Goodbye Wifes and Daughters

Susan Kushner Resnick (2000)
University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Chapter 1: The Romance 

She should have thrown salt over her shoulder. Knocked wood. Spit onto her fingertips. Anything to fight back the evil spirits. Instead, Mary Wakenshaw practically invited them into her house.

“Dear Bud,” she wrote to her husband. “I’m glad I’m a coal min­ er’s wife and thankful for it.”

She was comparing herself to the women she saw all around her on a California military base in 1943. Those wives—the unlucky ones—were hugging and kissing their men for what they knew could be the last time. The soldiers’ wives had come from all over the coun­ try to say their good-byes before the men crossed the ocean to fight for the best American values: Democracy, with all of its fair play and justice; and Capitalism, which paved the way for anyone to realize his dreams of wealth and freedom. Those wives were making a noble sacrifice. Still, it wasn’t easy to say good-bye.

“Really,” Mary wrote, describing the sad scene, “it’s pathetic to see them grasp the few minutes of happiness they can.”

She was on a road trip with her daughter, Fannie, a tall girl with broad shoulders and a confident smile. Fannie had come to the base to marry her high school sweetheart before he shipped off. She adored the young man so much that she’d pasted the butt from the last Camel cigarette he’d smoked before leaving home six months ear­ lier in her scrapbook. Now, finally, she’d get to be his wife. Mary, Fan­ nie, and the boy’s parents and brother had traveled fifty-four hours by train from their homes in the Montana mining town of Bearcreek. They drove two hours to the Billings, Montana, train depot, boarded an overnight that took them past snow and mountains and more snow before stopping in damp Portland, Oregon, where they switched to another sleeper that would bring them to California. The trains were crowded and dusty, with overpriced coffee and lousy cheese sand­ wiches for sale. Mary’s hands were always dirty. Fannie slept with her head on her mother’s shoulder, but Mary couldn’t find herself a comfortable position. Instead of resting, she wrote letters to Bud, sometimes twice a day.

“I pinned the balance of my money in a rag and in my girdle, so hope it’s safe enuf,” she wrote.

She told him about the soldiers who mobbed the train platforms, and the pair escorting a prisoner of war. Though the country had been at war for more than a year, and it had touched Mary in the form of ration books and tire drives, this was her first up close look at it.

“Bud, you couldn’t believe in a million years what war is like till you see it out here,” she wrote in one of the letters. “I mean soldiers, huge barracks built in the hills and soldiers, soldiers everywhere. It’s a beautiful day out. I hope it stays nice.”

The train swayed and her pen jumped. She had to pause when she lost her daylight to the eclipse of a tunnel, but she never broke her connection with Bud. She was only thirty-eight, but they were com­ ing up on their twentieth wedding anniversary. They’d buried three children, raised one to adulthood, and seemed to be doing a decent job with their boy, Bobby, who was about to turn twelve. He was a good kid, though sometimes prone to typical preadolescent shenani­ gans. In December, a boy at school had called him a Jap, probably the most vile insult to spit at a kid in those times, so Bobby slugged him. The teacher banned Bobby from the annual Christmas pageant, so he had to endure the humiliation of watching from the audience right next to his mother. But if that was their son’s worst crime, Mary and Bud could consider themselves lucky.

They were lucky in love, too. They’d reached that stage in their marriage during which so many couples—even those who’ve held on to respect and affection—become more business partners than romantic ones. But Mary and Bud seemed to have preserved the tender parts of their relationship. She asked often, in her letters, if he missed her. And she signed every one of them with a plea for his safety: Take care of yourself.

Because she knew that her family was making a sacrifice, too. Bud was a coal miner working more hours than ever because of the war. Coal fueled those trains that took the soldiers and their wives all over the county. It powered the factories where the girl riveters worked, as­ sembling bombers and ships for the war. The very coal her husband cleared from under the Bearcreek hills went directly to the Army and Navy. Mining as much coal as possible was considered a patriotic duty. Bud’s mine ran twenty-four hours a day, six days a week.

Unlike the soldiers’ wives, who were new at this game, Mary sent her husband into danger every day. But when the possibility of death hovers for most of your life, as it had for Mary—first she worried for years about her coal-mining father, who’d already had his head smashed by falling rock in the mine, and now Bud—it didn’t feel as scary anymore. It became normal, and almost unnoticeable. Maybe, in order to get up every morning and watch a man go into the earth, you need to numb yourself a bit.

While Mary took in America’s landscape that February, Bud spent his time immersed in its internal riches. Every working day he walked into a cave full of coal and blew things up. He was a shooter at the Smith Mine, one of the crew who drilled holes into the walls, stuffed explosives in those cavities, set them aflame, and ran for cover. The coal tumbled off the mine’s walls, filling the air with dust. When it cleared, hours later, other crews rolled in machines for collecting the coal and loaded it onto open boxcars. The cars brought the black hunks of profit out of the mine to the tipple, where it was cleaned and sorted, loaded onto railroad trains, sold to big companies and little homeowners, and, finally, burned for fuel.

Unlike shaft miners, who climb into a little cage and then drop down to the coal bed as if they’re taking an elevator from the pent­ house to the lobby, the Smith men rode straight into the mountain to harvest their coal. Once they were inside, a hoist lowered the cars they rode in, called mantrips, to the main tunnel, which sloped down gradually and led to a honeycomb of smaller paths and rooms. There they worked and ate and became best friends. The men divided into crews based on skill—shooters, trackmen, timbermen—and, some­ times, language. It wouldn’t do anyone any good for an Englishman to be paired with a Montenegrin if they couldn’t communicate. For one thing, they wouldn’t get as much work done. And, of secondary importance to some, they wouldn’t be able to protect each other if they couldn’t shout warnings using the same urgent words.

It was dark and airy in the mine, with parts of the black walls as shiny as patent leather. It was never too hot or too cold, since the temperature stayed about fifty-seven degrees year-round. The men especially appreciated their temperature-controlled workplace when it was frigid or sweltering outside. And when they saw their fathers stooped and bowlegged from decades of crawling and crouching in other mines, they appreciated the height of the Smith. The ceilings were luxuriously high—high enough for Bud, who was six-foot-two, to stand up straight.

Bud had been working in the mine for eighteen years, but he aimed higher. He already had a second job as the Bearcreek constable, but he dreamed of becoming sheriff of Carbon County. He ran for the job in 1942 on the Democratic ticket. He came up with a campaign slogan and had it printed on business cards: “Pledges Efficiency and Economy,” people read when he passed them out. He rigged a poster advertising his candidacy to the top of his maroon Ford to remind anyone he passed on the road of his hopes. His chances looked pretty good, until he got lied to. The sitting sheriff had promised Bud that he wouldn’t run again. Then, maybe because he saw how popular Bud was becoming, he changed his mind and entered the race at the last minute. The county seat was home to a large Finnish popula­ tion, and the incumbent was a Finn. He won the election, and Bud stayed at the mine. His life would have turned out quite differently if he’d left mining for a clean uniform and an office in the courthouse.

Mary would have rested easier if he’d won the election, too. Though Bud was earning more money now because he was work­ ing so many shifts, the paychecks were never enough to compensate for the danger. He’d already been hurt once, back in the twenties, while trying to link two coal cars. When he stepped between the cars to insert the pin that would hold them together, one car rolled. Chomping together like a nutcracker, the cars trapped and crushed his left leg. Bone snapped in two places. His buddies threw down their tools and rushed him to the hospital. The doctors examined the wound and talked about amputating Bud’s leg below the knee. For some reason, they decided to wait and see if it would heal in­ stead. They set it in a wooden trough weighed down with a bucket of sand, and he stayed still until the bones fused. When he could finally walk without crutches, he swayed a bit, because the injured leg had healed shorter and at a different angle than the healthy one. His gait reminded Bobby of John Wayne.

So many things could hurt a man underground. Falling rocks, fire, blasting powder. Even breathing was dangerous.

“Man, the air was foul today,” Bud had said more than once at the dinner table.

He and his union brothers didn’t push for cleaner air, though. It was wartime, and getting the coal out was the priority. How would it look if they beefed about their conditions when the kids in the armed forces were suffering so much more for the country? At least coal miners got to come home to lovely women like Mary every night.

Mary was a seventeen-year-old housewife when they met, though she’d never been married. She cooked and cleaned while her younger brother attended high school and her father mined coal. It wasn’t the life her mother had planned for her.

She’d been born in Czechoslovakia in 1905 and toddled onto American soil three years later. Her parents settled in northern New Jersey, where the smokestacks clouded out the sun. Her father worked on the docks and her mother took in ironing and cleaned houses, when she could breathe. When her asthma got too severe, she took herself to the doctor. He predicted she’d die if she stayed in New Jer­ sey. Go West, he said, where the air is still clear and dry.

Mary had been a city kid, shooting marbles on the sidewalks, jump­ ing rope double Dutch, and following the neighborhood organ grind­ er and his monkey around. The wild west was nothing like home. She was ten when her family got off a train in southern Montana and began to homestead 320 acres adjacent to an uncle’s land. Mary and her brother, Godfrey, went to school in town during the year, but in the summer they worked harder than children should to keep the farm going. They planted wheat and fence posts, hauled springwater for miles, burned sagebrush, and killed rattlesnakes. A rattler attacked Mary once and she remained unconscious for several days, only to awaken to see her mother working on her funeral shroud.

Besides running the ranch, their father worked at the local coal mine. Their mother stewed cottontail rabbits for dinner in their one-room house. Their land was in Crow Indian country, and Mary and Godfrey befriended an old Indian who herded sheep near their ranch. He let them ride his pony and view the world up close through his field glasses. Their mother trimmed the man’s hair and gave him eggs to take home.

At one time in her childhood, Mary’s life actually intersected with Bud’s. She and Godfrey always passed a big rock on their way to school. Their father had told them a legend about an old man who had stopped at the rock to rest during a February blizzard back in 1905 and had frozen to death. That summer, when the snow finally melted, a rancher found his body. He was lying with his legs crossed and his hands on his chest, as if he were just napping, and he still wore the coat, vest, striped pants, and fine shoes he’d tied on the day he died. The rancher and the local coroner found a watch, a pair of glasses, and seventy-five cents in silver in his pocket. They settled him into a box and buried him by the rock. A few months later, Bud’s father, Adam, heard about the mysterious corpse. He hadn’t seen his own father in a while, but since the old man tended to move a lot, he hadn’t been too worried. Now he contacted the coroner and helped him dig up the body. Sure enough, there lay his father, Thomas Wakenshaw.

It was a story Mary’s mother would have appreciated, but by the time Mary found out about the coincidence, her mother was long gone. She died when she was thirty-eight, shortly after her children had left the house for a trip into town. Mary, who was fifteen, was heading back home from her errand when she saw her father on a horse in the distance. He was riding toward her, and she could tell by how urgently he rode and how stiffly he sat in the saddle that she didn’t have a mother anymore. He was rushing to town to get the undertaker.

After the funeral, Mary’s father sold the farm and moved his teen­ agers to Bearcreek, where he’d be closer to the mine and where Mary would be able to find a future.

And there he was, sitting in the stands at a baseball game.

Bud Wakenshaw was nineteen when he glanced over at the girl he’d spend the rest of his life with. She’d grown up to be a petite brunette with twinkling eyes, high cheekbones, and a narrow but perfectly shaped smile. He had a job in the mine, as his father did, and spent his free time working at his parents’ ranch. He’d grown up around the ranch, the beloved only child of a happy couple.

His mother, Mag, had suffered more than one miscarriage and had given up on trying to bring a live baby into the world by herself. She and her husband, Adam, decided to adopt. But they were firm on one requirement: they wanted a girl. They arranged to meet two nuns from a Helena children’s home at a nearby train station and adopt a newborn girl from them. The nuns stepped off the train, one hold-ing a boy and one holding a girl. Mag insisted on taking the girl, but the nuns said she was already spoken for. Bud’s parents were about to leave, childless once again, when one of the nuns pulled a classic trick. Hold the baby while I use the bathroom, she asked Bud’s mother, and handed her the boy. Mag cradled that baby, looked into his soft eyes, and gave in to fate. By the time the nun returned, Mag realized she couldn’t let go.

They named the baby Robert, but everyone called him Bud. He grew into a quiet man who was strong in spirit and body, the perfect balance to Mary, who was as delicate as she was vivacious. They got married seven months after they met, at the Pollard Hotel, which was and still is the fanciest establishment in Carbon County. Visitors see the same broad center staircase when they walk through the main entrance, and look out at the street through the same tall, arched windows as the young couple did. Their wedding day coincided with Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day of 1923, so people believing in signs could have predicted that the marriage would be either a miracle or a joke. Bud wore a fine suit with a silk tie and combed his thick auburn hair back off his forehead. Mary teased and curled her bob, then styled it so one perfect S-shaped curl fell onto her fore­ head. She stepped into a dress with a bodice made of two layers of lace. After the kisses and cake, Bud and Mary honeymooned at his parents’ ranch, then moved into a hilltop house in Bearcreek. It had cold running water and an outhouse. Three months later, Mary was expecting.

It must have been so exciting, knitting booties and daydreaming about the baby who would be born right around their first wedding anniversary. By summer, Mary would be proudly pushing a pram all over town.

But the pain started too early. She was only seven months along and the contractions wouldn’t stop. The doctor was helpless; all he could do was catch the premature baby she delivered. It was a boy. Then two other boys, children she hadn’t even begun to dream about, descended into the world. The triplets were perfectly formed, with all their fingers and toes and tiny noses, but they were much too small to survive. She named one baby after Bud, one after her father and one after his father. Robert, Frank, and Adam lived for an hour and a half.

Her father built them a coffin that wasn’t much bigger than a cigar box. A friend draped silk handkerchiefs on top of the babies, and a horse-drawn sled pulled them through the snow from the house to the Bearcreek cemetery. Mary and Bud said their prayers over a small, white gravestone shaped like a pyramid. It was carved with the words no mother should ever have to see: Wakenshaw Babies.

Whenever things got bad, Mary told herself to keep pushing. So she pushed through her grief. A year later, Fannie was born. The little girl developed scarlatina and rheumatic fever as a child, but sur­ vived. Six years after that, Bobby arrived. Life settled down. Bud and Mary hosted potluck dinners, dressed up for dances, and attended all the school events, where Mary talked to everyone. She went to la­ dies’ club meetings and he went to union meetings. They camped by mountain lakes with other mining families in the summer. He played Santa Claus almost every December, passing out candy and fruit, courtesy of the union, to kids in the center of town.

Two weeks after her trip to California, Mary was home in Bearcreek waiting for a basketball game to begin. It was a Friday in February, and she was happy to be back to her routine. Fannie had gotten mar­ ried, kissed her husband good-bye like all those other young wives, and returned to business college in Billings, though she was spend­ ing the weekend at her parents’ house. Bobby, who’d stayed with his grandparents while his mother was away, was back in the nest, too. And she didn’t have to remind Bud to take care of himself anymore; she was there to do it for him.

It was the last normal day of Mary’s life.

None of her children played on the Bearcreek High School basket­ ball team, but that didn’t matter. Everyone in town went to the games, just as the adults attended the high school dances long after they’d