Thomas F. O'Neill
He is a barber by trade and for the past thirty years he
made a comfortable living cutting hair. His barbershop is not
just a place for haircuts though it’s a place where the old
timers exchange stories and pass on the town’s gossip.
The town is pretty will known by the old folks and they
enjoy talking about the local politics and about the various
people who inhabit the town. They also enjoy telling stories
of what the town was like during their youth; when the coal
mines were in full production.
They take their time as well in the barbershop, to read the
newspaper while others get their hair trimmed. Giuseppe the
barber enjoys their company and their telling of the stories.
The stories consist mostly of local legends that were past down
from one generation to the other.
Giuseppe is also well known for his story telling and he
enjoys telling his new customers the story of his Grandparents.
It is his way of keeping their memory alive.
“So where are you from?” Giuseppe asked the young man in the
“New Jersey” came the reply, “but I don’t think I will be
sticking around here.”
“Why is that?” the barber asked, “and what is your name?”
“My name is, John,” he said, “John Cooper, and the reason I
don’t think I will be sticking around is because it is a pretty
“Well Mr. Cooper, it wasn’t always this depressed,” Giuseppe
fired back, “there was a time when this town had thirty
thousand people. That is how many people were here when my
Grandparent’s arrived in 1931. The main street was lined with
various department stores and restaurants. They are all gone
now and there is only about five thousand people living here.”
“Why is that?” John asked.
“In the nineteen fifties they closed the coal holes” he
“That many people came here to work in the coal mines?”
“Mostly the immigrants from various countries in Europe,”
Giuseppe said. “My Grandparent’s came here from Italy in 1931
and my Grandfather was a Miner.”
“That is not the kind of work I would want to do,” he told
“Being a miner was a dangerous occupation, and my
Grandfather quickly learned that the mules in the mines were
more valuable to the mining companies then the miners. The
miners were just expendable labor for the mining companies.
They dealt with cave-ins, gas explosions, mine flooding and
many miners died and suffered physical ailments from breathing
in the coal dust,” Giuseppe said, “my Grandfather was no
“So your Grandfather died from being a Miner?” John asked.
“On a Saturday in October, 1938. There was a cave-in at the
Maple Hill mine,” Giuseppe told him, “in the deep darkness of
one of its mine shafts four miners were trapped. It was damp,
cold, and the miners were frightened and unable to see.”
“That had to be terrifying for the miners,” John said
“They heard a voice coming through the cold darkness,” Giuseppe
said, “it was in the dark damp chilled air, that the voice told
them that everything is going to be OK and not to worry.”
“This is a true story so listen,” said Mr. Wascovage an
elderly gentleman in his early 90’s. He laid the newspaper down
on the bench that he was sitting on so that once again he can
hear Giuseppe’s story.
“It was Alfonso, my Grandfather’s voice they heard,”
Giuseppe said, “he told the Miners to un-strap their mining
belts and to buckle all the belts together to make a long
leather rope so that they have something to hold on to. By
holding on to the leather belts they knew they were all
together. It was also to prevent them from becoming separated
in the pitch blackness of the deep mine. He told them to follow
his voice and to continue holding on to the leather belts.”
“That must have been a horrifying experience for them,” John
said while listening intently to his story.
Giuseppe went on cutting the young man’s hair while four
elderly gentlemen once again had the privilege to hear the
retelling of the story.
“The miners felt the ice cold water droplets falling on them
in the pitch darkness. They heard the scurrying, screeching
sounds, of rats and felt them running up against them and over
“My father was one of those trapped Miners,” said Mr.
Zabasky another elderly gentleman. He too enjoyed the Barbers
retelling of the story.
While Giuseppe was weaving his story John listened with
anticipation as to what was to come next. “It was my
Grandfather’s voice that guided them down that long winding
dark shaft,” he repeated.
One of the Italian miners with frustration in his voice
yelled, “Alfonso, how da hell do you know where you go, you get
us more lost.”
“Shut your face,” Alfonso said, “I know what I do.”
Four hours passed and they came to a pile of large rocks,
slabs of coal, and slate. He told them if they move them they
will be able to work their way out of the mine shaft and he
told them to hurry.
Once again with anger and frustration an Italian miner
yelled out, “Alfonso!!!!!!! how do you know this? You, ah
completely craze!!!!!!! How do you know this?”
Alfonso told him in Italian to quickly move the coal slabs
if he wants to get out of the mine alive.
It was many hours later after laboriously moving, rocks,
coal, and slate - in the pitch cold darkness. That they felt an
opening and once again, Alfonso told them to stay together and
continue moving forward.
They did move forward holding on to the leather belts that
were strapped together. Sixteen hours after the initial mine
cave-in the trapped miners began to see lights from lanterns
and they heard the voices of other miners coming through the
shaft in the opposite direction. One of the Italian miners
yelled out, “thank you Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the holy
Donkey, how da hell did you know what shaft we in?”
“Alfonse told us” came the reply “he told us to hurry and
get you guys out because the shaft is about to give way.”
“You craze, Alfonso is here.” yelled one of the Italian
miners, “tell him Alfonso you here,” but there was no reply
As the miners exited the mine they could hear the loud
rumbling of the mine caving-in behind them and the dust and
suet rising from what was once the entrance to the mine.
“Jesus” said one of the rescuers.
“You gota that right” said an Italian miner, “I start
praying Rosary and start Novena as soon as I get home.”
“Where is Alfonso?” said one of the rescuers, “he was with
“He wasa right next to me whole time,” said the vociferous
Italian miner, “you ah Craze.”
Alfonso’s disappearance remained a Mystery for about two
weeks because eventually his body was found at the original
Giuseppe told the young man, “Miners swore they saw my
Grandfather getting on the trolley each morning to go to work
and getting off the trolley in the evening to enter my uncle
Giuseppe’s Tavern at the end of a hard days work. That is where
he went to wash the coal dust down, with an ice cold mug of
“Get out,” said the young man, “that is such a cool story.”
“And every word of it is true,” said Mr. Markavage an
elderly gentleman holding on to his Cain with both hands. He
sat and listened to Giuseppe’s story. The four elderly
gentlemen in the Barbershop heard the story numerous times and
they always enjoy listening to the Barber keeping his
Grandfather's memory alive.
“Years after my Grandfather’s death,” Giuseppe said, “my
Grandmother told her children, including my father and I. That
she hears the clanging of my grandfather’s mining equipment.
She heard him each morning as if he was getting ready to go to
work, with the exception of Sunday his day off.”
“That is such a great story,” the young man said.
“My Grandmother told us that she heard him hanging up his
mining equipment, each evening, as if he was getting ready to
wash up for a hot meal,” Giuseppe said, “Except for Sunday’s of
course that was the Lords day.”
“I heard similar stories of dead solders appearing in battle
fields,” John said.
“When my Grandmother was alive she told us that she could
feel my Grandfather's presents and him lying down next to her
at night,” Giuseppe said. “My Grandmother lived into her
nineties and she talked about the miners up to the day she
“That is quite a remarkable story,” John said.
“And it is all true,” said Mr. Wascovage patiently waiting
for his weekly trim.
“From 1938 to the closing of the mines in 1954 there have
been numerous sightings of my Grandfather warning the miners
about the presences of gas in the mines, mine flooding, and
impending mine cave-ins,” Giuseppe told them, “he has been a
mining legend since his death in 1938 and the Italians who knew
him told his story to their Children and they in turn told
their Children the stories.”
“Well it was a different time back then and this town is
quite different from the town your Grandparents lived in,” said
the young man, “I personally don’t think I could have been a
miner. The value system on work and family was quite different
back then as well.”
“The miners and their families implicitly understood which I
believe is becoming lost in today’s society. That it takes a
village to raise a child. They brought a part of their villages
from their native countries to this town and to the coal region
as a whole,” Mr. Markavage told the young man.
“I do believe the time in which they lived and their beliefs
were much simpler then. The times are changing fast, and our
value systems are changing as well,” John said.
“It was their ethnic values in the mining communities that
were instilled in the children within those communities and
they in turn instilled those values in their children and their
neighbor’s children,” said Mr. Wascovage. “The Italians and the
other immigrants reflected that when they built their
communities and their churches in our town.”
“I hate to say it, but the churches today especially in this
area are becoming more and more, empty,” the young man said,
“that is one reason the churches are being consolidated. It is
just a reflection of today’s value system.”
“Well then if the churches are not the answer for today’s
youth then perhaps the greatest gift that we can give to
children are stories that will help them gain a deeper
understanding and an appreciation of our nation’s history and
ethnic diversity,” Giuseppe said, “they in turn will keep our
history alive when they tell their children the same stories,
because not all history comes from the history books. We must
teach our children in the homes not just in the schools, by
communicating with them, by telling them stories about their
heritage. The stories of how the miners immigrated to America,
settled down in our coal region so that their children,
grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children can have a
better life as Americans.”
“Not just the miners,” the young man said, “my Great
Grandfather worked in a steel mill. He came from Poland, and
like the miners he immigrated here for a better life. Those
same values were instilled in our family as well.”
“You are right about that, young man,” Giuseppe said, “it is
all the immigrants that came here and worked hard at various
jobs so that their families can have better opportunities and a
“I don’t think I could have done the kind of work your
Grandfather did deep in the coal mines,” John said.
“I don’t think I could have either,” Giuseppe said, “it was
hard dirty work but they sacrificed and worked hard so that
their children could have a better life.”
“The mines here have been closed for 53 years,” said Mr.
Zaloweski another elderly gentleman as he placed a magazine
down on a seat next to him, “but those who know our areas
history can learn from the miners work ethic, their loyalties
to their families, friends, their communities, their churches,
and their over all values.”
“The majority living here now are living on public
assistance. That is just one reason why I want to get out of
this area, it’s to damn depressing,” the young man told them.
Mr. Bombasko an old fellow with thick eye glasses and
hearing aids said loud enough that Alfonso himself could hear
him, “When my father was growing up, there was no such thing as
public assistance. People back then could not just sit around
and contribute nothing to society or the community and live off
the government. People did not do that in my father’s time,
they earned their keep. When they fell on hard times the entire
community helped them out.”
“Some people need the help until they can get back on their
feet,” John said.
“In my Grandfather’s day people helped each other out. The
communities helped their own,” Giuseppe said, “you rarely see
“I have a problem with people out there getting money which
is not being earned to do absolutely nothing. That to me is
immoral, and a drain on the rest of us who worked. I worked for
42 years and to think that tax dollars are being used to give
loafers a pay check,” said Mr. Bombasko, with such anger that
he had to remove his eye glasses. The lenses in his spectacles
were getting fogged up from his rapped rise in body
“Easy Bomby you’ll give yourself a stroke,” said Giuseppe
“It’s becoming generational,” said Mr. Bombasko, angrily,
“their grandparents are on public assistance, their parents are
getting paid to do nothing, and now the grandchildren are
learning how to milk the system. It has become a way of life
for some. I say take the loafers off public assistance or make
them work for the money.”
“I don’t mind my tax dollars being used to help those who are
truly in need,” the young man said, “but a lot of people just
like you said are taking advantage of the system. We are paying
for them to sit around, doing nothing. I agree with you that
they should be contributing something to the community. It
looks to me that the majority living here are on public
assistance and that is why the area is so depressed and the
poverty is so great.”
“I also don’t mind helping those who truly deserve our help
through the taxes we pay, but the rest are a drain on our
society and on our town,” Giuseppe said, “some use their free
checks to by drugs and drink booze, while our tax money is
supporting that activity.”
“All of their health care is covered,” John said, “my wife
and I struggle with no health Insurance with a baby on the way,
and I am working for my pay.”
“And is that right?” Mr. Bombasko asked, “you work hard in
this country with no health Insurance, while deadbeat loafers
are fully covered.”
John held back his anger about his lack of health coverage,
“I enjoyed talking to you guys,” he said as he paid Giuseppe
four dollars for his haircut.
“Come back again for a trim, anytime,” Giuseppe said.
The young man went home after he left the barbershop. He
looked into his wife’s eyes as he put his arms around her. Her
eyes revealed a deep warmth and a deep affection for him. He
then placed his hand on his wife’s belly hoping to feel the
baby’s movement. His wife was eight months into her pregnancy
and she was carrying their first child.
He took notice to the well used furniture in his apartment.
He looked at their old kitchen table with the old rickety
chairs. He could hear the old clock ticking away on their
kitchen wall running ten minutes behind the time. Their
material possessions were a reflection of their poverty. They
lived in a small run down apartment because they were a poor
working couple. They worked and lived from paycheck to
paycheck. In the back of John’s mind he was constantly thinking
about how they were going to get by once the baby arrives. How
difficult it is going to be for them but then he thought about
how hard the miners must have worked to provide for their
families. “I don’t work that hard,” he thought to himself, “not
as hard as a miner.”
They have very little when it comes to the nice material
things. The things that money can buy but what is more
important to John is that he draws his strength from his wife.
He would be unable to live without the feelings he gains from
her, her gentle touch, her warm smile, and that self assured
confidence in her eyes. But most important it is the love he
has for her. That love cannot be obtained through the material
world because it is something that is deep within, binding them
together. The acceptance and the love she provides him cannot
be gained from material wealth either because it comes from the
core of her being. She on the other hand gains her strength
from him. He without knowing filled a void in her life and his
presence brings her great comfort. They are not just man and
wife because before they were married and now after their
marriage they are the best of friends.
He gets up at five o’clock each morning and works at a local
plant. There he glues boxes for eight hours a day on minimum
wage. His wife works as a certified nursing assistant at a near
by nursing home for eight dollars an hour. They moved to that
small town because of the low cost of living.
That night as they lay in bed he told her about the
conversations in the barbershop about the town’s history and
the miners. He wondered what the world would be like when their
child is their age. What kind of values their child will have.
“I will do everything I can so that our baby will never have to
work as hard as us,” he said to his wife, Marti, “I want our
baby to have a better life when it is our age.”
“Our lives will be better I know that deep down inside,” she
“We must pass on our values when our baby is born,” John
said, “By telling similar stories like the stories I heard
today in the barbershop.”
He told his wife some of the stories and she listened as
they lay in bed.
“The time was so different then it was such an innocent
era,” she said.
“When our child is old enough to go to school, we can’t rely
on the schools or others to instill values in our child,” he
told her, “like the elderly man said in the barbershop we must
communicate those values in our home.”
“I can tell plenty of stories about my grandparents,” she
told him with laughter in her voice. “You are just worried
about becoming a father. We will get by and be OK.”
“I think we should make a go of this town,” John said, “it
does have a rich history. We are not from here but perhaps the
history of the town can provide us with great stories to draw
from. Those stories will help us instill values in our family
“Whatever you decide,” she said, “but there are better
opportunities out of this area. No matter where we are the
values will be past down through us.”
“I just want to make sure that we raise our child properly
that is all,” he said.
“I understand that it is our responsibility to raise our
child properly,” she said, “but we can do that anywhere. We
must definitely go where there are greater opportunities for
us. I don’t think the opportunities are here in this town.”
“I did learn a great deal from those gentlemen in the
Barbershop,” he said.
“What did you learn,” she asked
“What is being lost in the town is the appreciation for its
rich heritage,” he said, “people are losing touch with the
past. We can learn so much from the town’s history.”
“Yes, but you can’t live in the past. You must seize the
moment and properly prepare for the future,” his wife told him,
“most of the people living in this town are not aware of the
town’s past because they are not from this town. The people who
are from here are either dieing off or they are moving away.”
“I think that is sad because the children can learn a great
deal from the town’s history,” he said.
“Yes, but my parents did all right raising me and my
brothers,” she said, “they instilled the values as we grew up
and they never stepped foot in this town.”
“Our parents and grandparents were not experts in child
rearing but I agree they did all right. The values are there we
just need to draw on them. We also need to become more active
and participate in the community. We can help the community
become a better place,” he said. “no matter where we go or
where we decide to live. The values will come from us and what
we give to the community will accentuate those values. We must
become an example for our children, our neighbors’ children,
and the entire community. I suppose telling stories is not
enough we must become living examples for others to follow.”
“The stories are great stories but children will have to
draw meaning from them and integrate the stories meaning into
their own lives,” she said, “the past is gone we must utilize
what we have now and build for a better future. That is what we
are going to have to do as parents.”
“I agree with you, the stories we tell have no meaning until
we give them meaning. Then like you said we must integrate the
stories meaning and value into our own lives. We have to become
the values that we want to see in others, in doing so, we help
the community become a better place to live as well,” he said.
“Let us become parents first then we can work out the kinks
as we go along,” she said with humor in her voice, “If you want
to stay here that is fine, if you want to move that is fine
too. We will learn how to be better parents by being parents.
Then maybe our grandchildren will tell stories about us.”
There was a time when thousands of people moved to what was
once a booming town. They moved there for better opportunities
and for a better life. Now that town is a shadow of its former
John and his wife Marti had a short stay in that small town
but John’s encounter with Giuseppe’s barbershop helped him to
understand that the values of yesteryear are not entirely lost.
Those values are within; he and his wife need to recognize
those values which they already posses and to accentuate them
for others to emulate and embrace.
In the fast passed world which they are now living they are
struggling to do their best. They understand that the
responsibility to be decent human beings lie within not through
the world around them. How they live their life will directly
impact their child’s life and the community in which they live.
They are trying to live up to the values that they would like
to see in others and in doing so they are becoming better
They eventually moved out of that small town shortly after
their daughter was born. They moved to an area where they
believe will provide greater opportunities for their family.
They continue to struggle though but they are drawing their
strength from each other and like most young parents they are
learning from their mistakes.
They do believe their short stay in that former mining town
was for the best. The conversations at Giuseppe barbershop got
John thinking about the evolving world. He also has a clearer
understanding of the responsibilities he has of making a
positive impact; not only in his own life, but in his family’s
lives, and within the community where they are now living.
They are continuing to do their best as young parents by
living the values that were instilled in them by their parents.
They are also focusing on their needs as a family unit and
putting aside their superficial wants. In doing so they are
getting by financially, and becoming more involved in their
community. They are also continuing to build on the here and
now, preparing themselves not only for a brighter future but a
Thomas F. O’Neill
Click on author's byline for bio.
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries
F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.