My grandfather, Mike Tanari, taught me many things, fishing with a cane pole and bobber, how to plant a garden, and how to make do. To say he was frugal was an understatement. One snowy day he showed me how to catch rabbits by hand to save the cost of shotgun shells. He took four rabbits that day and never fired a shot. But most all he taught me his life story. It is the most important lesson he ever shared with me.
Born in 1899, he went to work at Ladd’s Whitebreast Coal mine in 1909 at the age of 10 ½. He remembered the day the Cherry Mine burned. After finishing his 12 hour shift he could see the pall of smoke as it darkened the sky 3 miles to the north as he walked home. He said he was tired and all he could think about was the next day’s work.
Although he worked the mines for 36 years he never spoke much of those days. But one day I met a man that knew Grandpa from his work in the Marquette mine which was located on the bottom road between Depue and Spring Valley. I mentioned his name to Grandpa later that week at supper, and for the only time in his life did I see his face flush with anger. The man was the son of the mine boss at Marquette. Grandpa related that one spring day the waters of the Illinois River were nearing the top of the dike built around the shaft of the mine. Grandpa and the rest of the shift workers refused to enter the cage and descend for fear of being trapped and drowned below the surface. The mine boss addressed the milling miners and told them that any man that did not complete his shift would be fired and his name “blacklisted,” so that he could never work in another mine in Northern Illinois again. I asked Grandpa what he did. The anger left his face as he looked down at the dinner table and said in a soft voice, “Mike, mining was the only thing I knew. We all went down. It was the longest day of my life.” He was but 15 years of age when this happened, already a veteran of 5 years in the pit. Sixty years after the fact, he felt still the sting and the shame of that day. We never spoke of it again.
In later years Grandpa was the secretary of the Miner’s Local Labor Union. I still have the ledger books he kept. Every penny accounted for in careful pencil strokes. But those numbers tell little of the story of the men that pooled their resources to better the conditions in which they toiled. They reflect nothing of the sacrifice and loss that enriches our lives’ today. But they are invaluable to me. I would not part with them for any price.
Grandpa has been gone now for almost thirty years and yet there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. He was not a wistful dreamer that talked of the “good ole days.” He always thought our best days were in front of us and he was careful to remind me that I lived in the best of times. As Labor Day approaches I hope and pray the things he and countless others endured are not forsaken, and never forgotten.
mike kohr 9/2011