An apple for Hannah: A Christmas story from the coal fields
Miners with their mules. Like the miners, the only time the mules -- often worked to death -- got any rest was when the workers, unable to bear conditions any longer, walked out on strike. Library of Congress

Frank Novich was enrolled in the 5th grade at the Catholic school in Shamokin, Pennsylvania and was instructed by his teacher, a priest, to memorize and recite the catechism all other children were assigned to memorize. Frank, already rebellious at 11 years of age, refused. The priest smacked Frank across the knuckles with a ruler. Frank stood up, picked up his books and walked out of the school. That was the end of Frank’s formal education but the beginning of his learning in the “university of hard knocks.”

I heard Frank tell this story when I was commuting to New York from Baltimore to edit the People’s Weekly World in the 1990s. He was the elevator operator in the building that housed the PWW and overheard me say while I was riding up to my office that I needed a place to sleep the four nights each week while I was in New York.

Frank Novich in front of his home in the 1980’s when he worked at the People’s World office building in New York. Tim Wheeler

Frank invited me to sleep on a narrow monk-like bed in his living room. His apartment was in the Penn South co-op about four blocks from my office in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. The co-op had been constructed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to provide affordable housing in one of the most overpriced housing markets in the nation. Frank’s offer was a godsend for me. His place was my rent-free “home-away-from-home” for eleven years and it gave Frank many hours to tell me his life story.

His father was an anthracite coal miner and his mother worked as a spinner in the local silk mill in Shamokin. This took place sometime before 1920. The Novich family had emigrated from Poland in the distant past. Since they had been coal miners, they moved to central Pennsylvania seeking work in the anthracite mines. They settled in the town of Shamokin, inhabited by many other Polish immigrants. They were staunch members of the United Mine Workers, followers of union president, John Mitchell, who led them in the Great Anthracite Strike of 1902 broken by President Teddy Roosevelt.

Frank was still too young to work in the coal mines, even in those days when child labor was still legal and children would toil in the mines and mills while the owners played on the golf links.

His mother took her son to work one day and succeeded in getting him a job twelve hours each day in the silk mill. He was a “go-fer,” running errands to help keep the mill humming. He toiled at that job for a couple of years but he hated it. He was big for his age, and mature. He pleaded with his father to get him a job in the mines. Finally, his father relented and again, Frank tagged along behind his father to the mine portal one morning.

They walked up to the mine boss. Frank’s dad asked the boss if there was a job Frank could do.

“How old are you, son?” the mine boss asked. Frank turned red in the face.

But he and his father had anticipated this question and had practiced Frank’s answer.

“I just turned 15,” he lied.

“How would you like a job as a mule skinner? All you have to do is drive a mule with loaded coal cars up out of the mine.”

Frank was hired. He was sent deep into the anthracite mine before dawn each morning together with a mule so anonymous she did not even have a name. No other job he ever worked in his sixty years as a worker would ever equal the fear that gripped him in the first few days, putting on his miner’s helmet with the lamp that cast a feeble beam of light into the pitch darkness. A cold damp chilled him to the bone as he trudged down the narrow gauge tracks into the mine. He was grateful that the jenny mule was plodding beside him seemingly indifferent to the fear that gripped him. From that first day he talked to the mule as if she understood every word he spoke. Just hearing the sound of his own voice and the occasional purring sound she made with her lips, or her snort, a shake of her head, reassured him that all was well a half mile underground.

His job was to retrieve the mule from the stable at the mine surface, harness her, and lead her down to the mine portal and on into the mine, walking down the narrow tracks to the chute where the coal was loaded into the coal shuttle car. Frank was shown how to open the chute to let the coal rumble down and fill the car, how to hook the tugs to the single-tree, clear the reins up over the mule’s back.

He would flick the reins against her rump and say “giddy-yap” and the mule would lean into the harness. The wheels would slowly turn and the loaded coal car, all 16 tons, would roll up the slope toward the surface.

When they emerged from the mine, the tracks reached out over a trestle. Frank drove the mule—and the coal car—out that trestle. He pulled a lever and the coal car emptied the load, with a loud rumble into a mountain of anthracite below. Then he drove the mule in a circular roundabout back down into the mine to get another load.

He unhooked the mule and led her around to the other end of the coal car and hooked her up to the single-tree. They repeated this routine nine, ten, sometimes eleven times per shift, tiring for Frank but exhausting for the mule.

Frank was attracted to this jenny from the start and over their years together, it deepened into an abiding love. She was gentle with long ears and sad eyes. painfully thin but also strong. There is a reason they call a powerful woman or man “strong as a mule.”

Said Frank to the jenny one day. “Well, It’s time you had a name. I like the name ‘Hannah.’ Do you like it?” Hannah pressed her muzzle against Frank’s chest and rubbed her velvet lips up and down against his jacket as if to nod yes. “O.K., ‘Hannah’ it is then.”

Half way through each shift, he would sit on the loading dock and eat the lunch his mother had packed him. She often packed an apple or pear into the lard bucket along with the sandwich made from her delectable home made bread. Hannah strained herself around and reached out with her muzzle, showing her teeth, begging for the apple.

“So you’re hungry, are you?” Frank pulled out his pocket knife and cut the apple in two. Hannah crunched and munched the apple greedily.

From then on Frank filled half his lunch bucket with apples, pears, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables.

“Hannah, you are my best friend,” Frank told her. And it was true. His assignment in the mine did not put him in close contact with the other miners. Hannah was his closest companion and Frank felt an almost human bond to the mule.

One morning Frank arrived at the stable to harness Hannah. Her stall was empty and she was not in the corral. Where the devil is she?

He hastily donned his work clothes, put on his helmet, turned on the lamp as he hastened down the slope into the mine. He was out of breath when he neared the coal loading dock a half mile into the mine. There standing in the darkness was Hannah.

“They want her to work a double shift,” said the muleskinner that Frank was replacing. “They are cruel bastards.” He left without saying goodbye.

Frank rushed up to Hannah and put his arms around her neck. She was trembling with weariness and she was lathered with sweat.

As Frank drove her up the slope with the loaded coal car he could hear her snort, blowing, and blowing trying to catch her breath. Frank threw his shoulder against the back of the coal car to help Hannah. He did the same for the second and third load. Finally on the fifth load, Hannah balked. She would not, could not, take another step. Her shoulders and rump were lathered into a thick foam of sweat. She stood panting. Frank snapped the reins against her rump and yelled, “Gid dap, Gid dap, Hannah.”

He even tried to bribe her with a carrot. She was so exhausted she turned away from the carrot. Frank wrapped his arms around her neck.

“O.K., Hannah. I get it. One-and-a-half shifts is enough.”

He bent down and uncoupled the tugs from the singletree. He led Hannah up out of the mine, into the sunshine. It was still early morning. The foliage on the oak trees that grew on the mountainsides had turned brown and rustled in the breeze. He walked the mule to her stall, lifted the harness from her back and hung it on pegs on the opposite wall. Then he pitched hay into her manger. He found an old worn out blanket and rubbed Hannah down, wiping away the sweat. She was shivering. He walked out of the stable, down the steep hill into Shamokin.

The next morning, when he walked back up the hill to the mine, the boss was waiting for him. He was in a fine rage and snarled at Frank for shirking his duty. When Frank attempted to open his mouth and defend Hannah, the boss’s face turned purple with rage. “Hannah? Who in hell is Hannah? You’re fired!”

Frank, who by now had turned 16,was once again unemployed. By coincidence, a few weeks after he was terminated, conditions for the humans in the mine became just as intolerable as it was for the mules. Speed up. Wage cuts. Cave-ins that buried the miners under tons of rock. Short fuses and lethal dynamite explosions. It was a nonstop bloodbath. The miners reached the breaking point and went out on strike. A deep stillness fell over Shamokin as the mine operations came to a standstill.

One morning, Frank took a notion to walk up the hill and visit Hannah. He took a small gunnysack from the toolshed and filled it with a dozen apples and an equal number of carrots. Christmas was coming and fresh snow had fallen on the little coal mining town. Frank waded through the snow, up the hill, turned left just inside the mine gates and walked over to the corral. There were all the mules standing close together for warmth. Frank stepped up on the bottom rail of the fence. He spotted her standing half asleep among the jennies and the jacks.

“Hannah,” Frank called out. She opened her eyes, turned her head. She broke away from the herd and ambled over toward Frank. He pulled an apple from the gunnysack and she bit into it and crunched the fruit contentedly. Frank saw that she had put on weight, her coat sleek. She looked well rested.

“Well, old girl, the walkout has been good for you. You are getting the rest you deserve. I brought you this bag of apples and carrots. Merry Christmas, dear Hannah!”

Her lips purred in gratitude and she nudged him with her muzzle, begging for another apple. “I’m going away, Hannah, and don’t know when I’ll be back. Goodbye, my dear friend.”

He turned and headed back down the hill. “What am I going to do now?” he said to himself as he walked through the snow. There was that recruiting poster in the Post Office. “Uncle Sam Wants You!”

“I guess I’ll join the Cavalry. Dad will need to lie just one more time about my age.”

Two weeks after Christmas, around the epiphany, Frank Novich and his dad walked down to the recruiting station and Frank joined the Army. After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was shipped to El Paso where he became a cavalryman, riding with his regiment in regular, illegal, forays across the Rio Grande into Mexico. “Just about as illegal as I am,” the under-age cavalryman muttered to himself. But that is another chapter in the life of Frank Novich.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler estimates he has written 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper. He lives with his wife Joyce in Sequim, Wash. His new book, “News From Rain Shadow Country,” is a selection of writings covering his childhood and youth growing up on a dairy farm near Sequim in the 1950s and his retirement on the family farm in recent years. Tim’s much anticipated complete memoirs will be out soon.