The wail of that great steam engine as it rounded the mountain toward our little mining camp was magical and mystical. It came to take away the coal, and sometimes, almost always, a little part of our lives. Our parents worked hard to mine that coal and sometimes it killed 'em. Roof falls, explosions, black lung, general accidents and a lot of drinking. Not that coal mining is necessarily bad; it's what the Wise County mountains have to offer, and people have to make a living.
But good things happen sometimes too. Like a lot of young-uns back in the 50's, we wanted to play baseball, but we only one ball and a cracked bat that must have had two rolls of tape holding it together, but it was the beginning of a great summer. There were a half-dozen of us boys: my brother and I, Bonnie Don, Little Jimmy, Hungry Fagan, a few others, and on weekends, we had enough for a six-man team on each side. It didn't matter, though, because nobody could hit the ball past second base, and when somebody did, it generally went into the creek anyway.
Us boys had worked hard making that baseball diamond next to the railroad tracks. We cut down brush and saplings and bushes, rolled rocks out of the way and scratched out base lines, batter's boxes, and even shoveled up a bit of dirt for a pitcher's mound. It was hot work in the spring sun and maybe we just thought we worked hard, but the result, just the same, was a functional baseball field where we could bat around some balls and pretend we were in the big leagues like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. The railroad must not have minded that we had build a baseball diamond right on their property, next to the tracks. Nobody fussed at us.
There was a sharp turn on the mountain just as the tracks crossed the bridge over the creek and the engineer would have to slow down for it. He'd go real slow and blow the whistle of that great steam engine. We'd look for him every Saturday, ten o'clock, and he'd wave as the train crossed the bridge. He was watching the day Little Jimmy threw a pitch to Hungry. Well, Hungry took a swipe at that ball and the crack of that bat sounded just like the crack of doom. And it was, too. Hungry just stood here, holding the two pieces of the bat, the one dangling from the other, held there by all that tape. I reckon we must have looked pretty down-hearted.
There wasn't any way we could buy a new bat. All of our dads were coal miners and didn't make much money. Of course, that didn't stop us from trying. We begged and pleaded just the way boys will do when something's mighty important, but nobody's dad could afford to buys us a bat. We even tried putting our allowances together, but it wasn't enough. Then somebody found an old piece of pipe. About a foot too long. More black tape for a handle. But oh, to hit that ball! you talk about hurt! But it was all we had.
We resolved to whittle one out. By the next Saturday, Bonnie Don and Little Jimmy had fashioned a crude sort of stick that they proudly called a bat, and not wanting to disappoint them, we took it down to the field. Well, it sort of worked all right, if you hit the ball with the flat side instead of on the corner, so we proceeded with our game. We heard the whistle way down the track, maybe a mile off, but it just kept on, the way it does in some of the country music songs you hear.
We all stood there wondering, and watched that black behemoth come down the tracks, puffing and snorting and blowing out smoke. When he got abreast of the ball field, the engineer stopped the train, reached back into the cab, and threw out a brand new Louisville Slugger.