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The wind pulled the tail of my mining uniform shirt up behind my head, turning and twisting it as I sped across the abandoned mine haul roads. The gravel sprayed from beneath my tires as I leaned hard to the inside, sliding through the curves like my favorite dirt track race car drivers.
This was a part of my daily routine for nearly two weeks while the mine was closed from the explosion. I would leave my apartment on Pinetop on my ATV and travel across abandoned and working strip mines working my way across the ridges until I had found my spot on the ridge just outside of Hindman. At the edge of this ridge, I had a clear view of the work being done at the Consol mine. I would pack a lunch and sit on the front rack of the ATV watching the contractors drilling into the earth. Then came the 18-wheeled tanker trucks bringing in nitrogen to pump into the mine. And finally, there were the corporate officials landing their helicopters to get the most recent updates, worried about when we might be mining coal again.
I felt guilty for leaving this mine and leaving Consol. They had given me my big break. They hired me for a company job, not just a temporary position, making more money than I could have ever dreamed of when I first began.
I felt consumed by the industry, the work, and the money. I was now in my fourth semester of college and transferring schools. But I was no longer sure if teaching was where my passion lay. I felt attached to my co-workers and to the mine. The miners were my family and the mine was my home. That was another reason I was nervous about receiving the phone call telling me of my first day at Enterprise Mining, my new employer. As I sat there watching all of the sweat, hard work, hours, and money that were being put towards saving this mine as well as saving my job I could not help but feel guilty and ashamed of myself for jumping to conclusions. I threw my leg across the seat of my ATV, fired the engine, and spun the rear tires fishtailing for the first three gears.
When I arrived at my apartment that evening I noticed I had a voicemail on my cell phone.
“Hi, this is Sharon with Enterprise Mining. I’m calling for Gary Bentley. We have scheduled a new hire orientation for this Monday. If you could please call me back and confirm that you will be there. Thank you.”
As I pressed the end call button I spoke to myself.
“This Enterprise mine is less gassy, it’s a new start, the pay is better, and the mine is smaller. You will have more opportunities,” I said to myself.
I awoke the next morning to my phone ringing.
“Hi Gary, this is Craig. I just wanted to let you know that things are looking very good! If you would please come in at 12 p.m. on Friday. We’re going to provide lunch for everyone and give an update on the mine and an expected return to work date.”
“Alright, thank you.”
On Friday morning as I was getting dressed, I had made the decision to arrive before noon. I would load up my trunk of equipment, return my rescuer and brass tags, and inform Schomo that I would not be coming back to work. As I turned right out of Hindman onto Highway 80, I was sweating profusely and feeling sick to my stomach. I was about to make a life changing decision and everything was placed into my hands to make the decision on my own. When the tires of my truck left pavement, the sound of gravel against the undercarriage brought back the memory of my first day at the mine and caused me to second guess my decision to leave.
Walking into the changing rooms, I looked around at the trunks, lockers, and steel boxes lining the walls. I thought about Leroy, Sonny, Justin, and all of the other men I had worked with at the mine. I had the same gut feeling as if I was ending a bad relationship. It hurt, but deep inside I knew I was making the best decision. I opened my trunk. There were the Matterhorn boots I had worn for the better part of a year. My mining belt was lying across the bottom, the same mining belt I wore on my very first day working underground. My hard hat on the top of my boots, decorated with every mining sticker I had been given during my short career in mining. I closed the box, latched the top, and packed it out to the bed of my pickup truck. Walking back to the mine office with my light, brass tags, and self rescuer in hand, I knew that the hardest part was yet to come. As my hand turned the doorknob to the mine office, I could feel a slight tremble in my fingers as the door opened. I turned left and walked towards the back of the hallway, halfway hoping that Schomo would not be in his office and that I could drop off my things and avoid this situation.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
There was no mistaking the loud and commanding voice. It was Schomo. As I stepped through the door, my body language said everything.
“Bentley, best thing I can tell you is right now, before you say a word, take that sh*t back into the trailer, pretend you never came in here and go get a plate of food and get ready to come back to work.”
“Ahh, I think I’ve messed up already. I’ve ruined my name with the company,” referring to my one week’s suspension for taking an unapproved camera into the mine. “Don’t you think it’s best I move on?”
“For f***sake kid, if I quit a job every time I screwed up or got into trouble, I would have already run out of mines to work at. I know the suspension with possible termination and everything going on right now can be scary, but I’ll be honest. We ain’t had a whole lot of coal miners that are good enough on a computer to do the sh*t you did. No one knew how to handle the situation. No one wanted to see you lose your job, but we had to do something. Corporate was on our ass. Now go put your sh*t back and get some food. I’ll be out in a minute to talk to everyone about when we plan on coming back to work.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to quit. I just can’t do it.”
“Well Bentley, I think you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. I appreciate you coming to talk to me, but I think you’re messing up. It’s been good getting to know you and I hope that I see you back here someday.”
Driving out of the parking lot I passed my co-workers, friends, and the men who had trained me to be the miner that I had become. It was hard to face them. I didn’t look any of them in the eye. I would nod my head in acknowledgement or do the simple gesture of throwing my hand up in the air against my drive side window. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and ready to move forward with a clean slate and a fresh start.
“In the Black” is published every Monday. Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from east Kentucky.