Stories aim at turning points. They climb out on the ledge to the point of greatest risk. That point beyond which there is no going back. They push dreams to extremes and hold guns to value’ heads and neatly wrap up in reversals that fade into a new dawn. So satisfying. And isn’t it like life to imitate stories?
This one happened a hundred years ago. On a dry, windswept prairie near Trinidad in Southern Colorado, obscured in a grove of planted trees, a seldom-visited roadside memorial commemorates the “death pit.” In April, 1914, 20 coal miners and their families were killed in a strike against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron mine, an incident that came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre.
Miners in those days were paid per ton of coal extracted. No pay for time spent blasting tunnels and shoring up walls and laying tracks. Work started before sunrise, ended after sundown. Boys as young as 8 were conscripted into the work gangs. Because they were foolish enough to ask for hourly pay, collective bargaining rights, and safer working conditions, 1200 miners and their families were evicted from the company homes and forced to live in a tent encampment. On April 20 a gunfight broke out between miners and the Colorado National Guardsmen called out to put down the strike. The guards had been firing real bullets over the heads of miners to remind them of who was in charge but this time the miners shot back then fled into the nearby hills. The guardsmen took advantage of the men’s absence and burned down the camp, killing 13 women and children hiding in a tent cellar. The guardsmen then gave chase. Before the day was over, seven more miners and family members had been slain. Why does this matter? How was this a turning point? In the ten days following the massacre, skirmishes bloomed along the Front Range in what came to be known as the Colorado Coalfield War. Before the bloodletting stopped, 70 miners and their family members had been killed. As a result of these deaths, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was skewered by the newspapers for his blatant disregard for working conditions, so much so that Rockefeller hired a PR person to “spin” the bad news and throw out promises. This coalfield war was a turning point. No longer would workers simply take the inhumane conditions. It took time, but reforms were finally passed by congress in the 1920s, including, horror of horrors, implementation of the 8-hour work day.
Prague, 1969. In a period known as “normalization” that followed the uprising of Prague Spring in 1968, a young philosophy student, Jan Palach, lit himself on fire in a public square in full view of on-lookers, protesting the cruelty and absurdity that had become in the world of Eastern Bloc communism the fabric of everyday life. Palach did not die immediately but he did die soon after. This turning point has recently been captured in a Czech film, “Burning Bush,” directed by Ms. Holland and based on a script by Stepan Hulik. Government officials and police officers, nervous about what the Soviets would do, reacted in a panicky manner. Was this, like the Ludlow Massacre, a call for the end of an era of corruption, cowardice, and dishonesty? In the case of Palach, no. At least, not right away. The forces arrayed against the student protest were too large, the process of change too grindingly slow. But that heroic act was a signal, a flare. No longer could it be assumed that the university educated youth would swallow the Party koolaid. With his self-immolation, Palach had said to the world, no more. A “chilly cloud” settled over Prague. That chill would not thaw for another 20 years.
Turning points should be followed by reversals and new arrivals. Life is not always so accommodating. Maybe that’s why we prefer stories.