In the tall brown grasses found during the fall behind Uncle John’s darkly weathered barn wood tool shed sat his 1948 Cadillac ambulance. It hadn’t earned its due since 1951 when, while running smooth and fast, it gained a solemn respect. For the 50 years that followed, it sat in that one spot. Its final resting place.
With a blown engine, Uncle John bought it at auction in 1950, rebuilding it. It was September, ‘51 when it rolled out of the garage and onto West Frankfort’s Main Street situated in Franklin County, Illinois. The air was warm, windows down, eyes starring at the white polished Fleetwood ambulance with gleaming bright heavy chrome bumpers and trim.
With its large rear barn door and embedded glass window, it would haul fishing and camp gear. The heavy metal and black leather cot would keep him dry and warm on those cool, damp nights parked down Fire Road #12 where the twisty dirt and gravel lane ended at Waterman’s Creek.
On December, 21, 1951, at 7:40 PM a horrendous coal mine explosion quaked through the souls of his rural community when Orient Number 2, the country’s largest shaft mine deep in Southern Illinois buried 118 men. Around another half of those reported to have traveled down the 350 feet by elevator, and then further by train into the bowels of darkness, spreading twelve miles of earthen tunnels supported by thick timbers beneath the topsoil experienced a massive explosion with a roaring wind that filled the cavities with suffocating dust that led to the rescue call Uncle John received later that night.
The fury all around felt as if the community had been ignited by an outside invader. Uncle John, in his overalls, barn coat, and high green rubber boots flopping loosely at the top as he walked, drove through the fiery lit darkness toward the mine shaft site. Those that were able got there however they could. Along the way, he picked up a dozen men and women unsure of what was to come, harboring their fears of tragic endings, and misguided hopes and dreams, silent in voice, encased in shock but offering themselves as any neighbor would to another in need.
Clutching sheets, blankets, buckets, picks and shovels, the ambulance filled with fathers and grandfathers who have lived their lives quietly anticipating this moment. The large, white Cadillac bounced, and swerved as it careened along dirt and gravel snow covered farm roads that cut through the land dotted with wood-planked country houses lit up with blue, red, green and white Christmas strands, began to illuminate with their interior room and porch lights.
Trucks, and cars, tractors, and strong Amish plow horses began to funnel out onto the roads leading toward Orient Number 2. Children preparing for bed, full of Christmas anticipation, presents and Santa, dressed in flannel pajamas with prints of dogs, candy canes, cows, or trees huddled around their oldest sibling, who were now charged with looking after them as the adults headed toward the mine explosion.
The sound of the slapping, clanking steel tire chains that filled the interior of the ambulance was all that could be heard by those not willing to break the silence. Uncle John and his frozen-still passengers sat tightly on the floor with their tools stacked upon the cot.
Through the heater vents the smell of coal, burnt timbers, and smoke began to seep up into their nostrils caking their throats with an acrid taste. The explosion had fueled a fire, and that fire had fueled all that lie deep within the earth. Converging sirens from every direction drowned out familiar sounds.
The wet, and sloppy road began to churn into a slippery muddy slush as hundreds began to land upon the mine’s encampment. Triage tents were busily being erected as national guard troops with their green camouflage ambulances began to line up. Local hospital workers prepared to serve the injured and dying.
Uncle John parked along the line of other ambulances, opened the doors freeing his passengers, who stood stiffly together watching a heart-sinking spectacle of billowing smoke pour from the mine’s entrance filling hearts with a cold numbness just days before Christmas. (701 words)