Of my mother’s four brothers, my Uncle George was the youngest and closer to me in age than any of the others. Perhaps that’s, in part, why he was my favorite. In fact, when I was living in England as a young boy, George was much like the older brother I never had.
He was kind, loving and had as good a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known. And for many years of his life, he was a coal miner, working in the “pit” as it was called.
I can still recall him coming home from work with his entire face tattooed with coal dust and his clothes completely colorless except for the black soot that looked like they had been washed with.
At a young age I learned coal mining was not for me. It was dirty, dark and dangerous. Even my Uncle George would caution me — “Whatever you do, Mick (the name everyone in my English family called me), don’t ever work in the pit.”
There’s a true story I heard of a minister, the Reverend Alexander Caseby, who for 30 years until he retired in the 1970’s, kept an old miner’s lamp on the corner of his desk. For him, it was a proud link to the day when he first began his career as a pastor.
Caseby was living in a tiny mining village. One afternoon there was a knock on the manse door. It was Bob McFarlane, a long-time miner at the Valleyfield Colliery.
McFarlane’s face was grave and the minister was surprised by his request. “Reverend Caseby”, he said forcefully, “if anything should happen to me tonight, I’d like ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ played at my funeral.”
He then went on to explain that he had had a premonition of disaster and despite the preacher’s reassurances, nothing seemed to shake McFarlane’s feelings.
That very night Reverend Caseby was roused from his sleep by an urgent message from the mine. There had been a terrible explosion and more than 30 miners had been killed. The owner of the mine handed the minister a list of names of those who had perished and asked if he would read them to the gathering crowd. Staring at the list, the name on the top was Bob McFarlane.
In the days that followed this tragic event, no one could have done more for the families of the miners who died than Reverend Caseby. And they never forgot his caring and kindness. A couple of years later when he left the Parish, the villagers presented him with a genuine miner’s lamp that had been burnished until it gleamed. It always cast a quiet, soft glow in the minister’s study and was forever a treasured reminder of the bravery of those miners and their families.
When I think of all of us who once warmed ourselves near a hot coal stove or coal fireplace, I can’t help to remember people like my Uncle George who labored in those cold, wet and perilous passageways far beneath the earth’s surface.