By J. B. McLACHLAN*
FLOORS CAN DO STRANGE THINGS to a person if only you have ears to hear them talk, and eyes to see them. I have seen floors some of which gave me a glad feeling I have never forgotten, and others that roused me to hate and fury.
When I was a boy of eight years I got my first holiday and trip away from home. My grandmother lived in a village called Ecclefechan in the south of Scotland. A trip of sixty miles brought me there. What a nice woman my Granny was! Tall and straight as could be. She wore a long cotton dress right down to her clogs. Clogs are just boots with wooden soles. When she was out of doors she always wore a tartan shawl over her head. I used to think she looked just fine.
She tried to make me happy during my visit, and would slip me little extras when the others weren’t looking. Sometimes an apple, but mostly a whole oat-meal cake and a hunk of cheese. I wanted to return her favours and asked her how I could help her. “You brae the sand for the floor, Jimmie,” she would say. “Braing the sand” consisted of going to the brook which was close by, and looking for a lot of soft yellow sandstone; then with a hammer breaking that down until it was almost as fine as brown sugar. When Granny had swept her floor clean, she sprinkled the fresh sand on the floor. It was a “mud” floor. Sometimes it wore into a hole at the door, or where people walked on it, then I would go out on the roadway if it had rained enough and gather a few shovelfuls of mud and patch the floor.
That floor at that time made me feel happy when it had been patched and sanded by Granny and I. Could I have listened to it talk, it would have said: “Floors have always been mud-patched and sanded, and always will be.”
I grew up and got married, and we had a sweet little baby girl. The house we lived in had a brick floor. One did not need to mud-patch it. The bricks were yellow and ten inches square. My wife used to wash it every day and with soft chalk make nice little, what I called “whirlie-jigs” around the edge of each brick. All the wives in that miners’ row did this. We were very happy, my wife and baby and I. But at night when we would sit by the fire, just the three of us, my happy feeling would go smash looking at the damned floor of yellow bricks and scores of white “whirlie-jigs.” Why could I not get something better for those I loved?
Granny’s floor had made me happy and had said to me, “Don’t struggle.” Now this brick floor was an agitator. It said to me, “Look at your girl wife, pretty as a picture, kind beyond compare, and you give her yellow bricks and ‘whirlie-jigs’ to rear your baby on!” That floor would stab me to the heart, making me fighting mad.
Away back in 1918 the miners of Cape Breton were struggling for an increase in wages. At last the Minister of Labor called a meeting in Ottawa of the miners’ leaders and the coal operators. The meeting was held in the big hotel at the C.P.R. Station. The floor in this hotel seemed to jeer and laugh at me as a I walked over it. If I walked on its carpets my feet sunk up to the shoe-tops. If a walked on the sides, where the carpet did not cover, I would slip and stumble and slide as if I walked on polished glass. This floor sure was class-conscious. It seemed to shout out at me: “Can’t you see you’re out of your element! Feet black and dirty from the coal mine should not walk here. I am for the gentle feet of idle men and fine women which are never soiled by labor.”
This floor, too, made me mad. Oh, if the miners from Glace Bay’s wind-swept shacks could only have one walk over this floor, how it would make them fighting mad!
Floors can teach workers a lot of things. Floors are not like men, they never lie to you whether they are mud-patched or have soft carpets.
The finest floor I have ever seen, and one that made me feel real happy was in a miner’s house. In the winter of 1931 I was in the Soviet Union, down in the Don-Bass among the coal miners. I wanted to see the miners’ homes and was taken there. I said to the Russian comrade who was with me “Let’s go into this house here, I see the old mother at the wash-tubs.” Yes. The little old mother was glad to show us her home. Her husband had been murdered in 1919 by the Whites, her son worked in the mine. It was a fine workers’s home, clean and neat with lots of light and flowers growing in the windows. In answer to the little mother’s question, I tried to tell her where Canada was. She asked if the miners’ houses in Glace Bay were as good as hers. I told her that as far as space was concerned I thought they were as well off as she was, but she had a very much better constructed and more comfortable home. She pointed to the hollow below where things like small pig-houses stood, and said: “I lived there all my life till after the Revolution. Those huts had mud floors. But look at the fine wooden floors I have now.”
What a floor it was! How it talked to me of victorious struggle. This widow of a miner murdered in the class struggle was so proud of her floor. It was holy ground, made sacred by the blood of a struggling triumphant working class, where peace at last could live.
Yes, comrades, I think floors can talk to us if we know how to listen to them.
* This article is reproduced from an issue of The Cape Bretoner Magazine (released in the 1970s) that we bought used at a local flee market. It was likely written in the mid to late 30’s, after his visit to the Soviet Union and shortly before his death. James B. McLachlan, a Communist, was the longtime leader of the Cape Breton mine workers.