Thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall!

It seems like a thousand years ago, when I was young and Russia was still the USSR, I took a trip to Russia with the man I loved, married and divorced (another story).

The USSR was sealed up pretty tight and I traveled with a group from Oxford University under the eagle-like care of our USSR-supplied InTourist guide. And bless me, I can’t remember his name, though I do remember he was better at word games — in English — than any of us!

We visited Leningrad (before it resumed its older name of St. Petersburg) and Moscow, and I was deeply impressed by how — compared to the USA — poor the country seemed. During one of our train trips, I saw a farmer working his field with a horse and plow. Hard work.

Hotels were very concerned about making sure we didn’t run off with the very small towels, and the sink did not supply stoppers. Of course, my boyfriend accidentally packed one of those precious towels. The chambermaid came running from the elevator and we had to unpack our suitcases to find the offending contraband.

So maybe the authorities were keeping a special eye on us.

You had to make a declaration of whatever money you had when you entered the USSR. And a declaration when you left. They were very concerned about black market wheeling and dealing in foreign currency. I seem to remember that a small fortune could be made selling jeans!

When I arrived, I didn’t include the travelers checks I had brought with me — I flew from Boston to England and stayed there several days before we went on the trip to Russia.

I bet you can see where this is going. We took a train from Moscow to East Berlin, and from there we were supposed to make a transfer for a train to West Germany. At that train station, there was the usual checking and double rechecking of paperwork and this time I stupidly remembered the travelers checks and declared them, forgetting that I had not written them in on my arrival.

Oops!

The powers that be weren’t happy. 

The whole group was detained at the train station and we missed our connecting train. 

EVENTUALLY the mess was sorted out and we were free to go.

Um, where?

They marched us from dour, grey East Berlin, through Checkpoint Charlie, to West Berlin, 

Checkpoint Charlie was very quiet, oddly so considering all the soldiers and the guns and the lights. There was a narrow winding path rimmed with barbed wire that we walked, only our footsteps making a noise, our silence adding to the greater hush

In contrast West Berlin’s blazing 24/7 night life was overwhelming.

We found a train to take us across East Germany and I opened a window to say “goodbye” to the Iron Curtain. I was glad to have experienced it but really happy to be heading home to all our wacky freedoms. As I was waxing all philosophical, a piece of grit flew into my eye, as though the East was going to have the last word. I was busy tending to my eye and never saw us rumble from East to West.

Haven’t we yet learned how stupid walls are?

A Visit from the Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies doesn’t stand on ceremony, he makes house calls.

He whispered to me in the doctor’s voice telling me that I had cancerous cells in my pap smear.

He came to me, a week earlier, actually, when the doctor said he was seeing some abnormal cells, and wanted to do another pap test.

He came to me, years earlier when previously I had had an “abnormal result.” and a re-test found nothing amiss.

Clearly, the emperor is a patient soul.

Now, however, there was something amiss.

There are a million ways to respond to this news and my response was “get on it.” I phoned Sloan Kettering and made an appointment with gynecologic cancer specialist, Dr. Abu Rustum. And he scheduled me for a laparoscopic hysterectomy in two weeks time.

Waiting.

I didn’t broadcast the news, but told the man who has since become my husband, and my daughter, who was about 30 at the time. She and I were re-building a badly frayed relationship. I could say that our relationship deteriorated because of the divorce but really, it suffered because of pain, deep emotional pain that made me less the mother that I wanted to be, and her pain, which I guess made her less the daughter she wanted to be.

But was time running out?

The man in my life had received only very cursory approval from her, which I understood, since my daughter and I were still standing far apart, trying to rebuild trust and show respect. She was all grown up and I could not presume anything.

But that man, ah, that man. We had worked together in a newsroom for years. We had come together only two years before in mourning, both of us having lost the editor we both loved and respected and he had lost his fiancee three months before that. Death rimmed us. When I looked into his eyes I saw the fear he was trying to hide — the fear that whispered “Oh no, not again.”

The emperor isn’t death, exactly, but plays the role of John the Baptist, preparing the way.

And what was that way? That this man would love and lose again? That she would never become the daughter she wanted to be? That I would not get to live this new love that was just blooming? That I would never get to be the mother I wanted to be?

I left both of them at the swing doors that led to the operating theaters. Both of them standing, apart. And I walked into the future.

That room was cold as I was prepped.

And then I was groggily awake, warm, with my two great loves each holding one of my hands. I knew then that the emperor holds miracles in his: Of love finding its way through time. 

Each of them, a miracle.

 Eds. note: Yes, I borrowed the emperor and his title from Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-American physician, biologist, oncologist, and author. In 2010 he published The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, It’s a great book, and not nearly as depressing as you might think!

For My Daughter, Later

When I was old, but younger than now, mom was thinning out — becoming a handful of bumps in her hospital bed. Aunt Julia was making noises about clearing/cleaning upstairs — mom’s half of the house they shared in Oyster Bay. 

(We all have different ways of grieving. They were very close.)

I went, self-appointed, owning up to the only-daughter role after half a century of dodging. 

I went, the least qualified. 

(Does anyone ever get qualified to sort out the stuff of a lived life for the not-quite-dead yet? To do what I could. Could? Should? These were always getting mixed up in my mind.)

So I went upstairs. I didn’t cry. I was alert, like a squirrel, and twitching with stoppered feelings I didn’t dare unplug. An emotional amputee, I had cut off the arms that trapped me. I had no hands for this task.

I’m sure I moved things around. My mother was alive here in her things — much more here than in that hospital bed. There was a time in her decline when she didn’t recognize us, her children. That was sad. Now? I couldn’t tell you if she even knew she was alive. But she persisted with her stubborn Irish will.

One of the few boxes I did open was full of photos. Old photos back from the time when photos were precious artifacts of once-in-a-lifetime events. 

Some faces I recognized. The official ones, the ones in their own mats, those I took home to keep with my stuff. Even ones of people whose faces I didn’t know. I know enough to know: This is family.

*****************

Now I am older, and the story re-ignites in a plain brown envelope from Scotland.

Photos from my father’s family, pictures from the one time Dad was able to go back and visit. (Not for him the sallying back and forth that stitches frayed families together these days.) 

Faces, shining, beam at me from long ago. 

OK, too much, back you go into that brown envelop. For safe-keeping. (mine? theirs?)

Days later, as I was tidying up the many boxes that line my office, I came across those photos I took home from Oyster Bay, I was not looking for them, but they found me nonetheless, hopscotching through their time and mine.

When all these photos were taken, at weddings and anniversaries, this was my family. Even when I wasn’t here yet, as they are not here now. 

Family.

All those photos were old when I was young. Two strands of time twisting, the DNA of then and now leapfrogging on legs riddled by the sphinx.

I hold both the photos and my genes in trust from the unknown past to the unknowable future: when my face joins theirs in someone else’s stuff.

Or slips away, forgotten, when memory is exhausted.

Twelve Men

 

Imagine a river, winter-hungry, teeth of stone and ice, thawing,

rising,

clawing

its way up the river bank. It was only 2 feet deep on January 20.

Now it’s 22 feet of water,

raging.

Imagine a mine. Can you? A honeycomb of weaknesses built by hollowing out veins of rich coal. Hard coal. Anthracite. Galleries as wide as a church where the arteries are wide. Narrowing down to — just barely — the width of your chest where the black blood thins. Paths (they call them man-ways) sprawl in a drunken spree through eons of rock.

Imagine the men. Miners all, who because that’s what they are, go by other titles: the foreman, the topper, the electrician, the motorman, the laborer. Rip off the masks they wear in grey and grainy pictures of aging men, remembering.

See rock men, hacking their way to the underbelly of the swollen Susquehanna. Six feet under the torrent, then a few feet, then 19 inches. The law said give the river 35 feet. Thirty-five feet of earth insurance against the weight of the surging stew of winter water and ice, now as tall as a two-story building.

“If that river comes (down on us), we’ll be drowned like rats,” said Herman Zelonis.

Gene Ostrowski had nightmares about his bedroom ceiling cracking and falling on him and his young son as they slept together in the same bed.

They worked in the River Slope Mine, which followed a rich seam called the Pittston bed. As it neared the water, it lifted and rose some 50 feet to kiss the lip of the river before diving and deepening again.

“I no more than put my foot in the place and looked up, than the roof gave way. It sounded like thunder. Water poured down like Niagara Falls.”

That’s Assistant Foreman Jack Williams who was 62 on January 22, 1959.

Eighty-one miners reported for work at 7 a.m.

Seventy four were trapped.

Sixty two escaped.

In the darkness, lost. The way in is not the way out — the water has taken it from you. Squeeze through shafts, run up slopes, dig through rubble. Avoid the water nibbling first at your toes, then it will hang its heavy weight on your calves, your knees, your thighs. Sucks you down.

SIxty-two escaped.

Twelve did not.

*****

The damnation of water gushing and gnawing soon quelled all hope of air pockets. The very next day the search for the living was called off. The bodies of the dead were never found.

The damnation of water rammed through barrier pillars and ripped through roofs, swallowing men first, then the demon trespasser took this mine, and ravaged other mines linked by tunnels and shafts until it took 7,000 jobs. A different sort of devastation.

The damnation of water created a whirlpool on the surface of the river, wider than a baseball diamond, and chewed into the river bank — a malevolent Milky Way that spun to drain the river dry.

To stopper the hole, they twisted the rail line that ran on the riverbank to deliver  “dozens of mine cars, tons of boulders, truck loads of coal waste, and hundreds of bales of wood shavings and hay.”

It yawned.

On Friday January 23rd, they rolled 60 monster “coal hopper (train) cars — fifty-ton behemoths called gondolas into the void.” Fifty feet long and 25 tons each.

The hole welcomed them and asked for more. The giant cars bobbed like Lego bricks and danced slowly into the hole. “That car would just keep going around a circle, down, down and zoom she’d disappear,” said George Gushanas, who supervised the campaign at the site of the breach.

And still it drank.

More debris, more fill, telephone poles and copper wire, hundreds of loads of breaker rock. (30-40 dump trucks ceaselessly feeding the beast.)

“Finally (on Saturday night) the whirlpool stopped.”

But the seeping and the creeping of the water underground did not. The waters slowed but the roll call of closed mines lengthened.

Those 12 men were already dead, but now Pittston mining itself was drowning, dying. All those jobs. (All that money.)

So a dam was built. They pushed the river out of the way to see its tender broken bed.

With 1,200 cubic feet of concrete and 26,000 yards of sand, they choked the treachery of the river, but ever-yawning catacombs of blame remained.

*****

The morass of greed out-monsters the river, which spent itself in caverns and crevices, and was finally tamed by the hand of man.

All while the hands of men — these hands? those hands? — embrace the greed.

The leprous greed reaches and stinks and spreads. The system of mining in Pittson and beyond was a cocktail of greed. Sip,sip, swallowgulpguzzle. Drink and drink and drink and always the thirst for more.

Blame the greed of companies, the company men, the men they bought.They sliced and diced the labor laws and found new ways to lease the work to others, shedding responsibility and reaping more profits.

Blame the greed of the union, the union men who took bribes, who were mobsters, who became rich. A union president who was a bank president, who was secretly part owner of the Knox Mine Company, which owned this mine.

Shall we blame the miners, too? So many mining disasters before this one, a rich seam of death. Owners and managers point out to countless investigators that miners know the risks. It is a dangerous business, after all. And the investigators swallow it.

But this one? Here’s the harsh truth:

“Federal and state investigators had discovered the illegal mining (too close to the river) months before. They informed officials at the Knox Mine Company, but the mining continued. Finally on January 13 the federal government inspector ordered all work stopped. Yet on that date, Knox supervisors allowed the night shift to take 13 additional cars of coal. The rupture occurred at the precise spot of the last shift’s digging.”

Yet, no one, after layers of investigations, inquests and indictments, was ever found criminally negligent for the deaths of twelve men.

The miners paid with their lives, just because they wanted to get the rich coal that ran on and on, under the river. They knew, and mined, just because they were hungry for fatter paychecks …to buy their kids …

shoes?

Twelve of them: Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Scottish and Slovak. The rich immigrant stew that lived and died in the mines.

Listen:

Samuel Altieri

John Baloga

Benjamin Boyar

Francis Burns

Charles Featherman

Joseph Gizenski

Dominick Kaveliskie

Frank Orlowski

Eugene Ostrowski, who had nightmares sleeping with his young son

William Sinclair

Daniel Stefanides

Herman Zelonis, who foretold his own death “dying like rats”

The list of names is on a memorial on the grounds of what used to be — 54 years ago — a church in Port Griffith, a suburb of Pittston. It says “Near here….”

The small stone that marks the site is nearly lost, hidden this July in a peaceful meadow, off a rail trail, beyond a locked gate, with the sluggish Susquehanna innocently lazing nearby.

***************

A footnote? Poets usually thieve like magpies, but you should know:

It took three Wolenskys, Robert, Nicole and Kenneth to write the books these quotes are from: The Knox Mine Disaster and Voices of The Knox Mine Disaster. Both published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Of men, mice and us

Gathered around the stage door of the Longacre Theatre at about 4:24, people waited.

Summer, but the usual sticky smells of midtown Manhattan were wafted away by a gentle puffing breeze that ruffled flags.

4:32, more waiting.

A stage door guard had already erected crowd barriers on the sidewalk. Those folks who had captured the squashed front row were stationary. The rest of the crowd churned as people pushed to gain a better spot. Some of the most aggressive — all elbows — were short young women.

Instructions were shouted from one family member in the rear to a young teenage boy in the front: “Nathan, just get Chris’ or Jim’s signature. No one else.”

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd were starring in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s mythic masterpiece. They did a great job, translating the great sadness in the work to lodge in our hearts. That sadness lingered, like a toothache.

But hey, this is New York and what a typical New York thing to do: Spy a crowd and join it even before you know its reason.

Some less well-known actors emerged to cheers, but the old guy and the black guy just waved and went on their way, to blend into the human flood. Ordinary. Gifted.

Across the street, the matinee crowd for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was also letting out. I checked this out: that’s the show which won this year’s Tony for Best Musical, and it also won 3 other Tonys and 6 Tony nominations.

Our play won less of those plaudits. No outright Tonys and only 2 nominations. But what did it have in abundance? Celebrity!!

So there were, oh, about 300 people (and me) crowded round this stage door. Across the street, only a handful waited by that stage door. And actors there came and went, unknown. Gifted.

Nathan called to his mom: “Go over and get a picture of Bryce Pinkham. There’s no crowd there. This is crazy.”

Too true, Nathan.

Our door has opened several times, causing the crowd to surge. Four NYC cops show up, shaking hands with the stage door guardian, and that’s a sign that the crowd understands and there’s a bit more jostling for a good spot.

The door opens again. “It’s Jim!” shouts those near enough to see. This time the surge threatens the crowd barrier. And yes, it’s him, who, unsmiling, devotes a good 45 minutes to the devotion of his fans and others —like me — along for the ride. Bless him.

The surge holds aloft either a cell phone or a program.

Hands outstretched.

That image stays with me. Walking down 8th Avenue, I suddenly know what those reaching hands suggested.

Famine-starved humans reaching up to a food truck, their hunger evident in their taut, anxious, even angry faces. And those hands.

And the surge on 48th Street — what is our hunger?

Celebrity.