Michelle Anne Cope
Eight years and seven days before he died, Thomas Cavanaugh quit milking cows, growing corn, and raising chickens.
The day he took the job at the mine was the same day he signed over the farmland, minus two acres for the house, a garden, and a tool shed. Margaret didn’t see Thomas cry as he crated the last hen; she saw him later smiling, leaning on the fence telling the surveyor that he’d reckoned there were too many farmers now days and that the mines were more dependable, they didn’t need rain. Then there was the pension. Thomas told the surveyor about the pension.
So, Thomas traded his pitchfork for a pickaxe and everyday he left at dawn, his lunch pail heavy with corn bread, tomatoes, and rhubarb pie. Everyday, he came home hours after dusk, lunch pail as empty as his eyes, face smudged black and pockets full of broken coal pieces. Saturday nights, try as he might, the soot under his nails just couldn’t be scrubbed out in time for Sunday morning service.
Margaret worried that Thomas was discontent, no longer able to work in the sun, untangle corn vines, coax milk from an udder or wipe the sweat from a late fall harvest onto his overalls. Thomas assured Margaret that he was quiet because he was tired. He didn’t miss the overturned milk buckets, dirty chicken coops, or corn stealing crows. Thomas was happy he would be able to give his kids more than his father ever gave him. “See, Margaret,” he would say, “My father got no pension, all he got was his dad’s farm.”
Margaret didn’t quit worrying and Thomas continued to talk about the pension; the children would go to college, Margaret could have a new stove, and he could buy back some land and farm a small field or two. When spring brought their third child and first daughter, Thomas said the pension could pay for her wedding.
Other than Thanksgiving morning and Christmas Day, six out of seven weekly dawns other men like Thomas went to work in the dank and dusty man-made caves. Like Margaret, the others wives knew about the pension from their husbands who also wore inner layers of the earth on their overalls and swung their hard hats on dark walks home.
“Ten years work and you got yourself a pension,” is what Mr. Jack Beasley told all the new hires. Thomas Cavanaugh was close to the prize, a guaranteed monthly check to live on after he left the mines or “God forbid”, as Margaret would say, even a monthly check if something awful would happen.
Then one day, God forbade, and something awful did happen.
One year, three hundred fifty-eight days before Thomas was eligible for the pension, Peabody Mine 17 on Cooper Mill Road exploded when a wayward spark found a pocket of natural gas. Three weeks and seven county rescue crews later, the Peabody Mining Company sealed the still burning mine making it an instant and eternal tomb for forty-two men.
Margaret Cavanaugh, like the other wives, told her children that their father was dead. She didn’t tell the children about the pension, they wouldn´t understand. Now without Thomas, Margaret wasn’t sure she ever understood about the pension.