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The mining of coal is one of the toughest jobs a person can have, even by today’s much improved standards. I come from a long line of miners across the southern regions of the United States. Both grandfathers worked the mine. One died from black lung and the other just quit living somewhere along the way. Sons followed fathers in search of black gold, including my own father. That is, until it rained hell one day.
It was the kind of morning kids remember later in life. The sky was a brilliant, crystal blue of sparkling sapphire; not like the washed-out bubble that hangs over the planet today. Birds were awakening and nocturnal species were kissing their babies goodnight. A breeze from the west carried the smell of wild flowers and fir, stirring up the black dust and rust across the stained courtyard that spilled out from the mine’s lone entrance.
None of the miners that morning saw any of this and some never would again. They left company-owned homes like vampires under the glow of fading moonlight to bow their heads at the blessed altar of the low elevator that dropped them down to the pit where they earned their pay. Back then, salaries mostly came in the form of cash, with automatic deductions for taxes, tools, housing, and the company store which left little to nothing beyond existence. There was always hell to pay after the money was gone, every single day, and miners were on their own to pay that debt with what was left of their bodies. But today would demand an ultimate price.
Switch on the headlamps. Light the lanterns. Lead us with blind faith to the devil’s door.
Bare, flickering bulbs led the way twenty feet at a time like bell jars filled with lightening bugs through a maze of worked out tunnels. The sound of boots echoed along the corridors of dark, greasy, almost geometric rock. No one ever counted the steps. No one wanted to know how far they were below the ground.
Dear Lord, just get us back to our families before the dead of this night.
The work rooms opened at right angles off the main heading. Most men were looking forward to digging their ten to twenty feet of coal and getting back home safely. But today’s room was already a very dangerous and over-mined thirty feet wide. It was more than five feet beyond prudence; beyond sanity. They had taken as much as this cavern would give. Before they abandoned her though, as a final act they would pillar rob any remaining coal; a technique to extract the last bits of energy by pulling out the supports, allowing the roof to collapse onto the mine floor.
By the time the four miners picked up their sledgehammers, the ceiling was already raining cinders of coal. It was coming down soon, maybe on its own. They had to remove a key pillar or two and get out of there before the whole thing came down. My father swung at the first piling like Lou Gehrig in the bottom of the ninth, connecting just below the shim and joist. No one could tell for sure if the loud crack came before or after the hammer hit. The 8X8 crossbeam dropped suddenly and hit him across the face. That’s when the roof fell on the unforgiven.
Bad news travels faster than a bullet to the heart, and leaves the same wound.
The rumble shook the Earth above. That wasn’t unusual. After all, the shake of underground black powder explosions was common but when my mother looked up from her chores, I knew something was different this time. She ran. She ran through the screen door and down the dirt path to the mine yard in time to see the last few machine operators disappear inside the entrance.
Something was wrong. Bad wrong. The yard was never this quiet. Men were always there, perched in cockpits of oversized machinery that blasted heavy metal noise against the ridge walls like the music we would love in twenty years’ time. Now the yard was as silent as death. The ticking of time was noted only by the beating of my mother’s heart.
She was vaguely aware of someone standing beside her now; another wife, mother, or sister. She wasn’t sure. No one spoke. I didn’t know if there was nothing to say or if words just wouldn’t come. One minute passed. Two. Ten.
An ambulance quietly rolled into the yard. Then, another. Six vehicles in all rested between the women and the mine entrance. White hearses coated in black dirt. I don’t know how their legs held the women upright. Hope and determination seemed to be strength enough. Another fifteen minutes passed. Time was an unbearable companion during hours like these.
The dark figure of the foreman slowly shuffled out of the mine, removing his helmet and tucking it beneath an arm. A white cap of hair jostled in the breeze. He ran fingers through his silky mat, leaving black zebra streaks in its wake. One of the women took an anxious step forward as the man approached. The others followed.
“Three are dead and one seriously injured,” he said without preamble. “Vada Mae, you’ll be accompanying Ed to the hospital when they bring him up. Edith, Sara, Betty, please follow me.”
Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.
The gurney drifted across the hard-packed ground toward the ambulance; an unreal, bright day nightmare. My father’s body was motionless but the blood-soaked towel on his face told the whole story. His nose had been crushed when the full weight of the crossbeam dropped on his face. A chain reaction crumbled the fragile low ceiling, burying the four miners under tons of coal.
After emergency constructive surgery and a week of intensive care, my father was released to recuperate at home. Left with a small scar in the shape of a holy cross on the bridge of his new nose, this Marine Corps veteran of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa had learned a valuable life lesson and never went back to the mines. My parents packed up our lives, what there were of them, into the back of a ‘49 Ford and moved north to Chicago in search of a new career.
(True story excerpt from the thought provoking nonfiction Endangered Earthlings' Handbook.)
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The Coal Mine
Coming of Age | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage