I don’t even know how to begin this blog, this delicate story on my heart. There’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years. It’s inspired by actual events from my own family. (And for once, no, it has nothing to do with how long it took God to write my love story, as shared through my books Never the Bride: a novel and Finally the Bride: Finding Hope While Waiting.) It’s more in line with the themes of my feature film, The Ultimate Gift: legacies and what we do with the time we have, and the gift one day of life brings to us.
This story is about my history, its roots, and how the ripple effect of events are why I am here today, why I was able to be born.
But this story also meant the death of someone else. That is sobering.
In fact, without death and the multiple tragedies reflected in this story, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have been able to be born into the family I was born into.
Have you ever pondered the events that brought you to this earth? Have you ever asked yourself the question, “How was I born into my particular family? Why am I here? What was I meant to do?”
Many years ago, my father told me we should try to do a film about my grandfather’s life as a miner in Springhill, Nova Scotia. It took me a while to listen to him. Eventually, I woke up to this amazing town and the balance between tragedies and extraordinary miracles this place experienced! It’s one of those tiny towns that, in the 1950s, when tragedy struck multiple times, the entire world stopped and watched. Waited. Waited for good news, hoping for miracles, hoping for news of lives saved.
This place, its stories, and my grandfather’s life there, were all the inspiration for my screenplay, Song of Springhill, which I am currently adapting into a novel. (To be released in Spring 2014.)
My grandfather, Charles Hugh McKay—also known as “Dado” to his grandchildren—died when I was fifteen years old. I wish, when I was younger, I had been more interested in asking him questions about his life as a miner, and the miracles that spared his life. It wasn’t something he voluntarily talked about when not asked. I embarked on a quest to get to know more about what his life was like after he was gone. I wish I had taken better advantage of the time I had with him.
His first mining accident was in the 1940s, and contributed to him not having to go off to war because he suffered a broken pelvis. A rail car ran over him in the mines; it took him months to recover. There are stories surrounding two of Springhill’s biggest disasters, the 1956 Explosion and the 1958 Bump, that also affected my grandfather’s life.
My aunt, Joyce Harroun, told me of a story relating to the 1956 Explosion. The way she remembers it, her father (my grandfather) switched shifts that day with another man. The man wanted to go hunting during the day, and asked my grandfather if he’d work the day shift for him, and upon his return, the man would work my grandfather’s afternoon shift.
Because of this shift, “Dado” got off work just a couple hours before the mine blew up. His life was spared, but the man who switched shifts with him died. They had the same job working in the same spot by the rail cars.
It also meant that the team of men my grandfather was used to working with died that day too; he lost a lot of his friends. As my Aunt shares, it was the only time she ever saw my grandfather cry up until that point in his life.
When interviewing one of the survivors of the Explosion, this survivor supplied two names of those who had the same job as my grandfather. Both of them were killed in the Explosion. I found an article in the Halifax Chronicle that seemed to back up the story my Aunt told. It mentioned one of their names as one who was “working an extra shift for a friend” that day, implying he wouldn’t normally have been underground.
Despite the dangers, my grandfather continued to work underground. Then in 1958, he was trapped underground when one of the biggest disasters in coal mining history hit: The Bump. October 23, 1958.
My father anxiously waited for news of whether or not his dad was still alive, from the Lamp Cabin, a place where miners turned in their lamps when they finished their shifts. His father’s check number, #712, remained on the board, showing he had not yet surfaced. Not yet picked up his check tag.
Once the earliest miners were rescued, my grandfather was the third person to walk through that Lamp Cabin door. The first face he saw was my dad’s fourteen-year-old face, waiting for him, hoping and praying he was still alive. Seventy-five men died in that disaster.
After the rescue, “Dado” vowed to never go underground again. That meant he needed to find new work to support his family. This led him to take a new job and move his family to the Boston area. This move is how my father eventually met my mother, when she was an attractive 16 year old, a spunky Massachusetts girl that he was set up with on a blind date.
This blind date never would have happened if my grandfather had not been spared by the 1956 Explosion or survived the 1958 Bump, the tragedy that made him decide to leave his life of mining. My father has said, unequivocally, he would have had no reason to leave Canada had he not been moved to the United States with his father’s career change.
My parents have been married since 1966. It’s ironic to me to think that this disaster (and the fact that “Dado’s” life was spared 10 years before that time) is the catalyst that brought me to this earth.
At the same time, it’s sobering. I ponder the family who lost their husband / father / son because of the innocent desire this man had to go hunting that day. November 1, 1956. I ponder what he must have missed out on, dying so young. How those in his family must have questioned over the years “what if?”
This story helps me connect specific dots that allowed me to enter the scene. It makes me ponder why I am here and encourages me to want to make the most of the life I am given and do at least a little bit of good while I am here. It reminds me of how we are not promised any particular amount of days. I hope anyone reading this will be encouraged to make an impact with their lives, no matter how long they are blessed to be on this earth.
Any ideas for how you’d like to change the world? Your family? Or even just the life of one person? You never know when that may have a ripple effect on the lives of many others.
Some photos of the book author with Springhillers:
Spirit of Springhill: Miners, Widows, Orphans, Rescuers and Children Tell True Stories of Springhill’s Coal Mining Disasters (A Book of Interviews with People of Springhill)
For Canadian Citizens: