My father was not an easy man to categorize when it came to politics. He was, like almost everybody else where I grew up, a registered Democrat. Republicans in New England and the middle Atlantic states were not fond of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland, and the immigrants were not fond of the Republicans, either. So if your town was built as ours was, by coal miners from Ireland, and was then populated by the transplantation of half of a village from Calabria, and then by Poles fleeing the miseries of war and rumors of war in central Europe, somebody named Scopelletti was going to be a Democrat, and the lone town Republican was going to be somebody named Fife—as was, in fact, the case. Our family friend, George Fife, would be nominated by the Republicans for mayor time and again, and time and again he would duly lose, 1,500 to 50, or thereabouts.
My father was under no illusions about the magnanimity of large businesses. He told me that the Delaware and Hudson Company owned plenty of property in our town, especially the old railroad bed that ran along the river, and that they had long since ceased to pay any taxes on it, but the town could not claim the land without embroiling itself in expensive lawsuits. Such was the civic responsibility of the Company. His own father worked for that company, and suffered a fractured neck in a mine explosion, for which the Company reimbursed him to the tune of exactly zero. My grandfather lived in sharp pain for the rest of his life, and, of course, was no longer deemed fit to swing an ax underground. He and his sons would do anything to earn a little money to put food on the table for the family of twelve. One of the things they did was to roll a wheelbarrow up near the mine entrances and the side-tracks of the railroad, to “pick coal,” that is, to pick up pieces of coal that had fallen from the cars, and then cart them back to town for sale at half price or so.
One of his favorite songs when I was a small boy was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s hit, “Sixteen Tons,” with its memorable refrain:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go –
I owe my soul to the Company Store.
He explained to me what the Company Store was, and how the Company would inveigle its workers into buying all their staples from the Store, which charged a premium for the convenience, and which allowed the workers to draw down their future pay to purchase things in advance. The Company Store, under the guise of assistance and community, reduced the miners to serfs. That was what my father said. He had no love for the so-called “robber barons,” who, he said, had the miners cut away the coal “pillars” that held the mines up, thus squeezing the veins dry, and then leaving abruptly—leaving towns impoverished and honeycombed underneath by empty spaces, and sometimes by subterranean fires that burned for decades, with an endless supply of oxygen and fuel. When I was a small boy, an entire neighborhood of the town of Carbondale had to be razed to the ground, so that the town could smother a part of the fire that had been burning underneath and contain the rest. I am told that that fire is still smoldering, fifty years later, but it no longer poses a threat.
For all that, my father cast a cold eye upon unions, too. Italians were well placed in the northeast to know that many of the unions were run by the mob. Among them was the harmless-sounding International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which ran many a sweatshop in our county, much to the resentment of women like my mother who worked in them, or who worked in shops that managed to keep the union out and so deliver—are you ready for this?—better net pay and better terms for the women. I, too, worked as a janitor in one of those shops for a couple of summers, and never met a single woman who wanted the union to come in, even though our being non-union meant that the owner had to scramble to find non-union suppliers for his cloth.
Samuel Francis used to say that modern government had the structure of a protection racket. My father would have understood the principle. He told me the story of a nearby farmer and dairy man, Lou Cure, whose farm he worked on for a while when he was a boy. My grandfather worked for Mr. Cure for a couple of years when I was little, and always left a cold quart bottle of chocolate milk on our porch, for me. Nobody ever complained about Cure’s milk. He kept his bottles cold overnight in deep wells on his property, which was blessed with natural springs. Then the State came and told him that he had to buy expensive stainless steel holding tanks for the milk, or else he must go out of business. By then he was an old man, so he shut down the works instead. My father told me that the big companies complained all day long about “regulation,” but most of it was just smoke. They had their lobbyists in the capital, and the lobbyists would effectively write the regulations. You spend a little money which you recoup ten times over by putting your smaller competitors out of business.
Unlike those Italians who hung pictures of Frankin D. Roosevelt on their walls next to pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, my father did not like the man, preferring Truman instead. He thought that MacArthur was right to want to cross the Yalu River, and that Truman was right to fire him for insubordination. He said that Social Security was an unfair tax, because it socked the ordinary worker, as it does to this day, and left the wealthy pretty much untouched. He sold life insurance, and so was skeptical about the ultimate solvency of the Social Security scheme. I think, too, that he saw that Social Security worked to distance the generations from one another. My father believed most firmly that, after your faith, your family came first. When Grandma grew senile and could not take care of herself, and when some of his siblings balked at having to care for her, my father said, in anger, that she wiped his [bottom] when he was a baby, and so who was he to refuse to do the same for her when she was old?
Nor was my father a cheerleader for the public school. He and my mother attended public schools, but they never for a moment wanted their children to go to them. Back then, our parochial school, with grades one through eight, educated about four hundred children in eight classrooms. The school was mainly staffed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, before they went off the orthodox charts into insanity and strife. So we saved the town hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and we contributed directly to the maintenance of our school and the hiring of a couple of lay teachers, and we paid property taxes to finance the public school to boot—but that public school was by no means so careful of its finances. My father believed that this was a form of double taxation. So he was in favor of tuition vouchers or some other kind of relief from property taxes, and talked about that when I was a boy. He was thus motivated by the same sense of justice that caused him to detest the Company Store. He would have some interesting things to say, I am sure, about regulatory schemes that put small schools at a severe disadvantage, which the large public schools do not suffer because they feed directly from the teats of the public sow.
My father had sympathy for the poor, because he and his friends were materially very poor when he was a boy, but he had no sympathy for the indulgent and self-destructive, as he had neither sympathy for, nor admiration of, the rich. He told me he was a Democrat because that was the party of “the little guy,” yet 1968 was the last time he voted for a Democrat for president (Hubert Humphrey). When it became clear, as the 1970s wore on, that you could hardly be a faithful Catholic and vote for a party that was ranging itself against the family, most notably but by no means solely in the matter of abortion, my father registered for the first time as a Republican.
There is no longer any party for “the little guy,” and my father, who passed away in 1991, might have seen why it is so. Unless you have a strong counterweight, such as the faith, or the bonds that tie men together within a community (bonds that I believe are not going to be forged outside of faith altogether), the rich and powerful are going to pursue ends that keep them and their kind rich and powerful, and that keep others from intruding upon their wealth and power. They are going to set up, as it were, colonizing schemes that achieve several ends at once. The schemes assuage the consciences of the rich and powerful. They may be looked upon as (and in obvious ways they are indeed) assistance to the poor. They make the poor dependent upon them. They keep the poor where they are. Who profits from the Company Store? The Company does.
We might here discuss all kinds of things that enervate (the word means to tear the sinews out) the poor, keeping down their practical chances of establishing strong and child-rich families whose most aggressive and risk-taking members might challenge the authority and dominance of their keepers. We might discuss those moves whereby you, rich and powerful, happily agree to sacrifice a couple of cultural and moral pawns, because you have them to spare, and make sure that the poor sacrifice them, too, who do not have them to spare. You sell them a cheap rope of liberty to tether or hang themselves withal. Every encouragement to license is like a beer sold to a thirsty miner at a Company bar. Every encouragement of resentment against those who succeed outside of the Company system is a force for unity in helplessness. Every move to assign blame for failure to someone from the outside helps to confirm and perpetuate the failure.
Who profits from the dismantling of the black family in the United States? Somebody does. Who profits from the collapse of the white working class family? Somebody does. I am not attributing evil motives to any individual. We do not need evil motives. All we need is self-satisfaction, inattentiveness, and insulation from the results of what we do or what we neglect to do.
The raison d’être of the Company Store is to grow the Company Store. That is the key. Therefore we should expect the Company Store to work to vitiate or eliminate threats to its continued authority, whether or not the people who run the Store see it that way. All things strong—faith and family foremost among them—are the enemy.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are miners and their families gathered around the company store and office in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky on September 12, 1946.