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Hankies made with pride and love

By Eleanor D. Ryan
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

As I reached for a Kleenex while watching the nine Pennsylvania coal miners being interviewed on Dateline, I remembered the cigar box of handkerchiefs tucked away somewhere in my closet.

In 1948 Tom was assigned to Uniontown, Pa., for recruiting duty. The only housing we could find was in Masontown, Pa., which is a small mining town between Uniontown and Morgantown, W.Va. We lived in a temporary veterans housing project which originally had been Army barracks.

Each building had been converted into two very comfortable two-bedroom apartments. All of the residents were miners and their families. I learned to love those people and they taught me a lot. Walter and Margaret Honkowitz were our next-door neighbors. Right from the start, Margaret took me under her wing and showed me how to live in a town that was nearly always covered with black soot.

Coke ovens burned day and night and spewed the fine coal dust everywhere. (Coke ovens turn coal into coke which is used, because of its intense heat, in the steel mills.)

Now began the most amazing experience of my life. I joined the rest of the miners' wives every Saturday morning as we scrubbed our front porches on our hands and knees so that we wouldn't track the soot into the house. An absolute necessity!

I learned how to keep the wallpaper in our living room free from that soot, in a strange way. We had clumps of what resembled Play-Doh, rolled it into a ball and ran it up and down the walls, turning it as it blackened. Every two weeks we washed our windows and curtains. The curtains were then pinned to a frame to stretch and dry them. I learned how to bake bread, how to can vegetables, how to make quilts.

These women worked very hard to keep their homes clean and they were immaculate. Their recreation was sewing scraps of material together, gleaned from old clothing, to make quilts. They crocheted squares of wool into afghans, saved good parts of worn-out sheets, crocheted beautiful edges around them and turned them into handkerchiefs. Their hands were never idle.

Once a week all of the ladies got together at each others' homes for canasta, and I was always included. In the two years we were there I never saw one of them go to a movie. Their churches had suppers and picnics and that sufficed them. You rarely saw their husbands during the winter because they left for the mines before daylight and returned after dark. On weekends in nice weather they worked their vegetable gardens and tended the chickens.

John L. Lewis was their hero. He fought for better wages and safer conditions in the mines. When they were on strike, they bought all food and necessities at the "company store" "on the book." The "book" was an accounting of their purchases and repaid when they returned to work.

It was no surprise to me when I heard the miners rescued from the flooded Quecreek Mine last month tell about sharing one sandwich and tying themselves together. Every one of the wives had stories about losing family members down through the years in the mines; how any miner would risk his life to save a buddy. They have faith in God and live by that old adage, "One for all and all for one."

When we were transferred to Norfolk, Va., and Tom back to sea duty, the ladies had a party for me. Each one presented me with one of their handmade handkerchiefs. I must find them now. They have been stashed away too long.

-- Eleanor D. Ryan lives in St. Petersburg.

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