Work was slow in the coal mines in early 1943. Coal companies did not lay-off workers like they did in the auto plants in the North. The work slowed down until there was no coal, and then they closed the mine. Otis was down to one or two days a week, when the mine began to dry up. He was an industrious man and did not want to go down with the ship; he wanted to move on. It is impossible to live on a paycheck for working one day a week. Otis started to look for other coal mines to find work. Everyone knew that eventually there would be no coal in the mine.
Otis and I talked about our future when I suggested that since he was not working full time it was a good time to visit Isaac in Rolfe and see if he knew of any work there. Otis agreed and the next weekend we drove to Rolfe and stayed a week with Isaac and Marguerite while Otis looked for work. Isaac thought Otis could get a job at Rolfe with him, and told him about several other mines in the vicinity. Otis applied but wasn’t hired a Rolfe. He applied at several other locations and eventually he was hired in Pasteton, West Virginia not far from Rolfe. Isaac decided to apply for Pasteton and he was hired. Our families secured houses across the road from each other. This was a very happy time in our lives. We had a backyard and Otis planted a garden as always. Isaac and Marguerite didn’t have a large back yard but there was a stream running across the back of their house which was very beautiful. It was so much fun being young and living near our best friends. Otis and Isaac enjoyed working together, and I enjoyed visiting with Marguerite and their children. They had a son, Melvin who was the same age as Otis, Jr. and a daughter, Seretha, who was two months older than Janice.
In a few months Otis took a flu like illness in his lungs and had to go to the hospital. The doctors did not know then, but later in life we found out that he had black lung disease. While he was there in the hospital bed recuperating he had time to think about our life and our sons and what kind of life he wanted for us. He told me he was unhappy and never planned on working in the mines forever and that he wanted to get away soon. He said he was thankful that he had a job and could take care of his family, but that it was hard back breaking work although he had never complained. This was a promise he made to me that our sons would never become coal miners and that he did not plan to die in a coal mine.
Otis told me how he felt the system made it almost impossible for a coal miner to get ahead. He reminded me of the fact that the company owned everything. Our home was rented from the company. The grocer, liquor store, cleaners, theater, clothing and furniture stores were owned by the company. When workers were paid the company knew every penny they spent, where they spent it and could calculate if they saved any money. We tried to save money anyway for our future.
Otis always felt that the workers who the company suspected were saving money were moved to areas of the mine where it was most difficult to dig and slowed down their progress because the workers were paid by the pound of coal they produced. There were workers who spent all of their money with the company who were rewarded with easier digging areas. Especially those who supported the liquor store. Otis was pulled from a huge productive vein of coal and put deeper into the mine where he must crawl on his knees to get to the coal. It was back breaking work to meet the bare minimum of his quota. Even with these limitations we saved money for our future.
Otis bought a dry cleaning machine out of our savings and wanted to set up business in our home. He ordered the device from a magazine, so he was dismayed when it arrived and was so heavy that it took eight men to carry it up the hill to our.house. To our surprise the foundation of the house gave way when the machine was installed in our home. I wasn’t very happy having a dry cleaning business take over my children’s bedroom Otis and his Assistant, Thaddeus worked every minute they were not in the mines cleaning, pressing and delivering clothes. Eventually, Otis had all of the customers and the company cleaners was shut down. The company contacted him and told him to move the business out of the house. He was directed to rent space form the company retail area or he would be evicted from his home. The cost of retail space was too high for the family income, so the eight men had to drag the machine back down the hill so Otis could return it and get a refund on some of his costs.
After we lost our business, Katy Mae, Otis’ niece moved to the capitol city, Charleston, West Virginia. She and I corresponded often because we were the same age and had much in common. Katy wrote that she met a nice young man, Freddie McCullough, who worked in Charleston, and that he had moved there from Chicago. A couple of months later, she wrote that she and Freddie had fallen in love and she could not imagine life without him. She shared her plans to marry soon. In the next letter Katy wrote that they were married, and they may move to Chicago and live there. I wrote back that if she moved to Chicago to please let me know. I told here that Otis and I wanted to move away from the coal mines. She promised me that if Freddie takes her to Chicago, she will let me know. A month later I received another letter ” Arlene, we are moving to Chicago” Katy wrote. I was so excited. Although we had lived in Pasteton for only six months we wanted to get away from the coal mines. When I received a letter from Katy confirming that she was doing well in Chicago and they had an apartment, I wondered if we moved there could we get jobs soon after? She wrote that jobs were plentiful and we were welcome to stay with them until we found work, but we could not bring the children because her apartment management did not allow children. I told Otis that Katy invited us to stay with them in Chicago and said we could come at any time. I told him that she said that we did not need to worry about a job, because jobs were plentiful. She shared that there may be a problem getting a place to live that will accept kids. I wrote her that my kids are so nice, that I wasn’t worried about finding a place to live. I asked Otis if he was serious about moving and if he wanted to go to Chicago and he agreed that we were moving. We decided to go now and find a place that would accept children after we had jobs. I wrote back to Katy that we planned to come to Chicago very soon.
We had the task of telling Marguarite and Isaac that we were moving. We were all sad. “Don’t leave us” they said, and we told them that if things worked out we would let them know so they could come join us in Chicago. Our parents got involved. They were furious with us, and told us ,”You left Glen Alum, moved to Pasteton and now you want to go to Chicago. When are you going to settle down and be satisfied?” They were the voices of doom. They told us that we would change, and lose our Christian values. They thought we would separate. We would not respect our marriage vows and would have affairs, because that was how people in the big cities behaved. They believed that we would be corrupted and they thought we were crazy. We respected them and listened to every word they said, but we were going anyway. “What are you going to do with your children?” and the final question they asked, “Are you going to run off and leave your children? Otis told them that he was going for his children, “I do not want my boys going into the coal mines”, and that ended the conversation.
Women always make the plans, so I thought of a plan that would make sure our children were safe until we could send for them to live with us. I told Otis that we could leave the boys with Aunt Jean and Uncle Buddy and that we could leave our baby girl who was only ten months old with Mama. Mama and Bob loved our baby and would be kind and loving to her. Aunt Jean and Uncle Buddy agreed to take the boys.
It was a sad day when we had to leave our children. We cried together as we drove away, but we went anyway. We were hurt deeply and had heavy hearts when we had to leave our three children behind. We truly believed we would give them a better life. Crying, driving and promising each other that we would send for our children, Otis said to me, “It is enough that we have lived like this, but we want a better future for our children”. We felt this was the only way to get them away from the coal mines of West Virginia. We headed north for Chicago and a new life.