Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sibling Assignment #63: Silver Valley Voices

Silver Valley Girl assigned this week's sibling assignment and it's pretty straightforward:

What is it about telling people you were born and raised in Kellogg that gives you a sense of pride?

InlandEmpireGirl's post remembering the good times is here. Silver Valley Girl's will be coming before long.

Kellogg and the Silver Valley has dominated my instruction the last two class meetings in the American Working Class Literature/Research Writing course I help teach.

Wednesday I read a paper I wrote about coming to need the poetry of Richard Hugo as a way of sorting out what I experienced growing up in Kellogg. Today I showed the film "You Are My Sunshine" which unfolds the story of the 1972 Sunshine Mine Fire with interviews with survivors of the fire.

I can hear myself speaking with pride in my voice as I talk about being from Kellogg, even as many of the things I talk about, the danger, death, pollution, disasters, and other dark things, color my stories and insights.

Today, I've been haunted by "You Are My Sunshine". I've watched the film at least ten times and each time the way the miners, and some others, talk about the mine fire unsettles me. On a day to day basis, I work with highly articulate, highly educated fellow instructors. Regularly, I hear polished speech, advanced vocabulary, conversation that is stimulating and genuine.

What unsettles me is that the voices of the miners are the voices I listened to all through my youth and that I slowly left behind after I was nearly killed in the Zinc Plant and as I pursued college degrees.

Today I was proud to know that the essence of my being is rooted in the men's voices of the Silver Valley.

How can I describe those voices? How can I describe the emotion that wells up inside as I hear these men speak?

Here's the best I can do.

My experience working in the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant was that I was in the midst something larger than I could understand and that had the power to injure, or even kill me, at any moment. And I wasn't underground. I've never worked underground.

My sense, though, when I read stories and books about mining and as I listen to miners speak in person or on film, is that to go into a mine is to enter into the most powerful of all natural environments. It is going into the heart of gravity. The earth is shifting, buckling. Men are in tunnels and gravity is always pulling down. That means nature's force's inclination is to pull down the roofs above the miners. Rocks burst. The hard rock is stubborn and must be blown loose with explosives and powerful drills.

Moreover, going into the depth of nature is to tunnel into heat. With technological genius, the minding industry has devised ventilation systems to combat the heat, but miners often work beyond the reach of these systems.

The miners' voices in "You Are My Sunshine", as well as the deeply lined looks on their faces, were colored by awe, by trying to talk about an incomprehensible fire in a work place defined by natural forces always just beyond human control.

Their voices were proud without being in the least bit haughty; they were courageous without being defiant. Their voices spoke of expertise. They knew the mine. At the same time, they spoke of things that were so far beyond understanding that there was bewilderment, a kind of humility, a respect. Sometimes their sentences were jumbled; often they were searching for how to say what they had experienced, not out of a lack of intelligence, but because when it comes to talking about men being killed in a mine, there really isn't polished language for it.

What I'm trying to say is that I could always hear this tone in the voices I grew up with. I didn't understand it at the time, but as I remember hearing the men in my life talk, I now believe that the mine or the plant or the smelter or the phosphoric acid plant was always in their voices.

I am proud of these voices I grew up with and as I grow older I understand more deeply all the time that we all live in a world beyond our comprehension, and that when I can hear my own voice colored by this humbling fact, I realize I came by this knowledge and my voice very honestly.

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