At the time, I was still keen on boxing. I was the middleweight representative of the mine, and the two Jims, my mining pair, Devlin and Hallinan, were my sparring partners. I was entered for the west coast boxing competition at Westport, and my trainers took time off to escort me down to the ring. They rubbed me over with Elliman’s embrocation before the fight, but they were as keen on my winning as I was. Unfortunately this ended in an anticlimax, because all my opponents withdrew at the last moment.
Some of the conditions at the mine were primitive. One Sunday I had an abscess in a back tooth and I went to the doctor at the big pit down the road. He used no painkiller or such-like nonsense, and set to work to pull out the tooth.
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Having crushed off the top, he tried to get the roots out. I remember his stopping after about half an hour, and having a long drink of water. However, the roots got the better of him, and he had to give up the struggle. Next day I took the day off and went to a dentist in Greymouth, the biggest town on the west coast. He said, ‘Come back in three weeks and maybe I’ll be able to see what has happened.’
After a hard day’s work in the mine, my legs trembled walking down the 2,000 feet of mountainside. It was hard to pass the pub at the bottom. I used to have a pint of beer – it makes my mouth water now to think of it. Heavens, what nectar! After two or three days it became two pints, and gradually built up to six pints. Usually something then happened. One day, I fell naked on the fire in my hut. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds: each of us had an individual hut and on going to work, left the fire banked up under two four-gallon kerosene tins full of water. If done expertly, the fire would just be breaking through the soft coal by the time we got back, and the water would be just on the boil. I had half an old barrel in which I used to wash. I had stumbled in this tub, fallen and sat bang on the fire. Next day, no pint.
It seemed a healthy life; our appetites were prodigious. I never heard of any of the miners in our pit having lung trouble like the gold miners, who suffered from the fine stone dust solidifying in their lungs, I felt extremely lusty. However, one of the drawbacks of that community life was the scarcity of female society. In fact, for me, there was none. I was now in my twenty-first year. My twentieth birthday had been celebrated at the coal mine and perhaps it was memorable. I invited my friends among the miners, truckers and shift workers of the pit to my little wooden hut. I had a ten-gallon keg of beer to start with. There was whisky, but the miners mostly preferred beer. There were not many of us, but after midnight we had exhausted the keg, and I sent out for a second one. Either the publican, rousted out at 2 o’clock in the morning, recognised that it would be dangerous to refuse, or else he was a good sport. Perhaps both. Before the end of the party one of my guests, a huge miner, got d.t.’s and went berserk. We had been playing poker and two-up and my guests got over-excited about some move in the poker game. In order to throw him out we had two men on each leg and two on each of his arms, and he was tossing us about as if we were pears on a fruit branch. It was an eye-opener to me – the incredible strength that can be latent in a human being. I made a note that if a man when mad, can call up such strength, it must be possible for me to do the same if I used the right will power – if I could find out how.
One day I looked at one of my comrades who was drunk, and said to myself, ‘My God! That’s me in twenty years time. I depended entirely on what I could earn, and although this mining was well paid I could not save. There was the constant thirst for one thing, and sometimes five gambling schools would be in full swing at the same time. I decided that I must make a break.