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The Appalachia Issue

Comings And Goings

I was out of school at 15 and went out at sea for six years. Then I came here because my brother worked in the mine.
November 1, 2006, 12:00am

was out of school at 15 and went out at sea for six years. Then I came here because my brother worked in the mine. In those days, all the workers lived in barracks. It was like the Wild West out here. There was a lot of poker and boozing.

Back then people were still getting sick from working in the mine. People from out of town have called it “The Death Mine,” but you wouldn’t hear that around the workers. In the 40s and 50s there were a lot of cases of black lung. That’s when your lungs go stiff and you suffocate. You’d see people here going around in wheelchairs because they couldn’t breath. And in ’68 one person died on Monday and one person died on Friday from accidents.

There were people from all over the place working here: Germans, Norwegians, Danes, and a lot of Finns. But there were never any problems with segregation or racism, like you hear about nowadays. Everybody who lived here had moved in from somewhere else. I remember this Austrian; he had his flying rings set up here. He had competed in two Olympics, and he had the rings hanging high up in a pine tree. That’s where he practiced.

And there was a Danish guy, Fynning, he worked in the mine but he had a professorship. He’d read too many books, so he moved up here and worked as a janitor. But he was completely clueless. He would go through a room cleaning it, singing to himself, and when he was done, the place would be completely empty. He’d just clear all the flat surfaces. He threw away everything, even new things that were going to be used. Anyways, Fynning and another Dane, Lil’ Rasmus, quit working here to move back to Copenhagen. Two summers ago, Lil’ Rasmus came to town with his wife. They visited me and I asked him what had happened to Fynning. “He is dead,” Rasmus told me. Fynning had been hit by a car in Copenhagen. See, he was slow, but out here he could walk around, talking to himself, strolling back and forth in the middle of the road. Everyone knew about him, so people just slowed down and drove around him. He could roam free all over the place. But when he got back in Copenhagen he must have still thought it was safe. He started wandering around in the roads there and it was, “Smack!” straight away.

BJÖRN JOHANSSON