Please go and pick up a loaf of bread from the bakery," my mother said. I was 11, and my family and I lived in Gwalia, a gold mining town in Western Australia.
"And don't dig holes in it on the way home," Mother added. "And don't forget your hat, and drink some water before you leave. It's a hot day outside." Hot meant 100°F or more in Gwalia.
I didn't mind going for bread. Mr. Madigan was the only baker in Gwalia, and he made just two kinds of bread, brown and white . . . and hot cross buns at Easter.
The brown bread was especially good when it was still warm from the oven. I didn't think I would be able to keep from nibbling, so I made no promises about holes in the bread. I gulped down a glass of water, grabbed my khaki hat, and was on my way.
As I walked down the dusty red road, heat squiggles rose from the hot ground ahead and shimmered like little dancing diamonds. Nothing else stirred, but I heard a crow caw up in Mrs. Zampatti's tree.
The bakery was at the back of a shopping center called the Block, which was at the far end of town. It was a long walk.
Sometimes I wondered why it was built so far from where most people lived. Houses became fewer and fewer, until, on the right side of the road, there was nothing but the railway line. Beyond that, there was scrubby bush.
On the left side was the mine–big and noisy and hissing steam that powered the banging, clanging, whirring, chugging machinery. The sound of steam made me nervous. I always got the feeling that something was about to blow up, so I hurried past.
The actual mining was done at different underground levels, but lately something had changed. A huge open cut (large pit) operation had been started close to the road, not far from the Block, where there was a general store, barbershop, grocery store, small café, and a few other businesses.
I had to go around to the back of the stores to find the entrance to the bakery, which was accessed only by way of a long narrow walkway between two high brick walls. There I breathed in the wonderful aroma of newly baked bread.
The bakery door was open, so I went in. Mr. Madigan was kneading dough for the next batch of loaves. He looked up when he heard me come in. "Brown or white?" he asked.
"Brown," I said.
He wiped his floury hands on his big wraparound apron, slipped a loaf into a sack, and handed it to me in exchange for a silver sixpence.
I felt the warmth through the sack and was tempted. But I decided to see how long I could hold out without a nibble.
As I started back up the road, I noticed that I was the only person around. It felt weird. Where was everybody? Then three men came up from the open cut area. One of them waved at me and shouted something in Italian. I guessed it was Italian, because most of the foreign miners came from Italy.
As he started toward me, I remembered my mother's warning: "Stay away from the miners."
I took one look at his face and ran. I heard him coming after me and ran faster. In a few long strides he caught up and grabbed my arm, jabbering and pointing.
I should have listened to what he was trying to tell me, but fear of the man had wiped out common sense. I broke away and ran again.
This time he didn't chase me, and when I looked back, he was running as fast as he could toward the barbershop. He'd barely reached it when suddenly the earth trembled and something went boom!
Too late I realized that the miners had been setting dynamite in the open cut. Boulders, rocks, pebbles, and dirt belched from the huge hole, then rained down around me.
I froze and clutched the bread tight. "Please, God. Please don't let anything hit me."
When the rocks stopped falling, there was silence. But I knew that blasts were always set to go off in threes. There would be two more explosions. I stood, unable to move, waiting.
Then, like the aftershock following an earthquake, the ground shook again and the second boom vibrated in my head. I was squeezing the bread and praying as rocks and boulders dropped everywhere. Again nothing touched me. Not even a pebble.
One more to go. I prayed harder, squeezed the bread tighter, and expected oblivion. Boom! But still I was unscathed.
Still trembling after the third deluge of boulders, rocks, and dirt, I slowly let out the breath I'd been holding. Back at the barbershop the three miners stood watching. One waved. This time I raised a shaking arm and wiggled my fingers. He had risked his life for me. I knew that now.
I felt I had been stupid, so I decided not to tell my mother what had happened. But I had to confess when she pointed to the squished loaf and exclaimed, "What in the world happened to the bread?"
I didn't expect her to get mushy about my narrow escape, but I didn't expect her to be mad, either–which is what she seemed to be.
"There must have been a warning posted," she said sternly. "They don't start blasting without making sure people know about it."
I shook my head. "I didn't see anything."
"Well," she said finally, "one thing you'd better remember if you're going to survive in this town is that you have to stay alert. Pay attention to what's going on around you."
By now I felt like crying. Maybe it showed, because my mother suddenly pulled me close, gave me a tight squeeze, and kissed the top of my head. "Your guardian angel had a busy day," she whispered. "I'm glad you asked for God's help."
"It's good to know He's there," I replied. "It's like having a friend close beside me all the time."