Coal Mines, Potato Salad, and Damn Good People

By Burns Strider 4-09-2010

The unfolding coal mine disaster in West Virginia has me constantly checking the news for updates on the plight of our fellow Americans who are victims of this latest tragedy.

It seems that every few years we find ourselves going through the same motions, experiencing the same feelings and faced with the same thoughts. The lens of the television camera and pen of the reporter transports us to a poor community living out the American experience tied together in faith, family, patriotism, and the wages of coal.

I also think of potato salad.

Several years ago I found myself needing to know about a person from back home in Mississippi. I didn't know this guy; didn't even recognize his family name. So, I emailed a friend and asked if he knew this person. The response came:

"He's a fine fella from damn good people. The kinda folks who bring potato salad to your house when mamma dies."

I smiled knowing exactly what he meant.

So many times, growing up and in recent years, I've departed the freshly dug graveside of a family member or friend out in the edge of Grenada and Tallahatchie Counties and returned to the church or a home, where all in the community would gather. With Dixie cups of iced tea in hand we visit and hold our paper plates awaiting our turn for the fried chicken and potato salad some precious aunt (such a title doesn't mean she is actually kin) with tender hands prepared for the faces she knows so well.

We bury our own. And we do it with love, care, God, and each other. We do it as a community, an American community.

Coal mines seem to have a way to make this happen too soon for too many. Is there nothing worse than a father or mother burying a son or daughter? The tragedy we watch, like voyeurs, becomes some kind of cultural dispatch from a world of trailers, hillbillies, and Dollar Tree dime stores, usually nothing more than a punch line to jokes in NW DC, Manhattan's Upper Eastside or the weekend homes of Malibu.

But, for a moment, we join in a tragedy. We see the families, the community. We feel the pain of their loss and taste the salt of their tears.

I always pray these are teachable moments, reminders if you will, for us in America's other places. Real America is here, there, everywhere. Of all the communities in all the rural, suburban and urban places we ultimately make one American community. And if tragedy can remind us of that, then let it.

This particular tragedy took place at the Upper Big Branch coal mine owned by Massey Energy. This company's history of negligence is noted. In fact, Upper Big Branch has been cited for problems such as failing to properly vent methane gas. Officials say this may be what caused the current deaths.

We should do something about this right here in Washington, on Wall Street, wherever it's in our power. Because we are one American community and community does just that -- it takes care of everyone.

Yesterday's New York Times carried an op-ed by Denise Giardina of West Virginia. You should read it. This is how she ended her thoughts:

In the area around the Upper Big Branch, families of the dead will gather in churches and their neighbors will come to pray with them. They will go home, and the same neighbors will show up bearing platters of fried chicken and potato salad and cakes. The funeral homes will be jammed, the mourners in their best suits and ties and Sunday dresses.

I think I'm going to have some potato salad because those folks who died come from damn good people.

Burns Strider is a founding partner of the Eleison Group.

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