Bill is a 33 year old first year graduate student. He hails from "the heart of the anthracite coal region" in Pennsylvania. His ancestors were Lemkos, an ethnic group from the Carpathian mountains who were ethnically cleansed from their region by Soviet Communists.
Bill's grandfather died at 42. Bill illustrated with his hands and a salt shaker, on the table that divided us, his grandfather encountering "some of his buddies from Galicia" on the street.
"They would take ten steps toward each other, and then stop, and then take ten more steps, and then stop. Eventually get close enough to talk. They didn't have enough air in them to cross the street. They all had black lung. Cars would have to stop when my grandfather tried to cross the street."
"I have it pretty good now, but if it wasn't for my grandfather coughing up blood...My uncle Frank; we used to keep a bag next to him for everything he coughed up. I make him out like a martyr. He was kind of a jerk. He used to hit my ciocia (aunt) Marie."
"A lot of our family died in the mines." In another accident a mine caved in on Bill's dad and his buddies. Bill's great grandfather fell into an unprotected mine fan; Bill illustrated with his hands how this man's body was scattered by the whirling blades.
"They never complained. They remembered funny things. My grandmother was cleaning a lawyer's house. He came home with a quart of ice cream. She'd never seen ice cream before. She put it in the closet. A little later, he asked for it....A lot of these kinds of stories floated around. They were told in a very good way. Not to demean the person...They were funny, loving stories. We told Polak jokes. I don't wanna say 'the dumb Polak...' it was more the innocent immigrant..."
Bill has searched out historical documents of his ancestors' experience. He paraphrased one: "'In this school we will not tolerate ethnic differences; therefore, all children of Ukrainian decent will not be allowed to pray before class. If we hear a kid speaking Polish with his brother, we will make sure it never happens again.'"
People's names were changed arbitrarily by teachers and other Americans in power. "There was a guy named Blank. We used to think, maybe at Ellis Island they couldn't get his name, so they pout it down as 'Blank.'"
"It's only since I've been researching it that I am getting a sense of how shitty things were. My mom'd say, 'They had it rough.' She wouldn't report that there were seventeen of them living in a room in a shack...at least in Galicia they weren't laying in a wet eighteen inch shaft their whole life...In many years more went back than came. At least there they had clean air..."
Coal dust is a constant in Bill's town; his mother complains that, "You wipe a windowsill, and a half hour later it's black again." Bill reports that there are towns in this region where pollution is so bad that people require carbon monoxide monitors in their homes.
"I don't feel like I have anything coming to me. That experience was shared by so many people. I don't feel so much that I'm owed something, but that I owe...I get choked up about it. This sense of debt comes over me...that's one of the reasons I'm here, to learn my history. I'll talk to my grandparents in my mind and tell them what I'm doing for them."