Helen and Gust of Ludlow
I knocked upon the kitchen door,
My collar turned against the wind.
I waited `til the bolt was thrown,
A gray-haired woman let me in.
I asked about the interview.
She took my coat and offered tea
And as she put the kettle on
She said that she must speak to me.
“Please try to understand”, said
“ These mem'ries are a painful thing
And we must think of his poor health
As well as what you're gathering.”
She showed me to a parlor dim.
She motioned to a kitchen chair
That she'd set by the fireplace,
Beside the old man sitting there.
His eyes were dark as blackest coal,
His cheeks and temples etched with lines
That danced within the fire's glow
Like weathered cracks in timbered pines.
He held a poker to the flame,
A careful prod at mem'ry's pyre.
The hot red embers sparked and popped
As sullenly he stirred the fire.
“Oh, Gust, this is the writer lad
That's interested in the mines.”
I gazed into his ancient eyes
And saw the mien that pain enshrines.
I grasped his hand and found it strong,
I found it rough, I found it hard.
For just a moment of unease
I wavered under his regard.
I asked forgiveness for the hour,
I did my best to sound sincere.
Then Gust gave me a kindly nod
And softly said, “you're welcome here.”
He stared again into the coals.
Discretion bade me hold my tongue.
In resonance of rhythmic breath
I marked the rattle of black lung.
Ere long he told a tale of woe.
“We'd lost it all; out in the cold.
Oh-seven's when we sailed the sea,
And I had just turned eight years old.
“We'd heard about America--
The city streets were paved with gold!
We bought our seaboard passage with
The little left that could be sold.
“Instead of wealth we found the mines
With barbed wire fences all around
And men with pistols at their side
Patrolling in the coal compound.
“I worked the breakers for a year
And when I reached the age of nine
I got the job of trappin' air--
I ran the big doors in the mine.
“We bought our shoes with scrip I earned
For workin' my ten hours a day,
And by the time that I was twelve
They offered me a miner's pay.
“They paid us by the coal we mined,
They charged us for each miner's tool.
They charged us for the timberin' beams,
They charged us for the headlamp fuel.
“They charged a monthly doctor's fee,
But if ya ever broke a bone
The doctor showed up once a month
So you just set it on your own.
“They cheated at the tipple scale,
They cheated at the company store.
And any fool that dared complain
Would face a six-shot forty-four.
“They drove the union people out,
Or else they simply shot `em dead.
They owned the sheriff and the courts,
So not a thing was ever said.”
I noticed Gust was breathing hard,
I'd seen his lungs begin to tire.
I sipped the hot tea patiently
While Gust was dreaming by the fire.
Then bit by bit his eyes grew wide,
I swear that he'd forgotten me--
The old man struggled all alone
With some relentless memory.
“There was a strike...” his poker
Into the heart of glowing coals.
The burning gases flared and flamed
In chorus like tormented souls.
Suddenly he saw a ghost
Of fiery terror from the past,
His shoulders heaved with enmity,
His ancient heart was beating fast.
The grieving fell upon him hard,
His sobbing deep and uncontrolled
As if the nightmare came and passed,
The chimera from days of old.
Then Helen hurried to his side.
She turned and told me, “It's alright.
Please wait out in the kitchen `cause
Poor Gust has had another fright.”
Well, it was near an hour later.
She had put old Gust to bed,
And I was frightened and uncertain
Where his seizure might have led.
She said, “It comes from time to time--
Less often now, for what that's worth.
But he will have these tortured dreams
`Til they return him to the earth.
“My husband was fifteen years old
During the strike, so long ago.
He was among the band of Greeks
Defending miners at Ludlow.
“See, Louis Tikas was his friend
And Gust was giving him a hand.
My Gust believes he should have stood
With Tikas at his final stand.
“The miner's camp was on the plain,
The soldiers crept up on the hill.
Their orders were to break the strike
No matter who they had to kill.
“All day machine-guns swept the tents
And pinned the miner's fam'lies down.
They tried to save themselves from death
By digging burrows in the ground.
“But Louis Tikas warned them that
They must get out, they must retire
Because the soldiers soon would come
To set the Ludlow camp afire.
“So Gust would steal from tent to tent
Each time the gunfire would abate
To get the fam'lies on the move,
To get them to evacuate.
“Then Tikas stood his ground alone
When all the devil soldiers came.
Before the exodus was through
They set the Ludlow tents aflame.
“Their torches flared against the cloth
(They did not even check inside)
And in one tent two women and
Eleven frightened children died.
“They beat brave Tikas to the ground
Then fired bullets in his back.
Until his dying day my Gust
Will relive that depraved attack.
“He's haunted by the memory
Of heroes that he could not save,
And it was Gust that drove the dray
Collecting children for the grave.”
I left. I went alone that night
Where miners and their families died.
I searched for answers in the pits
Where helpless children tried to hide.
I raged at phantoms on the hill
Whence gunfire `cross the plain had swept,
And then before the monument
I knelt down on the ground and wept.