Last weeks mining disaster brought back memories for me. I may have told this story here before, but I’m going to tell in again. I graduated from College after Winter Quarter, having skipped two terms my senior year to do the European vagabond thing and come back to finish the following spring. My friend Bill had graduated on time and had been living up in the Twin Cities since. Bill was the son of a hard rock miner from Wallace Idaho in the Silver Valley of Idaho’s panhandle. Wallace at that time had the only stop light on I-90 from coast to coast. The Valley was so steep that it was the last place they’d managed to build the freeway. We decided that we would drive out and get high paying road construction jobs for the summer and then, well I don’t think we had any plan after that.
Wallace is quite a town. It’s main industry is silver mining, with a bit of logging thrown in. It’s on the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, know in those days as the Lead Creek by the locals. It was a nasty leaden color from the mine tailings that flowed into it. It had about fifteen hundred people and five very public whore houses with neon signs. Gambling was winked at in the bars as well. If you took 90 west to Kellog, the next valley, the landscape went from beautiful pine forest to a moonscape, no vegetation grew because of the pollution caused by the huge smelter there. Kellog had a suburb called Smelterville, practically in the shadow of the plant. The children of Smelterville had dangerously high levels of lead in their systems. The smelter closed down years ago and Bill tells me the valley has come back nicely. But at that time, when you drove through you would get a taste copper in your mouth, like you were sucking on a penny.
So we set off to make our fortunes in the West. After driving all night we arrived in St. Regis, Montana, just on the other side of lookout pass from Idaho. As we walked into the restaurant, Bill froze. There in a newspaper rack was the headline, “93 Miners trapped in Sunshine Mine fire.” Bill’s dad worked at a different mine, but he was on the fire rescue team, so Bill knew his dad was down in the burning mine. We had our breakfast and drove over the pass, through Mullen and into Wallace. Bill’s mom greeted us at the door in tears. His dad had gone the work the day before, worked all day and then went down into the Sunshine and had not come home. No one really knew anything. The first thing Bill did was have his mother cut his long hair, so as not to cause any extra stress when his dad got home.
Mr. Benson, also Bill, got home, but 91 men died. The Silver Valley is a tightly knit cluster of communities in an area where flat land is scarce and every little valley is a town. A pall was draped over that valley that summer, it felt strange to be an outsider, I was probably the only one around who hadn’t lost a friend or relative. But then again, it was the most memorable summer of my life and looking back the people had an amazing resilience, life went on and was vibrant. We never got the construction jobs. We hooked up with a crazy Italian contractor, learned to build a stone walls, crashed around the mountains in various states of altered consciousness, played a form of basketball that involved navigating a curb at about the eight foot mark and brick window sills protruding at thigh height on the baseline, Bill broke his ankle, the contractor fired me immediately, I got a job with Smokey the Bear and Bill went down in the mine. And we played the grooves off Working Man’s Dead.