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Summer on the Hill

On the 21st of August, we celebrated the birth of my cousin and on the 23rd, we celebrated mine.  In their infinite wisdom, the Aunts and Uncles decided the 22nd would be better for all involved, and so, consolidated their losses. The cousin, known as Czebjie, and I didn't feel anything good or bad about this, it was just another case of the family taking precedence over the individual, a law we had been taught since we were able to recognize speech.

It was my 16th birthday and his 15th.  The party was held, as was anything that occurred in the months of sunshine and no snow, outdoors.  This time, it was in our Grandmother's garden.  The adults had a half keg of beer and the children, a quarter keg of root beer.  It was fun and games and all went well until the butcher and the truck driver got into an argument about the best way to lift heavy weights.  Before long, there were ten or twelve men shouting and gesticulating and taking sides with the bent back or the straight back methods and eventually, a punch landed and the it was a battle.  The police arrived within ten minutes, meaning that the spinsters next door were on their toes that day.  There were no arrests (there never were, the Chief of Police was a good friend of the family, or if you'd prefer, one of our Aunts) and mandatory lecture had its effect.  The rest of the afternoon was relatively quiet.  The cakes were cut (22 aunts and uncles and 58 cousins means plural everything) the gifts opened and then it was dark.  When the curfew siren sounded at nine, those of us under twenty-one were sent home and the adults continued to drink beer.  At about six, the half had tapped and three of the uncles (of straight back persuasion) drove down to the American Legion Hall to pick up a couple of cases of beer.  They were back three hours later with four cases.  One of the effects of beer on the Uncles was the need for more of it.  I was next door watching television and waiting for the party to wind down so I could sleep.  My bedroom window was on the side of the house where the party was and there was no way to sleep with the windows down in late August.  Finally, at eleven, it was all quiet on the garden front and I slept.

When I woke, I was actually and officially sixteen.  I put together a bowl of cheerios and a cup if tea and browsed the newspaper.  None of my relatives had been in an accident, and none had been arrested.  By family consensus, that made it a successful party.  They would all get together again on Sunday and celebrate the fact that it was Sunday.  If the weather was good, the entire crew would walk along the Grand Army of the Republic Highway for a little under a mile, then turn into the woods and set up camp in the little glen we called Chesterfield.

In those days, I was still an altar boy and subject to weekly meetings to discuss assignments and to practice our Latin, processional formations, and other ecclesiastical details. At the end of the meeting, Father John would announce the day and time for the weekly swim at the local seminary.  One the appointed day and at the appointed time, he would expect us to be standing in front of our respective houses and whisk us off in his great black Buick through the hills and fields to the seminary.  We would swim and lie in the Sun for a few hours and on the way back to the valley, we would stop at a gas station where a woman in mens clothing would fill the tank of the Buick and dish up double dip ice cream cones for the priest and his knights of the altar.  Those excursions were the highlights of my Summer since I first started learning Latin at six.

It was a great day, the Sun was bright, the water cool, and in the end, the ice cream creamy. My father would be home on Thursday and Friday this week and that meant work for me.  He had plans to build an enormous barbecue in the backyard and for the past three weeks, had come home with the backseat missing from the old Chrysler with a load of used bricks taking its place and another filling the enormous trunk.  The old Chryslers didn't last long under such loads and we'd had a green one and two black ones in the last two years.  My job was to transfer the bricks from the car to the brick pile in the backyard, a distance of about fifty yards.  It took most of the day, even when I had the sense to use the wheelbarrow.  The current load was to be free of old mortar by my father's next "weekend" which was alternately Tuesday/Wednesday or Thursday/Friday.  I would sit in the Sun with a hammer and chisel for hours on end, chipping away at the mortar, making sure they were clean enough to be reused.  It took three years before the barbecue was built and it turned out we had enough bricks to build three of them and a small house. The barbecue was never used to cook food.  It ended up being a garbage incinerator with the exception of the one time my sister and I tried to use it to bake some potatoes.  After that it was just a garbage incinerator.

When Sunday came, it was a beautiful one.  Clear skies, bright Sun; hams, breads, cakes, and beer accompanied us on our family march into the forest.  Once there, tables were set up with the food, the beer was tapped in the shade, and the uncles arranged themselves on blankets to spend the day at poker.  Once the adults were all settled and the youth were finished with their tasks of setting up tables, I usually led a patrol into the woods where we would explore for an hour or so, looking for dynamite caps and other treasures left over from the days when the mountain was a coal mine and the town had more bars than churches and a bona fide house of ill repute.  As the official family eavesdropper, I had learned these things in the performance of my duty.

This would be a quiet Sunday.  One of my Aunts had invited the priest to join the festivities and he would be arriving soon.  That explained the table cloths, which were otherwise not used in the woods.  We decided not to explore. Instead, we would observe the effect of a holy man  on the barbarian hoard that were my Uncles.  When the priest arrived, they all stood up and shook his hand in turn, and when he said the Grace Before Meals, they all bowed their barbarian heads solemnly and mumbled along with the good father.  They behaved themselves the entire afternoon.  When the priest left, shortly before three, I could see the beer moving faster.  Instead of a run to the Legion when it was gone, we would break camp and walk back down the hill.  Back at the homestead (as my Grandmother's house was known) the woman would clean up and the men would all head for the Legion for an hour or so, not to replenish the beer supply on the hill, but to drain the supply at the Legion Hall. Nothing untoward happened that Sunday, and then, it was Monday.

Mid-morning Monday, two of my friends came up the hill carrying their rifles.  We were on our way to Boot Pond to shoot frogs.  I grabbed my single-shot .22 and a box of cartridges, put on my knapsack, which was packed with ham and cheese sandwiches, Snickers bars, and a half-gallon of strawberry Kool-Aid.  We crossed the highway and started up the mountain on an old mining road.  At the entrance to Gallie's Mine, we stopped.  Something was different and it didn't take long  to notice what.  The entrance, which had been sealed, we were told, since a cave-in in 1956, wasn't.  Some boards had been pried off and a large man would have no trouble going through.  Despite the countless lectures about abandoned coal mines, we had to investigate.  One of the guys had a flash-light, so we first surveyed the first ten or twelve feet beyond the opening.  I looked like solid rock, no props or other man-made artifacts in sight.  We went in.  From the end of this solid part, we could shine the flashlight a little farther down the shaft, just to get an idea of what the old mines were really like.  We had seen the miners trooping down the hill at quitting time, cigarettes dangling from their lips, lunch pails swinging, covered in coal dust from head to foot, with white rings around the eyes where they had wiped the sweat away.  We had heard their stories about the back-breaking work, the distressed lungs, the cave-ins and the rescue missions.  It all seemed romantic, because we were too young to understand why our parents told us we would never work in the mines.

When we were inside, the shaft looked a lot steeper and deeper than we'd thought from the outside.  The flashlight showed an old narrow gage track and walls dripping water.  Even though we were barely inside of the mine, we could hear the earth moving and feel the isolation that the miners had felt every day.  We were very quiet, and beginning to realize that it was time to get out when a new sound occurred. It sounded like someone crying at first, but after a minute, it became clearer.  Someone was down in that shaft, singing an Irish Dirge. We all started to back out at the same time.  This was too strange, even for the strangest kids in town. Back in the light, we started moving back towards the road and headed as quickly as we could to the pond.  No one spoke until we were finished setting up camp.  It was obvious by looking at the others that they had the same thoughts as I did. It had to be the ghost of one of the miners killed in the cave-in.

We plinked at the frogs, ate our sanwiches, drank Kool-Aid, and avoided the topic of ghosts. The mountain wasn't going to work today, and there was no interest in swimming in the pond. We started back to town, choosing a longer trail, but one that avoided the old mine by at least a mile.  We came out the woods across from the Highway Diner.  The parking was filled with local and state police cruisers.  Our local chief waved us over.  "Did you boys see anybody else in the woods? Maybe an old man with an Irish accent? Old Jimmy Dewer escaped from the loony bin last night and we think he may be around here."

At least it wasn't a ghost.  But there was a quandary.  If we told the chief about the mine, we'd be in touble at home.  If we didn't the old man would probably get himself killed and never be found.  I took charge.  "On the way to Boot Pond, we passed by Gallie's Mine and there were some wierd noises coming out of it, kind of like somebody singing, but we didn't see anybody."  The chief thanked us and said, "We'll have a look."

On the six o'clock news that night, there was a ten minute segment about the state police rescue squad pulling an old man out of an old deep mine minutes before a cave-in. The police had acted on information they got from some young men who had been walking in the area.  My mother said "Those boys should get a reward."  I agreed with her, but I wasn't about to ask for one.

The rest of the Summer was uneventful, with the exception of one memorable night watching a John Wayne movie at the local theater.  When I tentatively slipped my arm around the girl's shoulder, she moved close to me and our arms were touching.  By the end of the film, I'd had my first kiss, which lasted about 10 milliseconds.  When I walked her home, I had my second kiss, which may have lasted forever, had her father not come out on the porch with the inevitable "What's going on here?"  With that, I took me leave and headed for the bus back to town.  I didn't sleep much that night, but when I did, the dreams were sweet.

copyright 2007: john zavacki (the elder)