Coal: (n) a combustible rock consisting of carbonized plant matter
For a season as a young man, I traveled with a gentleman who had a low-budget Las Vegas-type show, and performed at conventions, carnivals and county fairs.
One summer, we were scheduled in a West Virginia mining town for their city-wide carnival, fair and jubilee–all mixed into one. There was no motel in town, so the sponsor found homes for the entertainers to sleep overnight. Most people got to pair off–in other words, two to every house.
I ended up driving about seven miles into the hills, and stayed with a family who had a shack that could have been a prop-double for Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
I was still dressed in my stage clothing and upon my arrival, the people stared at me like I had twelve heads. They offered me a meal of brown bread and beans with side-meat and molasses. It was delicious.
But they never stopped peering at me. I was just a kid, so I was really spooked.
I attempted communication. I tried to express interest in coal mining. The only thing I knew about coal was that when I was a boy, my dad had a coal furnace that warmed the loan company we owned. It was my job ever so often to go down and stoke the coal into the furnace. So I had picked up a piece or two and analyzed it. It’s quite an attractive rock. (You can understand that if it got the chance to hang around for several hundred thousand years–how it might become a diamond.)
So ridiculously, and clumsily, I might add–I shared my limited awareness, and even ventured calling it “bituminous” just to show off a bit.
The family had no toleration for my ignorance. Every question I asked was met with a two-word grunted answer. Usually, “Huh. Maybe.”
It was an uncomfortable evening–mainly because I was miserable and felt out-of-place with this common sort.
So imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning to buckwheat pancakes, scrapple and coffee. The mom of the house had also taken an old shirt, sewn up all the holes and presented it to me as a gift.
For you see, while I thought they were giving me a hard time–unwelcome in their home–they, on the other hand, were actually sitting over there, quietly trying to figure out some way to bless the stranger.
That afternoon during our performance, I wore the shirt they darned for me, and the family sat near the front, grinning from ear-to-ear.
It brought me to tears.
I realized that even though I was having a hard time making money, I did not have to live in an old shack and descend into a coal mine, risking my life, to eek out enough money for my beans.