Books I’ve Known And Loved

An explosion at the DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library
An explosion at a DuPont Company black powder yard courtesy of
Hagley Museum and Library

“The patriotism of the people who worked in the powder mills during the war was only exceeded by the front line soldiers.”

On the day of the final explosion  Helen remembered her mother at the sink. The tree-lined village with its substantial homes and churches lit by new stained glass sat chilled by a March wind off the river. The men were at the powder mill. Some men worked there because they had to, but some came for the excitement of working a dangerous job. And dangerous it was.

The powder necessary for guns, signalling devices, whaling harpoons and later for movie making filtered into every shirt pocket, every wrinkle of a man’s skin with each tiny particle ready to explode from the smallest spark, the tiniest mistake of a worker. The mill made the town and the town devoted itself to the mill. Children delivered lunch pails to their fathers but only at a safe distance (though no place in town was truly safe when the mills exploded as they occasionally did).

Windows shattered, dishes crashed to the floor and hearts froze when the mill whistles blew signalling danger, yet on most days the townsfolk lived happy, productive lives either at peace with life’s inherent dangers or unable to really imagine that one small spark could take their lives. Other people died young–a man with young children, camaraderie at the mill and lazy evenings spent chatting on the porches of his neighbors’ house in the beautiful Hoosic Valley of New York could fool himself.

Not me. Not mine.

Jump in the river. This was the advice when sparks flew. The amount of powder at the mill, in the crevices, on the window sills, in the men’s hair determined the extent of the damage.

Back to young Helen watching her mother at the sink in their neat kitchen just after breakfast. Some tried to describe the look of a blast–towers of flames through billowing smoke, silhouettes of friends suddenly gone in a flash as the lucky men shivering in the river looked on.

Helen’s mother froze as the whistle droned on and on. Women and children lined the streets waiting, some fainting. When Helen’s father wet and dirty came through the door and collapsed into a chair at the clean table, he wept for his friends–the ones he and his surviving coworkers would have to gather the pieces of in the mill yard–a hand here, a foot with a shoe there. They picked up the pieces in a basket and covered them in a red handkerchief.

Funerals began on St. Patrick’s Day. Helen’s mother had knit her a perfect green sweater for the saint’s special day. But March had remained a lion and winds down Powder Lane where the children sledded in winter spoke the mood of the people. Springtime and green would come again, but for now life was cold and charred.

A retelling of Anne Kelly Lane’s informative and heartbreaking little book dedicated to her mother’s memory The Powder Mill Gates Memories of a Powder Maker’s Daughter.   

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