When strikes occur, emotions can get out of control. Sometimes, tensions get so high that they hit the breaking point, and people die. The year was 1914. The date was April 20th. The place was Ludlow, Colorado, and things were about to get out of control. The strike began the previous September, when about 11,000 miners in southern Colorado went on strike against the powerful Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation. They were protesting low pay, dangerous working conditions, and the company’s autocratic dominance over the workers’ lives. The company was owned by the Rockefeller family and Standard Oil. They responded to the strike by immediately evicting the miners and their families from company-owned housing, which were basically shacks. The United Mine Workers stepped in to help. The miners moved with their families to canvas tent colonies scattered around the nearby hills and the strike continued.
The company had depended on the evictions to end the strike, but when that failed, they hired private detectives to attack the tent colonies with rifles and Gatling guns. The miners fought back and several were killed. The company began to realize that the strikers were determined so Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation contacted the governor of Colorado, who authorized the use of the National Guard, provided they agree to pay their wages. The strikers mistakenly thought that the governor has sent the National Guard to protect them, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The National Guard was under orders to stop the strike…no matter what the cost might be. The National Guard attacked the strikers on April 20, 1914. Two companies of guardsmen attacked the largest tent colony of strikers near the town of Ludlow, home to about 1,000 men, women, and children. The attack began in the morning with a barrage of bullets fired into the tents. The miners shot back with pistols and rifles.
A strike leader was killed while trying to negotiate a truce, and the strikers, fearing that the attacks might intensify. They tried to placed the women and children in pits they had dug beneath the tents. At sunset, the guardsman moved down from the hills and set the tent colony on fire with torches, shooting at the families as they fled into the hills. It wasn’t until the next morning that they discovered the true carnage of their attack. A telephone linesman discovered a pit under one of the tents filled with the burned remains of 11 children and 2 women. The Ludlow Massacre outraged many Americans, nevertheless, the tragedy did little to help the Colorado miners and their families. Federal troops were sent to assure the end of the strike, and the strike failed to achieve any significant improvement in their wages and working conditions. Sixty-six men, women, and children died during the strike, but not a single militiaman or private detective was charged with any crime. Sometimes, the worst injustice comes from the very people who are supposed to protect us.
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of Casper firefighter, Captain Jeffrey Atkinson. The service was beautiful and filled with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a hero. The ceremony included bag pipes, the Shriner’s Calliope Band, the sounding of the last bell, and the presentation of the helmet, badge, and flag to his widow, Kristen and his sons Eddie and Christopf. There were tributes about his bravery, his humor, and his caring ways. He was a firefighter, but more than that he was a husband, father, son, brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, and friend. His family loved him so much, and now cancer had taken him from them. It was a terribly sad time for a lot of people, in the firefighting community and the entire city too.
As I sat there listening to the ceremony, my mind drifted back over the last nine years, and my own encounters with Jeff and the other firefighters. As a caregiver for my parents and my in-laws over the past nine years, there have been more occasions than I care to think about when I would have to call for an ambulance for my loved ones. As most of you know, the fire department is often the first responder on those occasions. Since my husband Bob had been the fire department mechanic for many years, the firefighters knew me, but it wouldn’t have mattered. They weren’t just there because they knew Bob and me, they were there because they care about the people of Casper…or anyone in need.
Jeff and a number of other firefighters came to my rescue on more occasions than I want to think back on. In nine years of caregiving, there have been dozens of times when I had no other choice but to seek help in emergency situations. The firefighters and ambulance personnel were always professional, caring, and gentle with my parents and in-laws, but the firemen always seemed to look beyond just the patient. They saw me…standing there in the middle of it all, trying desperately to stay in control of my emotions long enough to be able to give them the information they needed in order to help their patient…my loved one.
At the time of those calls, I didn’t know if my loved one was going to make it through this. I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit. Those were the worst moments of my life, and they saw me at my absolute worst. It didn’t matter to them. They saw that I was scared and trying desperately to hold myself together. It was at that point, as the EMTs were taking my loved one out to the ambulance that the firefighters turned their attention to me, asking if I was ok. Of course, that was the breaking point for me, and the tears flowed. Several of the firefighters, including Jeff took it upon themselves to give me the hug I really needed, and the encouragement to go forward and make my way to the hospital to give the information needed to the hospital staff too. I don’t think I could have made it without that hug. A hug might seem like such a small thing, but when your parents are sick and you have to be the one to make all the decisions about their care, it can feel so overwhelming. I felt lost and alone. They showed me that I wasn’t alone after all. With Jeff’s passing, the city of Casper has lost a great firefighter.