Every One His Throne
For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north, sayeth the LORD; and they shall come, and they shall set every one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem ~ Jeremiah, 1:15
He was tired and tense. He stood at attention on the gray mud and scrabble of the small yard beside his company house. Laundry flapped on a line to his left. A narrow, dusty, hard-packed dirt road lay on his right bounded by railroad tracks that smelled like tar and electricity. On the other side of the tracks he could hear Dingess Run, now dirty and oily and foul, rushing beyond the half-dead vegetation along its bank. Above him, his wife and three young children huddled together, leaning forward against the wood-slat railing of the front porch; her arms circled all three sets of small shoulders in one embrace, hugging them close.
He was caked and smeared with dark coal dust, and still dressed in his heavy boots and work clothes, the soft cap with the carbide lamp attached to the front perched on his head. A metal lunch pail dangled from his right hand. He watched a knot of people as they approached him, walking, climbing up the gradually inclining road. He recognized only one or two of them; he could tell almost at once most of them were outsiders and not from Logan County or even West Virginia.
The visitors appeared to be moving from one two-story white-washed clapboard house to the next, conversing with the inhabitants. They seem to have started at the company store at the far end of Fort Branch, and were making their way up the hill. The miner wanted to back up, and run away. But he couldn’t be certain who these people were, and what they wanted. Jobs were disappearing, his family depended on the Fort Branch Coal Company, and he had to be careful.
He noted that one of the men surged ahead, towards him, as the intruders drew near; it was the pastor of the Stollings Community Church, who had turned his sanctuary into a relief center in association with the American Friends Service Committee. He twisted around briefly and raised his eyes, exchanged looks with his wife who didn’t look happy at all. He returned to face front and tried to look pleasant; he liked Pastor Peel, even if his wife felt awkward and self-conscious in the man’s presence.
“Bob, Bob Beaty,” Pastor Peel exclaimed, somewhat out of breath, as he reached the miner and extended a hand. He was dressed in a suit, vest, and tie; his brown Homberg looked sharp and new.
He nodded briefly and took the Pastor’s hand, shook it once. “It’s the end of a long day….” he started.
“Oh, don’t worry, our guests won’t stay long.” He reached out both arms like he was greeting all of them at once as the people came to a stop a few feet in front of Bob Beaty.
Beaty felt uncomfortable, like he was being studied, like he was less than human, and these days that was a feeling he was fed up with. He ground his teeth together to keep from saying something he would regret.
A woman in the center of the pack suddenly emerged, took a couple of steps, and came to a stop immediately before him. She was tall — almost an inch taller than he was. And she seemed old, almost dowdy, dressed in a longish, simple floral dress with three-quarter sleeves and a white collar. Her hair was fluffy light brown and gray, parted on the side in a stylish way. But her face was animated, full of emotion, and her expression kindly. Her eyes were clear blue and they peered into his as if he were the most important man in the world. “I am so sorry,” she said, and also extended a hand. “Please forgive me, I know it’s late,” she continued as he grasped her fingers in his grimy grip, let go. “I’ve been visiting coal camps throughout West Virginia, and Ohio, and I wanted to see this area, even if briefly.”
Pastor Peel was at their side, forming the point of a triangle, and he was fidgeting, his face blotchy and clammy. “For goodness sake’s, man, say something,” he said excitedly.
It seemed to Bob Beaty that Pastor Peel was both nervous and almost ecstatic at once.
“These are some of my friends from the Interior Department, the AFSC, and some journalists, including Lorena Hickock who has been my emissary to Appalachia. That dour looking gentleman there is one of my personal guards; pay him no attention.” Her voice was melodious, bubbling. It rang like a bell, but her intonation was proper, almost like she had an English accent.
“Yes, ma’am,” Bob Beaty said. He gestured back towards the porch. “That there is my wife, Marcie, and my young’uns. We really don’t .. I mean, we weren’t expecting … I mean … we don’t get people by here much….”
The tall woman laughed in a full, graceful way. “Well, I have no intention of keeping you Mr. Beaty. Please forgive me. Pastor Peel told me about your wood carving, though, and said you had constructed a complete likeness of a royal throne?”
Beaty blushed almost purple under his coating of coal grime. He glanced at the pastor. He gripped his lunch pail with a fist, his knuckles turning white. “Uh, ma’am, I don’t think you want to see that,” he finally said, his heart pounding with embarrassment.
“And why is that, Mr. Beaty?” she asked, gazing into his face, her own expression curious and interested.
“What Pastor Peel must’ve forgot to tell you, ma’am, is where I put it after I made it,” he said. He slid his attention to the pastor, who appeared to suddenly realize the social mistake he had made.
“And where is that, Mr. Beaty?” she asked.
“Um, in … in the outhouse, ma’am,” he answered, lowering his eyes and grimacing.
There was a moment of silence, then the tall lady roared with laughter, which caused the others in her party to do the same. Pastor Peel chuckled and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “I see,” the woman said. She dabbed at her eyes with one of her sleeves. “The throne is put to good use, then. We are all equal, Mr. Beaty, we are all human … we all have to use the ‘throne’ in the same way, kings and coal miners alike.”
“Why yes ma’am,” Beaty said, his tone rising a bit with surprise. He felt a warmth and affection for this woman all of a sudden. It was like she’d been his best friend for years. His mouth stretched into a smile, despite an attempt to quell any show of emotion. “Yes ma’am, I … that’s what I was thinkin’ … it was like, our family joke, but….” He noticed that two of the men in fancy suits and fedoras, back behind the journalists, were glaring at him. Company men, he thought, but for once he didn’t feel afraid.
“But, it’s not quite a joke either, is it,” the woman said. “I have made it my mission to see to it, you men have the right to unionize, to bargain collectively for safety and a better life. You deserve to earn a fair wage and a decent living, and to have safe working conditions. I have seen with my own eyes, the way you and your families have to labor and live. In some circles, Mr. Beaty, it is an unheard of thought, that workers deserve to live with the same dignity as kings. That your children deserve the same opportunities as the children of the rich and powerful men who own the coal companies. I believe, I know, this to be so, and so I am determined to do what I can to help you. ”
The words “Madam, madam!” cut through the air. Beaty didn’t see who’d spoken, but he guessed it was someone very uncomfortable with what this woman had just said. It was all he could do to keep himself calm, and not cheer this lady’s words. He suddenly felt concerned. “Ma’am,” he said urgently. “You best take care how you speak around here; that kind of talk can get you….”
“Bob!” Pastor Peel interrupted him. “Now, enough of that, son. Mrs. Roosevelt can say anything she wants to.”
“Who?” Beaty asked softly, his mind racing between suspicion and disbelief. He noticed that Marcie, his daughters and son had joined him and were at his side.
“Mrs. Roosevelt, ma’am,” Marcie said, curtsying briefly in her grubby cotton dress and ill-fitting apron, “we’re so pleased to meet you! These’re my young’uns, Tom, Sara, and Ruby. Babies, this is the President Roosevelt’s wife…!”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s blue eyes brightened like stars as she bent slightly and touched each of the children, stroking their hair. “I have several of my own,” she said. “You three should be very proud of your father,” she added. “He’s a good man and a wise man.”
Bob Beaty’s mouth came open and he felt frozen in place, unable to form a word. “I am … I am … greatly honored ma’am,” he finally managed. “I didn’t recognize you….”
“Mrs. R. it’s getting late and we need to return to the cars,” one of the body guards in her party called.
Eleanor Roosevelt touched at her hair but it was a gesture of impatience and not one of vanity. “Yes,” she said without turning. She tilted her head slightly and smiled at Bob Beaty and his wife, who was now pressed against her husband, tears oozing over her cheeks. “I know it has been so hard,” she said to them. “I know that those with the money and power do not want to give those things up. That is why my husband, the president, is offering this country a New Deal. We are going to change this nation. We are going to create a workers’ democracy….”
“Eleanor….” one of the female reporters said. She was a stocky, shorter woman in a blue skirt, jacket and blouse and comfortable shoes.
“Yes, my dear,” Mrs. Roosevelt answered with a light-hearted tone. “Let us leave these good people alone! But rest assured, I will return to Washington and I will tell the president everything that I’ve seen and heard.”
She appeared to be speaking to her entourage, but Bob Beaty knew Mrs. Roosevelt was talking to him. He and his family remained rooted — his children lifting their chins and watching their parents’ faces — as the cloud of people surrounded the first lady once more. Mrs. Roosevelt and her companions turned, and began descending, moving along the road towards the center of town.
Pastor Peel started to follow but abruptly spun back, leaned towards Beaty, and said in a strong, hiss-like whisper, “We shall talk about this later!” And he took off trotting in an attempt to catch up with the first lady’s group.
“Are we dreaming?” Bob Beaty asked his wife as she circled his waist with an arm. A buzz of excitement fluttered in his chest. He didn’t feel hopeful. He hated hope and wishes and begging and waiting like a child expecting God to give him a Christmas present. He felt empowered. As if the true nature of America, the destiny of her people and their children, had existed all along, covered up and perverted by the corruption of the rich and greedy, but now revealed.
“Do you think Fort Branch Coal will hear talk about this?” Marcie asked. She watched as her children pulled away from her for a moment and started to run and tag each other, creating an instant game, their bare feet and legs smudged with mud and gritty dust. “What’re we gonna do, Bobby, if you ain’t got no job?”
“Maybe it won’t be just me, no more, Marcie,” he said, and sighed deeply. He was suddenly exhausted, and all he wanted was to wash up, eat dinner, and go to bed. “We’ve got a whole lot to think about, and a lot to do.”