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By Thomas F. O'Neill

Giuseppe’s Barbershop

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 Barbers chair.

“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 depressed area,”

“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 said.

“That many people came here to work in the coal mines?” asked John.

“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 the barber.

“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 exception.”

“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 their feet.”

“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 from Alfonso.

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 me.”

“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 cave-in site.

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 Columbia Beer.”

“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 died.”

“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 better life.”

“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 that today.”

“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 temperature.

“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 said.

“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 tree.”

“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 glory.

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 parents.

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 richer community.

With love,
Thomas F. O’Neill

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