I must say I am not much into miracles and supernatural stuff. I have limited faith in a Supreme Being. But I am convinced that angels were looking after me on that fateful trip from West Virginia to California late in 1985.
First a bit of the background to set the context. After graduating in 1963 from the School of Mines in Dhanbad, I went rapidly through post-engineering training, practical experience (by working at coal mines) and a government-administered Competency Test to become a colliery manager in the Raniganj coal belt. Life was indeed good until the Government of India (GOI) decided to nationalize coal mines over a two-year period (1971-73). The impact on me was immediate and severe: I lost my managerial position, had a substantial pay cut, and lost most of my perquisites.
I bounced around for the next six years between field jobs -- in and around mines -- and a desk job in Ranchi. In 1979, I was made aware of, and then applied successfully for, an engineering position at the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM). I joined the company as a Senior Design Engineer at an attractive salary. Also in late 1979, my sister, who had emigrated to California, sponsored me and my family for Green Cards so that we might come to the United States as immigrants.
I joined ZCCM in a very pretty part of northern Zambia with excellent weather. The one issue, though, involved children’s education. There was a local English language school that went up to grade 6. After that, the mining company supported all-expense-paid education (including managed travel) for schooling anywhere abroad for the employees’ children. I sent my daughter, our eldest child, to a boarding school in Kodaikanal. In 1985, when the time came for me to think seriously about sending my two boys to attend, say, the Mayo College in Ajmer, I decided to take a break and come to the USA.
In July 1985, I came with my family to Los Angeles where my sister lived. I found menial work and sent out oodles of applications to American mining companies with no success. I decided to buy a car and, at the suggestion of a friend, drove to and through the mining country of the US: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. Little did I realize that my long 22-year experience in mining -- most of it in a senior capacity – would count for so little in America. My efforts from October through mid-December yielded just two job offers at an apprentice level in coal mines!
Finally, around December 15, a friend of mine told me of a vacancy at the Department of Mine Safety in Charleston, West Virginia. I managed to land an interview with the Chief Mining Engineer on a Thursday of the week before Christmas. The interview went so well that I got a verbal job offer, subject to medical test, to be followed by a written offer with salary. My luck was beginning to change at last!
That Friday evening began a downpour that was incessant, and it came on the heels of the 1985 Election Day Floods (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1985_Election_day_floods) – also known as the Killer Floods of 1985. Taken together, they were the worst floods in West Virginia in 100 years and led to widespread property destruction and considerable loss of lives. The Governor declared a state of emergency and froze all hiring by the state government. I heard about it on the Sunday evening newscast.
The Chief Engineer called and confirmed the news on Monday. He told me to come back in one year. I was completely heartbroken. I decided then and there that there was no hope for me in the mining industry in the USA. I started my trip back to California with a heavy heart.
1. Somewhere Past St. Louis, Missouri
It was a dreary, miserable day when I drove past St Louis on my way back to California. The sky was overcast and the atmosphere raw with a sense of foreboding.
I was some distance past St Louis when it began to snow – slowly at first, then steadily and with greater intensity. I had no prior experience of driving in snow. I tried to do the best I could, going slowly and carefully.
Suddenly, the car sputtered and showed signs of stalling. That too was a new experience. With a lot of effort, I moved to the side of the highway when the car stopped completely. I was marooned in a sea of white, pristine snow.
I looked around. Not a soul anywhere – no car in sight. Only a dim light was visible in the distance. The choice before me was grim: freeze in the car or go out to seek help. Choosing the right option was a no-brainer.
I stepped out of the car and began walking toward the distant light. My clothing was fit for Kolkata or California. With only a light jacket, without a hat or gloves, I was clearly ill-equipped to face the brutal Midwestern winter.
I trudged through the accumulated snow for maybe 10 to 15 minutes. By the time I reached the light, my hands and feet were frozen, and my face was numb. It turned out to be a garage for repairing automobiles. The garage was closed, and the light came from the door of the adjacent room or office. I did not have the strength to lift my hand to knock on the door; I banged my head on it instead. A tall man opened the door, and I literally collapsed in his arms.
The man lifted and deposited me gently on the floor. He covered me quickly with several blankets, then put his hand under it to gently massage my chest. Some minutes passed before I was warm and conscious enough to speak.
I saw that there were two mechanics. They had shut down the garage and were getting ready to go home. After I had recovered somewhat from hypothermia, they fed me warm milk. They showed me the refrigerator and the bathroom and told me I should spend the night there. The room had a fireplace which, they assured me, should keep me warm through the night.
“You know how to put a log in the fire?” my savior asked.
I stared blankly at the roaring fire in the hearth. I did not have a clue.
“I will put enough wood to last through the night.” The man’s voice was reassuring. He could understand my helplessness.
The two men left and came back sometime later with food. I was famished and took no time to wolf down the fare on offer. Thus refreshed, I began to worry about my car. The mechanics told me not to worry. Nothing would happen to it overnight in the snow. They would look into the car’s problem in the morning.
The next morning, my car was towed to the garage. The problem lay with a frozen radiator. You do not need anti-freeze in Southern California, but the Midwest in wintertime is a different matter. The two guys fixed it – replacing damaged pipes and all – and led me to the now running car.
I offered to pay them money for labor and parts.
“Don’t worry about it,” was their reply. They were happy that they could nurse me back to health from near death. “Just drive,” they quipped, “and do not stop until you reach California!”
2. Amarillo, Texas
It was early evening of Christmas Eve when I drove into Amarillo, Texas. Spotting a motel with a “Vacancy” sign. I made a beeline for it and went inside with a feeling of relief.
The young woman at the desk startled me with her greeting: “You poor bastard!”
“What was that?” I said, mildly flustered.
“You realize you won’t get any food in town?”
“Oh, really? But I am starving.” My voice cackled with anxiety.
“You pay for a room and get settled. Let me see what I can do after that,” said the receptionist.
I paid and got a room. There were not many guests in the motel. The young woman shut down the reception area and left. I was left to ruminate on the situation. Back in 1985, there were very few stores and restaurants that were open the night of Christmas Eve.
Later that evening, the young woman came back with a plate heaped with food. There were poultry and ham, mashed potato and sweet potato, pasta and vegetables. It was sumptuous as well as delicious -- easily one of the best dinners of my life.
When I offered to pay for the food, the young woman refused. She looked sincerely pleased having shared her family’s Christmas feast with a complete stranger. Hers was an instance of generosity and warmth that is forever etched in my memory,
As I look back and reminisce about that drive from the East Coast, two thoughts come to mind. The first is one of horror to contemplate what might have happened to me. The second is a sense of relief and gratitude at the Midwestern hospitality that I received. I cannot be sure about angels in heaven, but I surely ran into flesh-and-blood angels in the Midwest on that return trip to California.
Luckily for me, my story has a happy ending. I gave up on my plans to continue in the field of mining and enrolled in classes on computer software. I was still a quick study, found the area interesting, and transformed myself in a short period of time from an unemployed mining engineer to a happily employed software engineer and manager.
(Posted April 1, 2023)
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(Transcribed by: Amitabha Bagchi)