In Solitary

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This solitary cell is lonely
but far from inmate strife;
in cement walled stillness
I call up a wistful memory
of a long gone former life.

It’s early morning when we wake
from dreams of a rustic cabin
at one end of an endless road.
Does anyone know how long?
Who cares? Whatever it takes!

The rising mountain fills our senses
with scent of pine, and mossy damp.
Cries of angry gravel as we pass
frighten tiny meadow flowers
corralled by wind-bent grass.

Our excited little Geo,
fretful, and fearfully aware,
creeps past feral rocks
by a swirling singing stream
where birdsong colors the air.

I imagine a woman like this river,
beautiful, strong, soft and constant.
But a steep stretch of rutted road
makes the Geo stall and stop
unable to carry its peopled load.

Cramped legs and minds unbend
To unburden the grateful car;
Whining mosquito gangs attack
like a teasing older brother;
and I fondly bite them back.

We reach that fearful place
between a clutching abyss
and leaning cruel black cliffs.
I close my eyes up tight
to keep death out of sight.

My Uncle laughs and claims
“The mountain’s coming down.”
We pass a remembered spring
that weeps and sings of rain
and snow and lightening,

Where clear stone washed water
bred in stoney darkness,
born of a granite womb
becomes the newborn river
that leads us all to the sea.

Then I see it! The green gate!
I can hardly wait to know
of grandma’s secret things;
what wonderments she’ll show
like Scrabble and music she sings.

The Geo finds a place to hide
between dark woods on either side
and spits us out upon the road
like giddy human pack mules
fretting about their load.

I stagger under the weight
but stubbornly add more,
to shorten my anxious wait
for auntie’s fresh baked pies,
campfire songs and remembered lies.

The old cabin rises to greet us
dressed in hand made shingles
my father split and nailed there
sweating beer and singing curses
at the wild mountain air.

When his bright light died
we placed his lonely ashes
there by his favorite tree,
by the tomb of my childhood
and the cradle of juvenile rage.

Through this silent six side cell
runs a road by a singing river
that leads to the soulful sea.
And I hope whatever was lost
Still lives and thrives in me.

Holden, Washington: A Company Town

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The 32 Chilean and one Bolivian miner so dramatically rescued in Mina San José were revealed to be admirable, intelligent, hard working people. What was not very obvious is that San José,  its miners and their families, and the mine itself, are all mines and all miners everywhere. Consider the Once-Upon -a-Time Holden  Mine and Company Town, in Holden, Washington:

Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious little looping line in the Wenatchee National Forest in North central Washington. But the satellite view allows one to zoom down Copper peak to an abandoned mine, mill, and tailing pond. Holden village lies just to the North across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. Much of the Village itself still survives. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store. There are two story bunk houses where most miners lived, single men attracted by unusually high 1940 pay, upward of $1.25 daily.  Uphill are  8 family homes built for administrators and their families. After the mining company closed it sold the village to the Lutheran Church for $1.

The main Holden family housing area for miners was a half mile down the road to the West; it is gone now because the Forest Service permitted the homes to be built only on condition they be removed when the mine closed. My father built ours with material purchased through Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs.

There was only one newspaper available in the company town, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers.  The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into sonorous icy clacking tubes. On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heaver papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag half a mile to the family miner homes. His pay was a five cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course 5 cents bought a very large Hershey then. I netted about $8 or $10 monthly, mostly in big tin Howe Sound company coins. Even so the flimsy light money worked as well as the stuff we use today, also now all base metal. It seems likely our nation has become a company town, though the owners are  called Washington DC. My mother kept the tin coins in a sock in her bedroom. I never saw them again, there being little for a kid to buy there.

When WWII hit the US my father wanted to join the Sea-Bees and take a more active part. But he was declined because he was in a vital industry: copper. He sold the house for $800. We went to Mexico, to another copper mine.

For nine and ten year old boy in Holden it was mostly fun, freedom, food, and fancy. One more mining town. To move every year from one mine, one country, one culture, one language, to another, was normal. It wasn’t easy. But I loved the wildness of small mining towns, the changes, the excitement, the challenge.

In Holden I looked out my little Sears attic window at big soft falling flakes of crystallized Pacific moisture and thought about Flash Gordon. The average winter’s snowfall was 350 inches with 35 inches of rain in the summer. On clear moonlit nights I knew I would one day walk the face of the moon.

The investment in time, money, sweat, and blood required to find, develop, and operate a mine is huge. It takes years. It includes scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral resource is likely; drilling hundreds of rock core samples; analyzing the cores. If there is mineral, that is only the beginning. The real cost balloons: establishing access to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines; providing for housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment. (Holden, like many big mines in those days, had  a school,  bowling alley, dance hall, a  baseball diamond.); providing water,  sewage, electricity. Then one must add the costs of infrastructure and of mining, extracting, milling the ore,  dealing with waste rock and tailings, dust, toxic smoke,  possible ligation,  and of complying with myriad known and unknown governmental  regulations; and selling the product…  Only then might one see the first penny of income.  Profit, if any, comes years later.

Holden was one of the biggest copper mines in the nation at the time.  But in the 1950′s the ore body was exhausted, the war was over, and it closed. That is the fate of all mines. Yet often the infrastructure remains in a very remote and lovely place. Holden, like many other mining towns, survived the demise of the mine; consider the upscale resorts in Colorado, and Arizona. Old mining towns at  El Teniente and Chuquicamata  in Chile are World Heritage sites.  ( see We ourselves lived in a number of mining towns that still live on after death of the mine: Balatoc and  Baguio, Filipinas,  tiny Manhattan, Nevada, and Holden,Washington.

We little understood one another, my father and I. Perhaps that’s not unusual; the generations live in different worlds, even  if the place is the same. He seemed irritated because life came easy to me. And I was grateful that it was so; I could always arrogantly choose the course that was most exciting, selfish, exotic, and at the same time seemed to me most ethical, consistent with my religious heritage: I knew life was good and God was fair. Only later was I taught of His mining sins; we had been poor,  our Holden house, most all our houses, should have been condemned by multiple layers of government as unfit; my parents were neglectful and abusive to allow me so much unsupervised freedom  to roam the earth, and its old mines, caves, jungles, deserts and high mountains where mines are found; that mining companies  abuse poor ignorant miners and pillage the earth.

My father never did ‘get it’, what I learned from my time. At 88 he still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to a place like Borneo to talk about their underground water problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig. He was always just a conservative, always working, driving around in his old wreck of a car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. But of course the generations never understand one another any better than we understand ourselves. Too bad.  As to Holden, while he sweated in the deeps of Copper Peak, I found it to be paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant kid who is a child of a gentrified  U S God, every miner and every mine?