Often during Mom's final few years here on earth, she talked about her upcoming death and final judgment in front of St. Peter as "Going to the Big Office." She never had any apprehension or fear of this "office"...it was just her way of rationalizing something we all must eventually face. She never went into details about this office...where it was and what she expected. My usual response to this comment was, "Well you already know your way around the Big Office."
In the 1950's, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company was reaching the end of the life it knew for over a century. In that time the name had changed to the Panther Valley Coal Co. and then the Coaldale Coal Co., but there was no way to escape the inevitable..the reign of "King Coal" was gone and last-minute changes only slightly delayed its death. The economy of the valley was in peril as businesses and organizations from Nesquehoning to Tamaqua tried to lure new industry into the area. There was an abundance of labor available and the various towns were willing to accommodate the needs of any new business willing to locate there. There were a few that came in but still not enough to stop the migration of families from Panther Valley.
Steve Sofsky married my aunt Helen Panchura around 1940. Uncle Steve's family was originally from Lansford, where Steve’s parents, Peter and Annie, and many of his brothers and sisters worked in the family dry goods store on West Ridge St. The Great Depression took its toll on the Sofsky business and eventually the parents moved to Coaldale, where they bought a small strip of six attached houses at the corner of 2nd and Water Sts. Steve's parents lived in the end unit, while Steve and Helen were next to them. Helen and my mother, Mary opened the Panchura Dress Shop in the front part of this second house. My uncle Mike "Spongie" Panchura and his wife Olga also lived in that row along with their only child Mike "Punch" Panchura. Since both Punch and I were “only children” we grew up more as brothers than cousins.
Steve was a painter who worked for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. (LC&N) for years until his job was phased out. Most of the time that I knew him as a young boy, he was like Fred Mertz from the I Love Lucy television series. He was always working on some project in that small complex of houses. Often the work entailed painting and Steve recruited Punch and me as his 'team'.
"You gotta learn how to stir that paint without making a mess. Dont just dunk that brush into the' can. Slap the brush against the side of the can before you paint. Cut in first! Where's your rag? Always keep a rag in your back pocket. Can't you two 'folly' a straight line? Clean up that mess before it dries!"
Once, in an attempt to get me out of his hair for awhile, Uncle Steve gave me a large can of old, used, rusted, bent nails. (Why would an otherwise rational person have a can of these nails?) He took me out to the curb on the sidewalk...handed me a hammer...a small cup of kerosene and a rag (he always made sure I had a rag) and told me to use the hammer to straighten out the bent nails and then wipe them with the kerosene to clean off the rust. At the time I couldn’t decide if this was going to be fun or some sort of punishment. Growing up in the Depression gave many a certain mindset on saving money wherever possible and I know Steve was that type. In his cellar were collections of wood, metal, glass that someday might be needed. Also were jar upon jar of rusted nails, screws, nuts, and bolts. The job continued for about an hour until Aunt Helen saw what I was doing...yelled at Steve for coming up with the idea...and then told me to come inside for a big slice of her just-baked, wonderful home-made cake with real butter icing.
Steve and Helen never had any children, but Punch and I more than made up for that. We were in that house at least several times a week. Either we were up front in the dress shop playing around with the cash register and the tubes of Playtex girdles or we were painting and banging out bent nails. I suspect that at times Steve was glad we weren’t his sons because at least he knew that soon we would be gone to our own homes.
Getting back to the "Big Office",
I'm not really sure why Mom came up with that euphemism for death. Few, if any, actual miners or laborers in the mines were called to the Big Office for meetings and/or discipline matters. Most miners' issues were resolved right there at the colliery with the foreman making decisions. I suppose if there was a really serious issue to be resolved, it might be taken up with the men in charge, but I never heard of that happening. I told Mom she knew her way around that place because of Steve Sofsky...and that's the purpose of this short sidebar on Steve.
Uncle Steve eventually landed the job as night custodian of the building shown at the beginning of this chapter. It was the late 1950's and Steve was to report every evening after the building emptied to begin the nightly routine of cleanup and maintenance. Steve was then in his early 50’s and this job was more than even a man in his 20's could handle alone for very long. There were 3 main floors, with a passageway connecting both main units. There was also a full basement, also connected underground. On some days there wasn't a major amount of work to be done…typically just emptying the trash and cleaning/restocking the restrooms, especially during the warmer months. Friday, however was mop-the-floors day. Since we didn't have school the next day, Punch and I, along with Mom and Helen, drove up the back road to Lansford along Panther Creek and just past the Hauto train tunnel. A quick left turn over the bridge and the railroad track brought us to the base of the road to Edgemont Lodge…the place where all the LC&N big shots met for food, drinks and cigars. In front of us was the Big Office and a very long Friday evening ahead.
The building was totally destroyed by fire in 1975 and I seriously doubt that there is anybody alive now that knew that building as well as Punch and I. I mentioned this to Punch about awhile ago and he reminded me that then president of the company Evan Evans’ son was still very much alive. Granted, he certainly spent time in and around his father’s office area, but I doubt that he ever got to know many of the then-abandoned parts of the building.
He certainly didn't spend the time in the basement that we did. If warm weekday evenings in the middle of the week were the easiest times for working there; then the absolute worst time was a Friday in the middle of a very cold winter. Along with the usual mop-up day, there were those three noisy, hissing, fire-breathing monsters in the basement...known as furnaces 1, 2, & 3. Depending on just how cold it was, we could bet that anywhere from one to all three of them were lit up and waiting to be cleaned and fed. They were called "automatic stokers" but that certainly didn't mean "Set it....and Forget it". Coal (anthracite, naturally) was automatically fed into the furnace via a long 3-inch pipe with a worm-drive screw inside. The tube began inside a huge coal bin with 3 brick containers where the coal was added. When the thermostat called for more heat, the screw drive would turn and feed coal into the fire box. Below the fire box was an automatic raking device which would remove the burnt coal cinders into a pit below the furnace. The whole system was steam-generated heat, which whistled, clanked, and banged like an old steam locomotive starting up. Walking down into that basement on a cold winter night felt like walking into Hell itself with all that fire and noise. Earlier I referred to the furnace room at St. Mary's School as "hell". It pales in comparison to this furnace room. A scene from the movie Titanic has the two lead characters running through the engine room of the ship. The next time you watch the movie, look closely at the ship’s boilers and the men tending them…you’ll see what I mean.
First the monster had to be fed the coal. Each container held about a half ton of coal and it was our job to pull up the knee-high gumboots and jump into that 20-ton coal bin with our coal shovels to top off the feed containers. God help us if the container goes dry because restarting the dead furnace took hours. What goes in eventually comes out as burnt cinders which are dumped into a pit under the fire box. In each pit is a large galvanized tub sitting on a 3-wheeled dolly with a steel handle extending out a few feet. The job involved opening a 2-foot by 4-foot steel trap door in front of the furnace and pulling out the dolly/tub full of cinders. They then had to be carried to another part of the basement and placed for eventual pickup. It took both Punch and me together to lift the tub and carry it away. An empty tub back onto the dolly and back into the pit readied it for another day’s cycle. A few times we had forgotten to empty the pit and paid for it the next day. Open the pit and find it overflowing with enough cinders for 2 tubs. It took a lot of shoveling to get it cleaned out.
The basement was also the place where all the collected trash wound up and where all the janitorial supplies were kept. Of course, the building had no elevator...only 2 sets of stairs...one on each section of the building. When you turn loose a couple of 12-year old boys in a building like that each night, expect them to find other things to do besides sticking to their assignments. Evan "Evie" Evans was the man in charge, whose office was off from the main reception/secretarial area on the second floor. It was, of course, the best looking room in the building. On his massive oak desk, Evie had a very large, flat, polished slab of anthracite about 2 inches thick. It was adorned with the company's "Old Company's Lehigh" bull's-eye logo and "Evan Evans - President" engraved on it. We liked to sit in his big leather chair and pretend to bark out orders to the miners. Evie enjoyed a good cigar and a good wad of chew...thus his office smelled of stale cigar smoke and he had a brass spittoon next to his chair. We told Steve we wouldn't clean the spittoon. Evans was a hometown boy who had worked his way up the ladder from his early days as a water boy. The miners generally respected his claim to be one of them. He also spearheaded community projects such as the construction of the swimming pool between Coaldale and Lansford. It is still in operation every summer.
We also had fun in some of the other offices and workrooms. I found one desk where the owner kept a collection of those little viewers you found for sale at carnivals or at Atlantic City souvenir stands. Hold it up to the light to see a picture...push the button to advance it to the next. The pictures were what you would have seen in Playboy magazine back then. The type of picture which would hardly qualify a current movie for an "R" rating,,,but for a young boy starting to have the hormones kick in...it made the job almost enjoyable. I also was attracted to the fancy business machines they had for handling various accounts. Some of them were as big as a desktop and looked like a typewriter on steroids. Once, I flipped the switch on one of these beasts and punched a few keys. It suddenly came to life with all sorts of clicking and banging noises and a typewriter sort of carriage on top that began zipping back and forth, while number dials began to spin. I pulled the plug and ran. I spent the following day waiting for Evie to call me to the Big Office to explain myself.
A highlight of every evening came when Uncle Steve gave Punch and I a nickel each and we ran off to the Coca Cola vending machine on the second floor. It was a 6-foot tall monster painted bright red and bearing the traditional "Cola-Cola" white script lettering. It was a refrigerated unit but that was the only electrical part of the operating system. Drop your nickel in the slot and push down hard on the handle. That released the gate that was holding a 6 ½ ounce bottle of cold refreshment contained in the traditionally shaped pale green bottle. A bottle opener was part of the machine (no twist-cap bottles back then) and a wire rack on the side of the machine is where you were expected to place the empties. We usually hit that machine just after working up a sweat shoveling the coal. It also helped wash down the coal dust in our throats. I sometimes wonder if we would qualify for "black lung" benefit checks from the government for this work.
At about this time, I also began to discover that girls weren.t as bad to be around as they use to be. The VFW Ladies' Auxiliary began to sponsor dances for 6th through 8th grade kids. They figured it would give us something to look forward to each week but without the older teens already in high school. The dances were in the VFW hall every Friday starting at about 6pm…the absolute worst night of the week when it came to tending to the Big Office. Naturally I complained a bit to Mom about having to go there when all my friends were going to the dance. She occasionally allowed me to go to the dance, but mostly Friday night was work night. Of course now I realize just how much Steve and Helen depended on our help to get through a difficult economic time. There would always be other dances and social events to attend, but for Uncle Steve it was a matter of being able to keep his job. Uncle Steve died in 1983, but still...any time I stuff a rag into my back pocket while working on some job...I crack a little smile as I remember Steve.