the next door county. “There were five of us and I was driving. As we crossed back into McDowell County we were pulled over by a deputy sheriff. I couldn’t imagine what for— didn’t think we’d done anything wrong. The Sheriff walked around the car, came back to my window, handed me back my license and told me to drive safely. He was ready to let us go on our way but then a couple of the boys sitting in the back started to giggle. The Sheriff stuck his head in the back of the car and asked ‘None of you boys are drunk are you?’ Hub, who was sprawled in the back said ‘Well if I ain’t, I just wasted thirty-five bucks.’ The sheriff hauled us all off to the station, thanks to good old Hub.
“Hub and Tafon went to work construction in Washington D.C. after the shaft job. They lived together in a place with no phone. One evening after they’d been drinkin’ a bit, they walked to the phone booth down the street from where they lived so Hub could call home. Hub, all six feet six inches of him got in the booth and Taf sat on a bench nearby. A couple walked hand in hand by the phone booth and, only God knows why, Hub reached out and pinched the girl in the butt. Her boyfriend jumped into the phone booth and put a whoopin’ on Hub like a badger in heat. He musta hit Hub a hundred times. Hub finally collapsed and half fell out of the booth onto the sidewalk. As the couple walked away, Hub looked up through his bloodied eyes and asked Tafon ‘Why didn’t you help me?’ Taf, the brawler of the two, usually did. ‘Hub,’ he said, ‘you’re six-six for cryin’ out loud and when I saw what that boy was doing to you, I said ‘no thanks.’ I ain’t no fool, Hub.’”
Rat Kirk was also one of my crew-mates. Gene “Ringo” Kirk and Rat are cousins. I don’t what his real name was, but one look at him and there could be no doubt how Rat got his nickname. He was wiry, had long, stringy brown hair and worked with the ferocity of a wolverine. Rat and Hub were about the same age. Rat had a couple of brothers: Cool Breeze and Chokeknot. Choke had a very pronounced laryngeal prominence (i.e. Adam’s apple) that was so big Tim Bowman said “you’d swear he would choke on it—that’s how he got that name.” Rat was equipped with that same feature and when he talked it was hard not to take your eyes off it as it jumped up and down the length of his long, skinny neck.
Almost all of the males in Coalwood had a nickname: Junior, Sonny, The Greek, Shorty, Squirrel, C.A., J.W.—lot’s of initials for names. Some of the girls, too—‘Fatback’ is one that comes to mind. Another one of Tim’s neighbors in Frog Level was a kid they called ‘Straight Gut’ Baker. Tim explained the origin of that name. “Frankie, Hub and Muss Alger’s mom, Ruby, made a huge breakfast every morning—she was widely known for it—biscuits, gravy, pancakes, sausage, bacon—the whole works. And every day Straight Gut would stop in the Algers’ place on his way to catch the bus for school and grab a few biscuits and gravy on top of the breakfast he already had at home. Straight Gut was always eating, yet he was a real skinny kid and nobody could figure out where he kept all that food. We figured it must run straight through him so we all called him Straight Gut.”
Mr. Foster, Mr. Hickam, Sr. and Jim Walton did not have nicknames—at least none that I ever heard. Shortly after I showed up, they started calling me Long Ass. My legs are disproportionately long compared to the rest of my body. They could have easily tagged me with “Hub,” but that was already taken.
Cut Alger and Lurch Kirk
The Hyltons, Algers, Kirks and Bowmans all lived in Frog Level Camp within a few houses of one another. I didn’t really know much about these boys outside of the shaft job, but Tim Bowman provided me with some tidbits. For example, Tafon had an older brother, Cut, and Tim told me the story of why I didn’t meet him that summer.
“Cut quit Big Creek High School after the 10th grade. He laid around a few months until finally his old man had enough and yelled at him ‘Cut, get a job or pull one!’ Now, that wasn’t such a strange choice for a lot of boys in that part of the country. So, a few nights later Cut and a couple of his buddies robbed the Big Store across the road from the Clubhouse. And if they’d left it at that they would have got away with it. But a few minutes after they left the store, Cut realized they forgot to get smokes. They went down the road a bit and busted into the service station at the corner to lift some cigarettes. And that’s where they got caught. They did ten years each in the big house. So, see Casey, you couldn’t have met Cut that summer. He was locked up.”
Some boys had two nicknames. Leon Kirk, one of Ringo’s older brothers, went by both “Lurch” and “Cabbage Head.” Tim told me this story about that fella—it’s one of my favorites.
“Lurch and Ringo were two of Rat’s cousins. There were a bunch of Kirk cousins who lived in Frog Level and they fought like hell. They loved to beat the tar out of one another—several times a week. Lurch was a couple of years older than me and an unusually large boy—he reminded us of that character, Lurch, from the T.V. show The Adams Family, and the name just stuck on him. When I was 11 years old I was dearly intimidated by Lurch. Every single day he threatened to beat me up as soon as we got off the bus back home from school. And every day I’d be sure to get off the bus first and run as fast as I could to my house. One afternoon after several weeks of this I ran through the gate of our front yard and my father was standing nearby. He grabbed me by my collar and yelled ‘Boy, enough is enough! Now, listen to me. You got two choices. You either take a whoopin’ from Lurch or take a whoopin’ from me.’
“I was a lot more afraid of my dad, so the next day, once again, Lurch threatened to beat me up when we got home from school. I scrambled off the bus first with Lurch right on my tail, but this time, instead of running, as soon as Lurch took the last step off the bus, I whirled around and hit him in the face as hard as I could. Blood gushed from Lurch’s nose and he fell to the ground moaning. Rat jumped around the two of us hollering and squealing ‘Come on Tim, beat the crap out of him!’ But I just hit him with that one punch. But buddy, let me tell you, Lurch never bothered me again and, come to think of it we got along just fine after that.”