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No Son of Mine

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Our first story today from Steve Wyles (ph) is about one simple decision that turned out to be not so simple at all. SNAP JUDGMENT.

STEVE WYLES: From a young boy all I remember of my father is how close we were, which is the irony, I suppose. We were very, very close. We were practically inseparable. The village we grew up in was a coal mining village. Most all the boys of my age, their fathers were all miners. It always seemed to be our destiny, even as small boys playing out on Colliery Row or Pit Row, as it was known locally. All throughout my young childhood I was brought up on understanding, rightly or wrongly, that my life would be spent down a coal mine. I expected, even the day I started work at the coal mine, I thought I'd be there for life. And I thought that any sons that I had would also follow me down the mine in a long-standing tradition.

I'd never contemplated doing anything else but coal mining and I couldn't wait. And the minute we went down, that was an immensely proud moment for myself. I was with my dad. The miners at the pit used to call - my dad's name was Ian - and the miners used to call me Young Ian because we basically, we were like two peas in a pod, which basically means we look identical. I had a very high level of trust. I had to have because my life would depend on it and my coal workers' lives depended on it also. We had to watch each other's back. We were always aware that at any time there could be an incident, whether that be a roof fall, an explosion.

The strike was beginning to be spoken about down the mine amongst the men. There had been ramblings saying that the National Union of Mineworkers was going to ballot its members for a national strike and we were the last to assemble in the canteen. One of the union delegates was in there and he told us that the government was planning to close 20 pits, with a loss of 20,000 jobs. And he wanted a show of hands in favor of strike action. Union representatives said the show of hands looked in favor for strike action. I disagreed with it. You know, I said - I commented to the guy next to me, I said well, I didn't think it was in favor of a strike and he commented saying that he didn't think it was, either. But nevertheless, there was a group of hardliners that decided they wanted to picket at the gates at that time.

In the community they have this moral obligation where you don't cross picket lines. That spread into the Socialist remit, right from the get-go really. And I was still living at home with my father then.

When I went home the following morning, my dad was up. And I questioned my dad, who was a stalwart for union. We was told there would be, at some point, a national ballot. And he said, we don't need a national ballot, we're out on strike and that's it. Well, that to me wasn't any good. That wasn't democracy. All he'd ever say was, you don't cross picket lines. He wouldn't even enter into a debate even about it.

During the six months that I was actually off work and out on strike, my mind my heart and my feelings were filled with nothing more than the strike. And my thoughts were that I was really against the strike. I needed to go back. It was just a matter of plucking the courage and the guts to actually pick the phone up and do it. My father made it clear, in fact, he told, he said that no son of his is going to - or, no scab is going to live under his roof. That was the term he used. My dad's opinion is that if I'm going to continue to work then I'm not welcome under his roof.

It did play a heavy toll on my mind. I wasn't able to think about anything else, really. Part of the hesitation was how my relationship with my father would actually - would bade, the feelings between me and my dad. It wasn't something I could just decide on a whim and do. It had a lot of consequence, and another part of it was the fear of retribution from the rest of the miners, bearing in mind, in our local village. There'd be five or six-hundred people that actually worked at the mine. Every night, every lunchtime, every teatime on the local news, it'd be filled with nothing but people having bricks thrown through the windows, cars set on fire, even children attacked in some places, just because the defied had gone back to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The police knew the pickets would return with a vengeance today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The number of men working here earlier this week was 16, but five men have stayed at home because they say three of their group were beaten up by pickets last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Police came under a hail of missiles from a group of miners. Burning barricades have appeared in rural Yorkshire to block access roads to pits. On two occasions petrol bombs have been fired. Since the strike began, the injury toll has topped 800.

WYLES: It had been classed as a civil war by members of the government. They said it was a civil war at the time. And it was quite bloody. And to be fair, that's one thing that kept me from contacting the line. Anybody wanted to contact somebody, we had the direct line number anyway, or so it was led to believe. We had a direct line number but it went through a switchboard and that switchboard was monitored by - should I say - sympathizers to the strike. So anybody that contacted the coal mine, their names were passed on to the National Union of Mine Workers' leadership locally. So it was well-known who was contacting the mines beforehand.

I decided to go back to work, albeit, six months into the main strike because I waited for a national ballot, as did a lot of other people because that's what our rulebook said. You know, if that ballot had been in favor for strike action, like it or lump it, we would've been out on strike because that is democracy. And we never actually got it. It never came. Once that decision was made, I went into the hallway where the telephone was, I got the number for the pit, the mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TONE)

WYLES: And I was asked what my name was. Who was speaking, please? So I told him it was Stephen Wyles (ph). Do you want a secure line? So I said, well, yes I suppose so. So he rang me back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WYLES: I said like (unintelligible) I want to come back to work, I've been against the strike from the start. And I was surprised when he said we're aware of the situation with your father, but we can get you into the mine if you want to come in. But you can't just walk in, obviously, it's not safe. We'll have to arrange for the police to contact you as regards to being escorted in. So with that, we ended the call. And that's when - my hand was shaken holding the phone but after I put the phone down, the feeling - I mean I felt physically sick because now I've done it. There's no going back now. I've got to follow it through even if I have a change of heart later because I mean I was scared stiff. I'd seen the images on the news. I wasn't naive. I knew what the outcome could possibly be.

Going to bed the night before, knowing that I was going to be picked up the following morning by the escorted bus, my head was all over the place. I had got what we call collywobbles, really feeling nervous and tense. And every time I opened my eyes it hit me like a brick. You know, I'd think, oh, crikey, in the morning I'm - you know, things are going to change probably for the worst.

I got up at the crack of dawn, something like 4 o'clock. Bacon, egg and beans was the last thing that I was wanting at that particular time, I can tell you. I didn't really want anything. I wouldn't have been able to keep it down if I had. At 515 there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and there's two policemen there and there was quite a few policemen behind them, as well, on the pathway. I can tell you - I can feel it now just even recalling it. It felt like I went to the gallows. It really did. The pathway was probably 25, 30 feet long to the gate and I can't recall hearing any of the noises at all. It was all like slow-motion. A police van pulled up outside the house followed by the bus which was covered with Weldmesh all the way around the windows and behind it was another police van. And this bus pulled up. The front sliding doors opened and that's where I saw a driver and his mate stood at the front of the bus. Both had got crash helmets on which really - I mean that alone frightened me. But the man that was actually stood at the front, his assistant, who got a baseball bat in his hand and what he said - it'll be with me for the rest of my days, I think - if ever the bus gets overrun, there are baseball bats in the racks above your head.

Well, that kind of really got my heart racing. But I never felt I'd done the wrong thing. It's just - I knew I'd done the right thing. It was just getting through it. The route the bus was taking was about two-and-a-half mile. Going down the final lane towards the pit bridge, that driver shouted down it looks like it's a big turnout today, lads. And that a quarter-of-a-mile was lined either side, five-deep with miners all screaming and shouting...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The miners were attempting to block the access road to the pit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINERS CHANTING)

WYLES: ...With just one row of policeman. But the terminology thin blue line really played a part there, all linked arm-in-arm, holding these crowds back from overrunning the bus. They were chanting mainly scab. They were yelling scab, scab, scab is the main word. All of us on the bus, we were together but the nearest way I can describe it is like zombies, if you like. We would just start staring into space, thinking of what we were doing and what had it meant and how life had changed and wondering, in fact more than anything, wondering, would it ever get back to normal? Would life ever get back to normal like it was before the strike? You know, most of the village and all the outlying villages around you are betting for your life.

I saw my father because he was stood right next to the pit gates. And he was looking at the bus and he was shouting along with the rest of them. He knew I was on that bus. When I first saw my father on the picket line, that really - you know, I thought well, we're divided really by the thin walls of the bus but in reality we're divided by life itself and a lot thicker wall than that. But I still had - I mean I loved my dad. I never stopped loving him.

When I saw him and I thought, this is going hurt him, not only because his son's going back, but be a little bit embarrassing for him, as well. I took that bus to that picket line every day for six months. You know, I mean, during the strike, obviously, I was a prisoner in my home. We had a brick through the window in the dead of night. I had a death threat at the letterbox. I was the fourteenth one to go back and by, I would say, the Christmas of '84, there would be, at best guess, probably about 70 or 80 people back by then. And between Christmas and March when the strike finished, they were coming back in droves so it was practically 80 percent actually inside the colliery by the time the strike had finished. When the strike was called-off by the union leader, we were quite apprehensive at that because although 80 of the workforce had come back, the rest of them was going to come back, they were the diehards. But when they all came back, they come marching over the bridge with the union banner, a brass band playing. You know, we were certain just looking at them that, yeah, they were angry. They felt betrayed. And one of the first people that came through into there was my dad. I saw him. And that is the closest I'd stood to him for six months. I did look at him in the face, and I made a point of doing that. He looked at me, but he didn't, if you know what I mean. He kind of looked straight through me. He just refused to have anything to do with me.

It's a funny thing really, even after the strike had finished, my dad became a counselor in his local village. And some of the people that'd go and see him were people that actually had gone back to work back at the pit and he spoke to them as if nothing had ever happened. He was just as friendly with them then as he was before the strike. And I know it would've hurt more for me because I was his son, but I always thought, you know, give it a month or two and then my dad will come around and we'll start talking and life will get back to normal. As the months went by, it became clear that it was going to take a lot longer. So then months turned into years. Years turned into decades and still his resolve was the same that he wouldn't have anything to do with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

WYLES: Well, I remember getting a call on me mobile phone in the office at work and I think I knew. And then it was me sister saying unfortunately Dad passed away in the early hours of this morning.

He died on a Tuesday and he spoke to my sister on a Sunday, saying that he's got very little time left on this earth. He felt that he was going to pass away in the next few days and started telling her what arrangements he wanted. But he never in all that time - he was certain he was going, but he never actually mentioned my name. And I said you know what? I lost my dad 30 year ago, essentially, because of me making that decision to go back to work.

I couldn't say at all that I ever stopped loving me dad. I didn't stop loving him, even though that love was one-sided. Up to the day he died if he knocked on my door and said, well, let's put it behind us and move on I would've done that willingly. That brought an end to it really - not an end I would've liked. The strike crucified the coaling industry in the U.K. The government just rapidly sped up the closer program and it turned out to be not just 20 as it was initially. It went to 70 and then there was - pits were closing every year. When the mine closed everybody drifted off. Some, sadly, never worked again, like me dad. The village died along with the coal mine. I remember I went back to the village in 2004. I actually went to visit the old pit row where I was brought up just for nostalgia and just to reminisce a little bit. There's still a couple of miners living on there. And I got out of the car outside what was me dad's house and. It was a cold morning 'cause I remember seeing me breath so it was a frosty morning. And just reminiscing what I used to do and coming out into the end of yard as a young boy and playing in the dirt on the roadsides there. And that's when I noticed this old guy come out from a couple of doors down. And he stood at the end of his yard and he saw me and he must've recognized me straight away. And I looked at him and he looks straight at me and he says what are you doing here you scab?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Find out more about Steve's story and a link to a book he wrote about his life - "A Scab Is No Son Of Mine" - on our website, snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Anna Sussman, with sound design by Leon Morimoto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "High And Mighty" episode. Put on your running shoes. We'll be right back in just a moment. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.