Whitesburg KY
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Dad’s mining socks served as Christmas stockings

Points East

My dad was a coal miner who spent most of his adult life gouging out a living by getting coal from deep inside a mountain to the outside where it could be loaded and shipped to parts unknown, turned into electricity and make the lights glow all over our country.

Most of his time underground was spent on his knees with a shovel or crawling around doing the myriad maintenance chores required to keep a mine going. Imagine yourself in a tunnel only 43 inches high and you are 74 inches tall and perhaps you get some idea of his work environment. Imagine no lights in said tunnel except for the flame from a carbide lamp attached to a helmet on top of your head.

Dad worked, for many years, as part of a four-man team that kept a little coal mine going there in the head of Blair Branch in Letcher County where they managed to get 30 or so tons of coal per day from way inside the earth to the light of day.

Dad and his coworkers, all of whom were like family, accomplished this feat by drilling auger holes 10 or so feet into the seam of coal, tamping them with dynamite, and blasting the mineral loose, whereupon it was loaded into two-ton gondolas and pulled by ponies to the surface.

Because he spent so much time on his knees, Dad wore heavy, steel-toed boots and “miner’s sock” made of thick, heavy cotton that came all the way to his knees. The toes wore out really fast and Mom spent at least one evening a week “darning” Dad’s socks but that is another story.

Come Christmas, Dad got new socks that Mom would order from Spiegel’s, Montgomery Ward, or Sears and Roebuck’s. She’d pick out a couple of pairs on Christmas Eve and give one sock each to my three younger brothers and me and help us write our names on top of the sock.

We’d make a big deal out of it, Keeter and me, by fastening our particular sock to the fireplace mantel with a heavy nail and nail holes were already there for that express purpose. Andy and Steve were too young to be interested in volume, but Keith and I were sold on the notion that the more a “stocking” held, the heavier it was apt to be, and we wanted it full and in no danger of falling into the fire.

Which is why we were only allowed to hang them on Christmas Eve. A stray spark into one of Dad’s big, long socks would have set the house afire. I’m reasonably sure that my mom watched her boys go to sleep on many a Christmas Eve and then set up all night to make sure that didn’t happen. Suffice to say that the stockings were, indeed, hung by the chimney with care.

By the time I was 10 or so, the Santa Claus ruse had been long shot down. Keeter and I had been cajoled into playing along for the benefit of ever-skeptical, little bros, Andy and Steve.

Presents from each to another got wrapped and placed under the tree a week before Christmas because that was about as long as we expected a tree to last without being a time bomb that might explode if a spark got to its nettles. But until I was in college, the Adams boys expected to have those “stockings” filled with something even if we had to pretend sleep while Mom and Dad did the stuffing.

When I was an adolescent, we usually got many rolls of “caps” for our toy cowboy guns — black powder that would explode inside our guns with a loud bang and fed into the cylinder as fast as we could pull the trigger and even firecrackers that we turned into small sticks of dynamite. As we got older, we received BB’s and even shotgun and .22 rifle shells. Stuff that would make modern parents shudder in disbelief. I was a freshman in high school when I got up one morning to discover a bottle of Old Spice aftershave in my stocking and decided that Mom was now calling me a man.

In retrospect, that simple gift was probably the most important acknowledgment of my coming of age that I experienced in those heady years of the early ’60s.

But always, always, we got the “cream of the crop” apples and citrus fruits and nuts inside our stockings and little squares or wedges of fruit laced with black walnut kernels my Mom had made while we were at school, and Dad’s new socks were all stretched out to the breaking point and smelling better than they ever would again.

But he wore them and wore them out, there on his knees in that old mine. I simply hope that when they are my age, my kids will remember what we used to do for them at Christmas the way that I’m remembering mine just now.

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