The old miner from Mulkeytown, his face lined with age and his voice husky from years working in black dust, sat at one end of the town's combination bar-pool hall, holding forth angrily and loudly about the 88-day coal strike.

The son sat at the other end, also talking about the strike - seemingly the town's only topic of conversation, but invisible to his father because of a narrow shaft of bright sunlight that obscured him in the dimness of the room, filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer.

But the father scowled in the direction of the son, because he remembers going down into the deep mines in the 1930s, wearing a carbide-burning lamp in his hat, and picking coal seams by hand. He was paid $4.08 a ton, loaded, and somehow this coal strike - the naton's longest - didn't seem right.

The old man persistently tugged at the bill of his orange hat, his face getting redder and his voice rising as he berated the barroom at large, but nobody in particular.

"They don't know what work is. They don't know what they're talking about. They didn't get paid four dollars and eight cents, and have to pay to sharpen their own pick," the old man said, and the other miners smiled and studied their beer glasses more closely.

The old man's father organized mines in Perry County and Franklin County, Ill., during the bloody organizing wars, which only the oldtimers talk much about. The old men also talk about the Orient No. 2 mine disaster of Dec. 21, 1951, and the explosion in centralia that killed 109 men.

The old miner's son, 22 years old and with all of 91 days as an apprentice in the Orient No. 3 mine before America's 160,000 United Mine Workers struck Dec. 6, said he didn't think much of the tentative contract reached last week between the union and the coal operators.

He doesn't like the new absenteeism policies, the new work rules, cutbacks in medical benefits or the new sanctions against wildcat strikes.

But he expressed his displeasure cautiously, glancing in his father's direction for a sign of reproachment.

"I live in the same house with him, and he'd chase me out if you put my picture in the paper. He doesn't think much of the strike," the son said.

The father and son from Mulkey-town are among the many paradoxes in the deeply divided coalfields, not just in this snow-swept southern Illinois town but everyplace where clannish yet fiercely independent men go deep into the earth to make their living.

Father and sons divided and brothers against each other on the contract are commonplace in the coalfields. At a meeting of UMW Local 1124 Thursday, a young miner stood to complain about a mine safety clause in the bulky contract, asking that more attention be given to it in the meeting. His father stood up three seats away and shouted angrily, "Read it, son, read it!"

The exchange brought laughter from the assembled miners, but the significance was lost to no one.

Young men say they are fighting to keep the wages, benefits and work rules for which their fathers fought bitterly, and some of the old miners are saddened that their sons have to fight the same debilitating battles that they did.

The tension of conscience and conflicts between duty to country and loyalty to union - are surfacing as coal miners throughout the country begin balloting in earnest today and tomorrow on the proposed contract.

Paul Fowler, who is striking Old Ben No. 21 mine here, is one who says he lives with a constant emotional conflict.

"I want to work, believe me. I want to work so bad it hurts. But my dad was a coal miner since he was 15. He is picked at the coal and he's done it the hard way.

"If ever I voted for this contract, he'd come up out of his grave and beat hell out of me. I have to get back the things my father fought for, or his life didn't mean anything," Fowler said.

Amos Mitchell, 59, sat in the Engert Cafe on the town square in nearby Benton, drinking coffee and saying he feels a different kind of conflict, one involving patriotism and the prospect of being ordered by the president of his country to go back to work if the union rejects the contract and the mines are seized by the government.

Mitchell has had that reeling of conflict before - in 1946 when he was at the old Bell & Zaller Mine at Zigler, Ill, and President Truman seized the mines.

Mitchell had just returned from World War II, an Army veteran who had fought at Guadalcanal and served in Burma and India.

"They had this sign at the mine, along with the official order to work. It said, 'This is America. If you don't like it, leave.' I remember that sign," Mitchell said.

Mitchell works at Orient No. 3 now, and he plans to vote against the contract because "the big print gives and the little print takes away. It's worse than the 1974 contract."

But if he is ordered by his president to work, he will work, Mitchell says.

"I'm a patriot to the last drop. I put four years in the war. When the government tells me to work. I'll go to work I'm not going to defy my government," he said.

Ray Osborne, who works at Monterey No. 2 mine, in Albers, Ill, said he, too, will work if the mines are seized, and he is ordered to - but not if the contract is ratified.

Osborne doesn't have any teeth, because, he said, coal fell onto him in the mines. "I'll quit before I work under this contract. I'll pump gas if I have to," he said.

If Illinois' 16,,000 miners reject the contract - as they did in 1974 - it will be because of unrest and militancy in this downstate region, hard by the Kentucky border.

In interview and in local union meetings over the past two days, the miners said they were concerned most about benefit reductions - particularly in hospitalization - and about new rules providing disciplinary action against "instigators" of wildcat strikes.

They are also unhappy about new rules limiting absenteeism, cost-of-living raises they say fall behind inflation and work rules designed to increase productivity.

"For a lot of men, the only reason they work in the mines is for the medical benefits and the pension," said Dan Duncan, who was disabled in the mines last year.

The other big issue here is the wild-cat strike, the bane of the coal operators, who say they cannot profitably produce coal under the current rate of wildcat strikes.

For their part, the miners claim they cannot settle legitimate grievances on such crucial disputes as mine safety withou resorting to the wildcat strike. They say this is particularly so since the major oil companies began buyinng into coal operations in the 1950s.

"If we can't wildcat without fear of being fired, we might as well go back to having the old company store. The oil companies are out to break the union, and they'll provoke wildcats," said Ross Saul, an Old Ben No. 21 miner.

Eugene Mitchell, of Benton, who went into the mines in 1939 and now is a NMW executive board member, said the contract fails to fulfill the miners' most basic need - more time off.

"It's a fact that working in the mine will kill you," said Mitchell, who said his father developed black lung disease in the mines. "Miners are proud and working in the mines is a way of life, not just a job. But what they really need is more time off without fear of losing their jobs," he said.

But time off is not everything to every miner, or so Harold Swisher, of Waltonville, maintains.

Describing himself as an "everyday", worker, Swisher, a repairman in the Orient No. 3 mine, said, "The contract won't bother me . . . but the guy who wants a loophole to take off and go hunting or get drunk, well, he's got a problem."

Swisher, 52, said he hasn't decided how he will vote. But he conjectured that the talk around here might turn out to be more militant than the voting.

"Some of the loudmouths, you can't go by. They're mad, and the operators are to blame for making them that way. But a secret ballot is something different than talking big," Swisher said.