It was fast and testimony meeting in the ward. Several young people had stood up and testified of the goodness of the Lord and his blessings unto them. Then an elderly gentleman stood on his feet. There were lines of care on his face, and time had turned his hair to silver. But his voice was clear like the tones of a bell on a frosty morning:
“I know that God lives and guides our destinies. I am here today because he heard my prayers as a boy and guided my footsteps.”
To understand his words we must go back many years to the time when a 12-year-old boy became a man and went to work.
He lived in a coal-mining village in the little country of Wales where almost all of the male inhabitants worked at the colliery (coal mine and its connected buildings). In a few weeks he would be 12, and like other boys in the village he would go down the pit to dig coal. He was a normal boy who understood that he must leave school to go to work to help support the family. But one morning as he was on his way to school, an incident occurred that was to affect his life. He was to learn the meaning of fear.
Coming up the hill toward the cottages where the miners lived was a small cortege. Two men were carrying a stretcher while one walked in front. Their faces were black with coal dust. On the stretcher was a body, a small body covered over with a brown blanket.
“And who is it now?” someone asked.
“It is little Davey Edwards,” the man in front replied. “He was caught by a roof fall, poor lad.”
The boy continued on to school, but his thoughts were not of schooling but of Davey Edwards. Together they had roamed the hills. They had picked chestnuts from the copse on Mynyddyslwyn Mountain and picked wild blackberries along the bank of Gwyddon Brook. They had stood together where the golden gorse ended and the woodland began and listened to the plaintive call of the cuckoo telling of the approach of spring.
“Aye,” he thought to himself, “those days are gone. Soon Davey will be in the graveyard on Llanvach Hill, and it will be the pit for me.” For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of fear. But he kept the fear inside of him.
His 12th birthday came, and his father informed him he was to start work at the colliery come Monday. On Saturday afternoon they went down to the village where his father took him to the haberdashery and bought him a pair of moleskin trousers and a Welsh flannel shirt. He also bought him a tommy box and tea can, and a pair of yorks to buckle below his knees to prevent the coal dust from going up his trouser leg.
Monday morning came cold and wet, but not as cold as the boy’s heart. He was assigned to work as a butty (partner) to Dai Jenkins, an experienced miner. The management discouraged father and son from working together because it looked bad if two members of a family were killed in one accident.
He stood by the side of Dai Jenkins as the cage descended. Through the glimmer of the miners’ lamps he looked across the cage at his father, who smiled back at him. By his father’s side was another 12-year-old boy from the village.
The cage landed on the bottom with a bump. As the gate was opened and the men stepped out, the smell of horses and donkeys assailed the boy’s nostrils. These animals were used to pull the loaded trams out of the headings and the empties back in. A man with the title of hostler took care of the animals.
The boy followed his butty along the narrow tracks until they reached the face of the tunnel where they were to work. Dai removed his jacket and hung it on the nail that protruded from a timber that supported the roof. He did the same with his tommy box and tea can. The boy did the same.
The coal seam was only three feet thick so Dai spent most of his time on his knees swinging his pick. It was the boy’s responsibility to load the coal into the tram and the muck into other trams. The ostler would then come and take them to the cage at the bottom of the shaft where they would be hauled to the surface.
So the days went by, and each day the boy’s hatred for the darkness grew. There were times when there was a squeeze, a time when the earth settled and it seemed the timbers supporting the roof must snap and he and Dai be crushed. It was at times like this he thought of his friend Davey and wondered if he too would be taken home on a stretcher covered over with a brown blanket.
There was, however, a time during the day that he really enjoyed. Dai would lay down his pick and say, “Come, bachen, it’s time for a bit of food and a sip of tea.”
Together they would sit in the dim light of their lamps and eat the food in their tommy boxes. Occasionally, Dai would give the boy a Welsh cake that his wife made. This was like a bit of heaven.
One day while Dai was digging with his pick, a strange and unusual thing happened. They broke through the face of the tunnel into a small cave. It was no bigger than a small room, and the roof seemed to be of solid rock. At about shoulder height a shelf ran across one side of the wall.
One can only wonder why on that same day as they sat together eating their lunch there was a sound like thunder that echoed through the mine. The earth shook. Dai jumped to his feet and grasped the boy by the arm.
“It’s an explosion, bachen; there may be fire. We must put the brattice cloth (temporary partition of cloth) across the opening. It could be the only chance we’ll have.”
Hurriedly they nailed the heavy cloth across the mouth of the little cave and then sat and waited. Soon they felt the heat as the flames approached.
On the surface the villagers crowded around the mine top. Rescue squads had been sent down but came back almost immediately.
“No one could live down there” was their report. “The mine is on fire. God help those who are down there.”
The mine owners met and made a quick decision. A canal that ran close by must be turned into the mine to extinguish the fire.
A woman cried out, “What about our men?”
Her anguished cry was answered with a shake of the head. In the little cave the heat was almost unbearable, but somehow a little air was coming in. Time seemed to stand still and hours went by. Then they heard the water. It came seeping into the cave, first to shoe tops, then to the knees, and it continued to rise.
Dai climbed up onto the shelf and pulled the boy up beside him. As the water rose, the heat subsided. Then came an eerie silence.
“Bachen,” whispered Dai, “can you pray?”
“Aye, I can,” replied the boy. “Before my mam died, she taught me.”
“Then pray for us. ’Tis all we have left.”
The boy closed his eyes, and for a few moments no words would come. Then they came slowly as from a troubled heart:
“Gentle Jesus, we reach out to you in this darkness, having nothing left but your help. If it be thy will, let us see the light once more. Let our feet climb the hill to our homes. Let us hear the song of the birds and see the sun rise over Rhysog Mountain. We are alone and we need your help. Amen.”
He felt Dai’s arm around his shoulder and heard his voice. “Thanks, bachen. It’s not afraid I am anymore.”
Hours went by and night must have come for they slept. When they awoke, their lamps had gone out. Now there was complete darkness, darkness that was black and foreboding. With the blackness came fear, cold, trembling fear. The boy saw himself being carried up the hill on a stretcher, his body covered with a brown blanket. Dai sensed his fear and put a comforting arm about his shoulder.
“Bachen,” he said, “is it a bit of singing you could do?”
The boy hesitated for a while, and then in a fear-stricken voice, he sang: “Jesus lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, While the nearer waters roll, when the tempest still is nigh.” In his boyish tenor he sang the chorus: “Hide me, oh my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past.” He felt Dai shaking with emotion, so he could not continue.
It is hard to know how fast or slow time passes in the darkness, but the pangs of hunger and thirst came to them.
“Chew on a bit of leather, bachen,” Dai reminded him. “It will help the hunger.”
The boy removed the leather york from below his knee and chewed on it. It was new leather, and the taste of the tanning was still in it. But it helped to assuage the pangs of hunger.
Sleep came again and another day passed. Dai was quiet now, as if realizing the end was close. As a result of hunger and thirst, the boy had become quiet and listless. The complete darkness had settled on him like a shroud. He only waited now for that complete sleep.
Then suddenly from far away a voice was heard: “Is anyone about?” The voices came closer. Then someone threw aside the brattice cloth, and his light shone on Dai and the boy.
“A miracle it is,” he shouted to the other rescuers. “It’s alive they are!”
Dai was able to walk, but they carried the boy to the cage that transported them to daylight and life.
The boy’s father had been killed in the explosion, so Davey Edwards’ family took him in. In a few days some relatives from farther down the valley came to pick him up and take him to their home. They were lovely people, it was said, except they had joined some strange church that had originated in America.
Together the boy and his new family made plans, and the day came when they emigrated to America. Here they made their home in the valley of the mountains.
The old man was bringing his testimony to a close. “So, my brothers and sisters, out of fear came faith, and out of darkness came living light.”