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The Black PantherBy Staff

The Black Panther – 1962

Munson Number 14 was a close knit coal mining camp. Number 14 sat at the foot of Number Nine Mountain, which was owned by United States Steel. I was born in May 1959 in the metropolis of Bluefield, West Virginia. In 1950 the estimated population of Bluefield was an estimated 21,500*. Today in 2018 the population of Bluefield is estimated to be around 10,500 a decline of about 50%. There is s direct correlation to the demise of the coal mines in the region to the decline of the populations of the southern West Virginia cites.

A Better Way of Life

I was born in the Bluefield Sanitarium at about 3:13 am on May 9th, 1959. Some say that my birth as a miracle, others say it was a mistake. I choose to believe that it was a miracle of God. You see, my mother, Helen Burnopp Basconi had two children with my father, Miro Francis Basconi. My older Sister Amelia was born on January 20th, 1950, and my brother Ron was born on January 6th 1951. After my brothers birth, (which I have been told was “difficult”) my mother would go on have three miscarriages in a row. My mother, who was half Cherokee and half German, miscarried two sets of twins in three years that were still born. Later, my mom suffered the loss of a set of triplets that were also born premature. Certainly these events shaped how my siblings and I were treated as we grew up in the coal fields of McDowell County.

The doctors told my mother and father that, “she would never have another child” and that she would be barren for the rest of her life. My Father, having been raised a Catholic was disappointed at this news, and my mother was devastated and lapsed into a depression that would haunt her for her entire life. To say that our family was dysfunctional would be only a partial truth. As a result of these events, (the miscarriages) and other pressures from both the paternal and maternal family my parents began to find ways to numb the emotion and other kinds of pain brought on by these three miscarriages. My father turned to work and worked for the rest of his life in the coal mines of McDowell County, West Virginia. My dad always told me that he wanted for me to have a “better life” than him and hoped that I would attend college and avoid the dangers of coal mining.

My Grandfather Amedio was successful in getting my father, Miro a job working for Untied States Steel Corporation in the year of 1930. Miro was 14 years old and learned to mine and load coal by hand at such a tender age.  My Dad was a hard worker and believed that if he could throw himself into the job of loading coal he could reverse his circumstances in life. My dad grew in favor with the corporation and by the time he was 19 he had started on his path to promotion and leadership in the mines of southern West Virginia. By the time he was forced to retire due to his failing heart and lungs (a complication of “black lung”) he was the supervisor of the electrician shop at Number 14 mine in Munson. My father wanted me to have a better way of life than he and my uncle Elo did so he always sought to instill into me the need to work hard and to be honest. My father wanted for me to graduate from college. I was successful and I did indeed graduate from Concord College in 1982. My graduation from Concord College was greatly pleasing to my father and this accomplishment was one of the few good things (that I am aware of) which I was able to do for him before he passed away in April, 1990. Today, my daughter has graduated from Concord University and has been on the dean’s list every semester.

Emotional Trauma

When my mother found out that she was pregnant in 1958 she began to struggle with emotional trauma and wrestled with ensuing possibilities. She was not sure that she wanted to go through the heartbreak of another miscarriage. The doctors had told her that there was very little chance for me to be born healthy. Both my brother and sister were not too sure about having a little brother. I’m sure that they also remembered (all of the pain and suffering) and the difficulty that mom’s previous miscarriages had caused our young family. Still, my mother chose to move forward with the pregnancy. On May 9th, 1959 at 3:13 am I was born in Bluefield, West Virginia. As it turned out I was born healthy and strong. Almost everyone believed that I was a miracle.

My grandmother Lulu May Burnopp rejoiced and thanked God for answering her prayers for my mother and for me. So after just one day in the Sanatorium my dad drove my mother and me back along Route 52 to Munson 14. The Coal camp was small and tucked away in the wilderness. As 25% Cherokee in my heritage there was something that resonated within my spirit about living so close to the wilderness surroundings that I was raised in. Over the next 5 years I would frolic and play in the mountains surrounding Munson 14. Life was good in many ways, but I was not aware of the issues and problems that we faced each day. Money was tight and tensions ran high in our family.  I later discovered that my mother suffered from what doctors call “post pardon depression” after I was born. During the day my brother and sister would attend school in the coal camp school house at Munson 14. I would invest my days exploring the mountains, which I was to discover early on could be dangerous.

My Third Birthday

In May 1963, my father had given me a nice red tricycle. It was beautiful, it had white hand grips and red, white, and blue streamers that hung down from the plastic grips. I soon learned to peddle that little trike as hard and as fast as I could! I have always liked to go fast for some resaon! I was just three years old and I only had one friend that was my age. Her name was Janie Thomson. Her family lived about a half of a mile away along the little gravel one lane road that circumvented Munson 14. A couple of days after the excitement of my third birthday had passed we were back to life as usual. My brother and sister had gone to school around eight am; my father was gone to work having left around five am.

Mom was resting and I was restless. So I decided to go see my friend Janie. I would take my tricycle and peddle around the camp to her house. At the very top of the road was a mining road that went up into the mountains. There United States Steel had built several large industrial grade fans that delivered oxygenated air to the miners who worked up to two miles underground. If you continued to travel up that rough mountain road you would come to true unexplored wilderness. There was also great and slag and slate piles that held lots of follicles and other natural wonders. There was a little creek that ran beside the mining road that was full of flora and fauna. I would often explore the creek and catch crayfish and other critters that lived in the clear cool waters. It was a beautiful day as I remember it. The trees were greening up and there was a slight chill in the air, but the sun was shining and the smell of spring was in the air. There has always been a strong connection within my spirit to the land and to the mountains of this region. Even to this day there is still a connection to the mountains and even as I write this I sit in the Cherokee National Forest. (This brings a smile to my face and a grace to my spirit).

Homemade Cookies and Milk

I got my new tricycle out of the cinderblock garage and started to peddle with all of my might up the main road of the coal camp. I came to the Pavlovich’s home. Mrs. and Mr. Pavlovich were my God parents. They were of Russian heritage and seemed to take a “shine” to me. This was the first time that anyone had expressed an interest in me or had actually seemed to “like me”. Sometimes one kind word can change a person’s life even if we never know it! Speak life! I usually would stop in the morning and Mrs. Pavlovich would treat me to homemade cookies and milk. She made awesome cookies and was always kind to me and encouraged me with a smile and her simple kind encouraging words.

Looking back on those times now, I believe it was her kind words to me and not the treats that impacted my life the most. Also, I believe that she understood the problems and tensions that were unfolding in our family. She seemed to understand the challenges that I faced as a “surprise” child coming into the Basconi family through the unplanned or unforeseen way that I had arrived so unexpectedly. Again, some said that I was a mistake, but others believed that I was a miracle. I was only three years old but somehow I knew that I was “different”. But, on that day there was no time for cookies. I had my little legs pumping as I leaned over the silver handle bars and spun gravel up from the road. I was off like a herd of turtles.

A Very Black Shadow

It was an uphill ride until I came to the mining road. I scanned the cliff above me because I had heard formidable and scary sounds coming from up there the night before. I had also heard my father talking with our neighbor Mr. Tolley. Some of the men were working on plans to hunt down the mountain lion that had been screaming and basically terrorizing the coal camp over the last few weeks. Once I passed the Pavlovich home there was a long stretch of about one quarter mile where I would be our of ear shot and away from the grownups in my little wilderness world. I was entering into the danger zone. I passed the weeping willow tree in the Pavlovich’s back yard and all was well. Another five hundred feet and I came to the little concrete bridge and then the mining road was not too far ahead. The mining road would mark the half way point in my journey. As I passed over the bridge I saw a shadow moving off the cliff and scotching up to intersect my path. Panic set it and my little lags began to pump the tricycle’s peddles for all that they were worth. I was pleased because I was certain that I could outrun whatever the wilderness could throw at me as I flew through the air on my new tricycle! Now the road started to turn to the right slightly and I was nearly at the downhill part of my journey.

Just when I came off the bridge and started to pass by the mining road I saw a very black shadow lopping up to me. Somehow, I just knew that I was in trouble when I heard a sort of guttural purring growl. I peddled for all that I was worth and my red, white, and blue streamers were flying in the wind. I must have been goings at least three miles per hour. The animal quickly walked up to parallel my path. I could see his intense yellow eyes. It was a very large black panther. The sizeable cat was almost purring and continued to eye me as I peddled and pumped with my little boney legs. For some reason I did not cry although I was terrified. The sun was gleaming off the black panther’s fur and it seemed to be so dark that it was almost purple. The cat was muscular and intent on coming in my direction.

Though dangerous, I also understood that this massive black cat was also very beautiful. In hind sight, I doubt that very many people have experienced seeing such a massive a black panther this closely in the wild! This was a sort of spiritual experience for me, but I did not know what “spiritual” was at that time in my life. I may have thought differently about the situation if I had I know that I could have been lunch. I kept my eyes on the panther and it seemed that the black panther’s intense eyes were looking not just at me, but the cat stare seemed to stare “into me”. Again, looking back on this experience now it seemed to be supernatural in nature. In fact, many of the things that I experienced in the wilderness of McDowell County, West Virginia may have been the finger prints of God in my life. Now, that is something to think about and I have done just that (contemplating how God can work in the life of a small and neglected child) over the past sixty years!

I was terrified yet I was not. Now the panther was just ten or fifteen feet away from me. He was looking me over and trotting at an even pace right beside me now. The road began to incline down and the black panther continued to parallel my direction. As I passed the mining road there was a steep bank that was on the other side of the little creek that flowed out from the mountain. The cat moved ahead of me by a few feet and stopped to look directly at me. As I passed that spot where he stood the black panther let out a blood curdling scream and continued to look at me for an instant. Every hair on my body stood on end and I thought I was going to die. I closed my eyes for an instant and waited for the inevitable. Then the black panther sort of growled and purred all in one amazing sound. He turned and took one leap which enabled him to cross the creek and with one more leap my black escort leaped up onto the top of the cliff with a graceful ease. Now I was peddling for all that I was worth and my streamers and little legs were kicking in the wind.

The black panther easily moved along the cliff easily monitoring my progress and managed to walk swiftly just in front of me. I passed right below him and as I did so he once again let out another blood curdling scream. I was sure, and even to this day, I believe that the black panther was speaking to me. He was warning me to stay away from and out of his territory. It seemed like it took me another hour to cover the last quarter mile to the Thomson’s home. When I arrived at my refuge I recklessly jumped off of my new red tricycle and dumped my little red chariot into the gravel driveway recklessly. I was not concerned whether it was scratched or not. I ran up the wooded steps and burst into the kitchen. I poured out the story of what had just happened. Later that day after the miners had come home from the first shift Wayne Filippo and a couple of other the coal miners, having heard about this incident, went into the wilderness pursuing the black panther. It seemed that the word had gotten around very quickly! Although, they did not actually see the panther, but they did find his tracks and estimated that it had been a large male. Mr. Flippo had told my father that I was “lucky”, but I did not feel too lucky.

My dad put my new tricycle on probation and told me that I could not ride it on the rode until he said so. It was about two years before I would go up to the old mining road solo. Even then I always had the impression that someone was watching me. When I was five or six I developed enough courage and I walked up the same old mining road about two miles in search of blackberry’s. Suddenly, from about two hundred yards away or so I heard that same blood curdling scream that I remembered from a couple of years before. That same eerie scream that had made my hair stand on end. Then there was second blood curdling scream! I dropped my berries and started to run. I ran as fast as my little legs would carry me. I ran back down the old mining road. I ran past the old weeping willow and I ran past the Pavlovich’s. I kept running until I reached the relative safety of our home. But this time, I did not tell anyone! Later that night as I was trying to fall asleep when I heard another blood curdling scream. That night I decided to stay away from the old mining road for a long, long time!

This article was taken from Kevin Basconi's new book; "The McDowell County Chronicles".

This book is a gathering of short stories that outline the challenges of growing up in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia. This book is due to be published in 2019.

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