From the Improvement Era, June 1953 –
Some Are Born to Be Heroes
By Olive W. Burt
Noel’s chin lifted angrily, and the friendly light in her blue eyes was consumed in an irate flame.
“I’ll date whom I please, Mike Wilson!” she said defiantly. “You have no right – ”
Mike Wilson, towering above the girl, frowned forbiddingly. He, too, was angry; his dark eyes flashing.
“I thought we were friends,” he said, and his young voice was bitter. “I thought friends had a right – ”
“Not to interfere!” Noel interrupted, her bright eyes clouded.
“Okay,” Mike bit out. “If that’s the way you want it, go on chasing that uniform like a sentimental teenager.”
“Mike!” Noel’s cry cut him short.
Mike muttered something, turned on his heel, and strode away down the steep street of the little mining town.
Noel watched his broad back disappear with a definite feeling of hurt. She hated to quarrel with Mike – he’d made life very pleasant in this lonely little town and had helped her laugh at the rough going of her first year of teaching. But he had no right, she told herself defensively, to accuse her of acting like a teen-ager.
Noel, waiting for Lieutenant Gordon Stewart, town hero home from Korea for a month’s leave after some particularly brilliant action that had put his name on the front pages of the country’s papers, told herself that she might have known Mike would act like this. She had seen it coming that first evening when Lieutenant Stewart had stood looking down at her and laughing.
“The new schoolteacher, eh?” he had teased. “They have certainly changed models since I went to school!”
She had danced with the gay Marine Corps officer and had liked it; had liked it so much that she had danced with him again and again. Mike had looked on, his eyes somber, and Noel had teased him about it.
“Don’t be a bear, Mike!” she had said, laughing gaily because she was so happy. “He’s a hero, you know. And I had no idea I’d meet a real hero up here in Silver City!”
Mike had looked sullen, then, and Noel had remembered that someone had told her that he wanted to enlist when Gordon Stewart did, but there had been an accident at the mine just then, and Mike’s father was injured. He couldn’t leave, and when things straightened out, they weren’t taking miners any more, and he’d had to stay on.
Noel said, “Oh, Mike, you know what I mean! Things just shape themselves regardless of our plans. Some men are just born to be heroes, it seems, and some –” She bit off the words suddenly, aware of where her tongue was leading her.
But Mike wasn’t dumb.
“Are born to be miners, I guess,” he finished, and his tone was grim.
Noel, peering through the gathering dusk for Lieutenant Stewart, who had promised to meet her here and take her to dinner in the mining town’s one little cafe, told herself that Mike had been sullen ever since that evening. if she hadn’t been attracted to the blond marine, she thought defensively, Mike’s attitude would have driven her to pretend she was.
But she had been attracted, she had to admit with a smile, as she heard her name and swung to meet the tall lieutenant, who stood looking down at her and laughing in that provocative, teasing way of his, as if he knew some pleasant secret about her.
“Am I late, teacher?” he asked, and Noel glanced at her wrist watch in the dusk and was a little embarrassed to see that he was right on time and to realize that this meant that she had got to their date early.
“Don’t tell me!” he begged, and taking her arm, he started her down the steep narrow street toward the little cafe. “There’s a humdinger of a western on at the Roxy. We’ll grab us some chow and then see it, eh?”
Noel laughed up at him. He made the meager diversions of the town seem gay and exciting. Life could be an adventure with a man like this, no matter where it was lived – on a South Sea island or in a tiny mining town here in her own home state.
They dawdled over the meal, laughing a good deal, interrupted by the town folk who had to stop and speak to their hero, so they didn’t reach the theater until the lights had been turned down and the show as in progress.
The usher, a twelve-year-old kid, showed them to some empty seats, his flashlight trembling, his eyes shining in the darkness with the honor of showing Lieutenant Stewart where to sit.
Noel picked her way carefully over the feet the flashlight revealed and sat down, the marine beside her. It was a newsreel that was showing, and Noel, not interested in the sports events peered around in the darkness, trying to accustom her eyes to the gloom.
Some vague sense warned her to look at the man ext to her, and, as her eyes made out the features, she gave a little cry of surprise. “Why, Mike, how nice to find you here!”
“Yes, isn’t it?” Mike growled.
Gordon Stewart leaned toward his old friend and said pleasantly,. “Hello, Mike. It’s like old times, isn’t it?”
A slight smile curved Mike’s lips in spite of himself. Noel, knowing him well, thought, “I bet you are thinking of other times, Mike, when some other girl sat between you two boys. I wonder if you’ve always fancied the same girl? And I wonder which one of the town girls may have caused you the most worry.” She began checking them over in her mind, one by one.
Noel was roused from this doubtfully pleasant occupation by a little cry form her companion.
“Look, Noel!” he exclaimed. “There’s the kind of country we were in!”
Noel looked and saw that the newsreel had changed to the Korean conflict.
“Looks real as life!” Gordon went on. “Those hills – those roads – gosh, it makes me forget I’m back home – almost!”
The theater had grown very still as Gordon’s friends listened, breathless to the marine’s voice.
And the voice, lost in its memories, had forgotten there was an audience, and went on excitedly.
You couldn’t blame them for listening, Noel thought. He was their very own – their brother or cousin or friend – back from that faraway battlefield. he was making it real for them – making the war real, so that they were, for once, losing themselves in the actual combat. Noel didn’t blame either the marine or the townsfolk – she understood their reaction. But she sensed a feeling of withdrawal, almost of enmity, in the stubborn silence of Mike Wilson.
“Mike thinks Gordon is just showing off,” Noel said to herself. “He’s touchy on this war business. maybe some of the other fellows are, too,” and she peered around her, trying to read the faces of the young miners scattered through the audience.
Then the newsreels were over, and the western was on. Noel, sitting there beside Mike, was very conscious of the big miner. The picture show had been their mid-weekly binge on the weeks that Mike was day shift. They had gone to the show, had sat through the picture side by side, no matter what it was; no matter whether it was interesting or not. When Mike was on night shift at the mine, Noel had gone with other fellows, or with Mrs. Gray, her landlady, or with some of the town girls. But she had never gone with another fellow when Mike could be there, and was uneasy under the current of thought that she felt coursing between them. To shake off the feeling, she paid more attention to her companion, laughed with him at the ridiculous escapades of the screen hero. In the middle of the show Mike got to his feet quietly and left, and the empty seat seemed to rebuke her silently. “Heaven knows what for!” she said, shaking herself angrily.
The next day Noel was delayed at school putting an examination for the next day on the board, so that she left just as the men going off shift were coming down the narrow street. They had on heavy work clothes, not the ones they wore in the mine, of course, but heavy, grimy ones, nevertheless, and their faces were grimy, too, in spite of the hasty washing they had been given in the “dry” at the mine.
Mike Wilson was with them, but seeing Noel he stepped out of the crowd and started to walk along at her side.
“Noel,” he began, and Noel noticed a new diffidence in his voice, “it’s great to see you alone, once in a while. I didn’t mean to act like a bear last night, but somehow, I just couldn’t think of anything to say –” His voice trailed off.
“I didn’t notice,” Noel lied.
He looked at her quickly, and then said, “I guess not.” They walked along in silence for a while, and then Mike said, “How about Saturday?”
Saturday! This week the dance was to be in honor of Gordon, the whole county turning out to do him homage. It would be fun to go as his partner, and he had spoken last night as if he had every intention of taking her. But he hadn’t really asked her yet. As Noel hesitated, Mike said placatingly, “I would have asked you before, but I don’t seem able to find you any more. and then,” he stumbled on, ‘I sort of took it for granted – ”
Noel’s head went up at that. so Mike took her for granted, just because she had gone with him before. Maybe he thought no one else would take her –
As she flung back her head angrily, she heard Lieutenant Stewart’s gay laughter, and his voice, cool and suave, said, “No, you don’t Mike! Nobody beats Gordy Stewart’s time. Noel’s going to the dance with me.”
His assurance, after Mike’s hesitancy, wasn’t exactly flattering, and Noel looked from one to the other. Both of them needed a lesson, she thought, but she didn’t want to administer the lesson just now.
Before she could answer, Mike’s voice came, dangerously cold. “Noel will have to tell me that, Gordon! Coming from you, it doesn’t mean a thing!”
Noel saw the flush that leaped up under the bronzed cheek of the marine, and her eyes went swiftly from one to the other. Mike was taller and broader, and he was terribly strong, she knew. Didn’t he always win the Labor Day prizes for mucking and shoveling and picking? But Gordon was lithe and trained — the word Commando shot through Noel’s mind. A Command could twist an opponent into a pretzel. She didn’t want either of them hurt. She stepped between them.
And, putting reason against reason hastily, faultily, she thought, “I can go with Mike anytime; he’ll be here all year. Gordon’s here only a little while – he’s been fighting – I don’t know –”
But she was saved a decision. Mike quick to jump to conclusions, said, shrugging, “I might have known and saved myself the trouble. Of course it’s the hero! and he turned and strode away.
Noel was angry, now, too, and she made up her mind that if Mike asked her for a dance Saturday night, she would refuse. He acted like a boor – like a miner – she thought bitterly. Lieutenant Stewart was suave; she’d have a good time. But she needn’t have bothered to decide what to say to Mike, for he didn’t ask her for a dance.
Once, during the evening, finding herself close to him, she said, “What’s the matter, Mike? Can’t you even be friends?”
“Things going wrong, Noel?” he countered shrewdly, and Noel’s head went up, her cheeks flaming.
And that’s the way things stood when the mine accident happened.
Noel awakened to the shrill persistence of the mine whistle, wailing through the clear, thin air. She had never heard it, except as a sharp signal at the beginning and end of a shift, but the stark terror in its voice could not be misunderstood.
She leaped out of bed, wrapping her robe around her, and went out into the hall. Lights were on in the living room. She went in, and there were Mrs. Gray and her husband and the older children, shivering, listening, horror in their eyes. The youngest child began to cry somewhere in the back of the house.
“What is it?” asked Noel, fear clutching at her throat.
“The mine!” Mrs. Gray wrung her hands. “The mine! Oh, I’m so thankful my man isn’t on shift. But the others! The others!” She began dressing as the whistle wailed on.
“The others?” thought Noel, and suddenly asked herself, “Is Mike on shift? Is he?” She tried crazily to figure out whether he was or not.
Mr. Gray was cramming himself into a shirt and coat. he said, over and over, “There’s an accident at the mine!” and rushed out of the house.
Mrs. Gray stood up then. “Get the children back to bed,” she said to Myra, her eldest daughter. “I’m going up there.”
Noel grabbed Mrs. Gray’s arm. “Let me go, too,” she begged.
Mrs. Gray looked at her a moment and then said, “Get dressed.”
Noel had never dressed so fast in all her life. she slipped into flannel slacks and a sweater, pulled on heavy sox and sturdy oxfords; and as she was running down the hall, she was pushing her arms into the sleeves of a heavy tweed coat. But she didn’t know she was doing all this. She was thinking only, “Mike is on night shift. I know he is. But maybe he isn’t – last Saturday –” she could not think coherently.
Mrs. Gray was waiting for her. Together they went out into the street.
The night was filled with terror. The wailing of the siren had pulled every adult of the town out of his bed. Men and women, hastily dressed, were running up the steep, narrow street. Many were sobbing, and Noel knew that these had men down in the mine. Her own eyes were dry, but her throat ached and her heart seemed squeezed in the giant hand of foreboding.
At the entrance to the shaft house they came upon guards, who held back the sobbing, moaning mass of humanity. Noel, pushed to one side in the struggle, found herself crying, “Mike! Mike!” as other women were crying the names of men.
An old man standing near Noel said, “Mike Wilson? He’s okay. he’s been up once, but he went right back down to help dig ‘em out.”
“How many are there? What happened?” Noel asked.
“Cave in,” the man said laconically. “Foreman said there were three unaccounted for.”
“Are they –?” Noel couldn’t frame the question, thinking of the wives and children and sweethearts waiting there, so pitifully small and human against the looming mass of the frowning mountain.
“Can’t tell yet,” the old man said. “Sometimes they are and sometimes they ain’t.”
“But,” Noel protested, “I thought mines were safe now. I thought –”
“They’re a heap safer than they used to be when I worked in ‘em,” the old man said, as if he took pride in the dangers he had endured. “But it just ain’t humanly possible to make underground workings really safe. Men go diggin’ about in the bowels of the earth and expect the old earth to sit quiet and take it. But she won’t1″
Noel couldn’t listen to any more. She pushed ahead again.
Men with authority were there, directing the guards, the crowds, the activity that was going on feverishly somewhere below them. Noel saw Lieutenant Stewart, tall and efficient and commanding, and felt impatience tinge the admiration his calm authority evoked. No wonder he was a hero, she thought. Everyone obeyed him without question. But couldn’t he do more underground? There must be so much to do!
Suddenly a man Noel didn’t know was standing in front of them, “Do any of you know first aid?” he asked, and as several women stepped forward he lifted his lantern and scanned their faces carefully. Later, as the crowd waited, bonfires would be built, but so far no one had taken time for that.
To most of the women the man spoke gently, “You’d better stay here,” and suddenly Noel knew why. She pushed forward.
“Let me help,” she begged, “I’ve had first aid and nurse’s aid training. And –,” her voice faltered, “I’ve no one down there.”
He said, “Come along then,” and took Noel and two other women into the shaft house.
There he explained to them briefly that they were going to go down into the mine to give hot soup to the workers and to stand by to give first aid to the rescued, should they need it.
“Dr. Adamson is down there now. He asked for help. He will tell you just what to do. Are you afraid?”
The women shook their heads, not knowing what was coming, not daring to be afraid.
The cage clanked into place and a half-dozen men, grimed with sweat and dirt, their faces haggard, their eyes bloodshot, stumbled off. The man who had brought Noel and her companions in nodded, and they stepped into the little iron box, with no top, and grasped the iron bar that went across one side. The man handed them round metal hats with lights on them.
“You’ll have to have these,” he said. “I’m thankful you’re dressed decently.” Then Noel noticed that her companions wore Levis and boots.
They put the clumsy hats on their heads. There was a clanking. Water dripped from somewhere onto the floor of the cage. They started down.
It wasn’t like going down in an elevator, Noel thought dimly. All was pitch dark except for the little pools of light thrown by the lamps in their hats. down and down they went and Noel’s stomach seemed to rise and catch in her throat.
Then with a clatter the cage stopped and there was light around them. Old Dr. Adamson came forward and opened the iron gate of the cage. They stepped out into a rock-walled, dirt-floored room, lighted by hanging electric bulbs.
Men lay on the ground, coats under their heads or spread over their bodies. Their faces were streaked and grimy, their eyes closed in utter weariness.
“They’ve been digging,” Dr. Adamson explained briefly. “Only three or four can work at a time, so they work in relays.”
He pointed to a small electric grill connected by an extension cord to a light bulb socket. A pot of thin soup bubbled on it and tin cups were standing on an empty powder box nearby. Dr. Adamson nodded toward the steaming kettle.
“Give ‘em soup – good and hot, when they come in,” he said. “See that they are covered when they lie down. It’s chilly here and we don’t want any pneumonia.”
Noel looked about for Mike, but he wasn’t among the prostrate figures. She couldn’t help it. She had to know.
“Where’s Mike Wilson?” she asked, looking at the doctor.
“He’s digging,” the doctor said, and his lips curved into a bleak smile. “He’s the digginest man I ever saw. Been at it steady for three hours, now, and wouldn’t stop when I told him to.”
“Could I take him some of this soup?” she asked.
The old man looked at her. From somewhere down a dark passage Noel could hear the sound of pick and shovel on loose rock, but there was no talking. The work was being done in grim silence. Dr. Adamson nodded. “He’s down there,” he said, pointing to the dark passage that led from the little room. “It would be a good idea for him to have something hot, because when he quits, we’re going to lose our best hope.”
Noel poured a tin cup full of the steaming liquid and started down the passage. It was a small tunnel, roofed and sided with rock, but with a dirt floor. It was a new stope, in the far end of which the men had been working when the cave-in shut them off. Now they were entombed alive, their only hope the three or four men digging tirelessly.
Noel rounded a bend in the passageway and saw before her the grotesque shapes of men bending, rising, working like dwarf figures in some Caliban’s cave, while distorted shadows danced on the roof and walls around them.
Noel’s heart stopped and then beat jerkily as she recognized Mike, taller and broader than the others, his back bent, his huge shoulders and arms working with a rhythm that was beautiful and heartbreaking to see.
Noel stumbled towards him, but before he knew she was there, he faltered, and one arm went up, wiping the black sweat from his eyes.
Noel whispered, Mike, oh, Mike!” and though her voice was low and almost lost in the din of the picks and shovels, Mike turned to her as if his heart could hear her slightest whisper.
“Mike, darling!” She was trying to keep the tears from her voice now that she could see he was safe, but he was so tired, so worn that Noel’s heart ached. “Here’s some soup – Mike!”
He took the cup without a word and drank the scalding liquid. Then, like a man in a dream, he turned back to his digging. Noel put both hands on his arm.
“Mike, darling, why don’t you stop? You’ve done enough. come back with me!”
He turned to her, and his eyes were black hollows in his face.
“Mike! don’t you understand? I love you so – I was so afraid you were hurt. Why don’t you stop?”
Then Noel saw a miracle, for Mike’s eyes were no longer dark pools, they were shining lights; his face was no longer worn and seamed with weariness, it was young and happy. He bent down until his lips touched her wet cheek. ‘I can’t stop now,” he said, and his voice was singing. “I’m not tired any more, darling. I can keep on until we break through, knowing this.”
He turned back to the wall of rock and his pick swung with easy rhythm against the barrier.
Noel stumbled back down the uneven passageway to the others, a great wonder in her heart. “I’m going to marry Mike,” she said over and over, and then, as her lips lifted in a smile, “I’m just a sucker for heroes!”