Photo by Lance Booth.

Part of a series.

Second of two parts

There were 12 of us men sitting with our backs against the raw steel. We felt the firing of every piston and the rotation of the cam, with our knees to our chest and our bodies wedged inside the diesel powered mantrip. It was a warm fall day. When the man trip entered the portal, the cold air rushed from the bottom of the 300-foot slope, chilling our faces as we entered the Elkhorn coal seam.

During the trip, my mind drifted into a haze and my eyes followed the string of floodlights that lit the travel ways of the mine. The mantrip slid around corners and the transmission barked. Some men slept; some ate sandwiches. I drifted off into my own imaginary world for this one hour of solitude before the work began.

At the work site, T.J. started in on Scott, a miner he knew from a previous job at the Leeco Mine. The two men were paired up to pin the top with the roof bolter, preventing rockfalls.

“Hey, Scott, you gonna let me run that operator side today?” T.J. asked.

“No, T.J. You are just as dumb now as you were five years ago at Leeco. You ain’t never gonna change and I damned sure ain’t watching cable so you can tram the damn pinner around all night.”

That answer didn’t satisfy T.J.

“I tell ya what. Let’s see who can put three bolts up the fastest and winner gets to run operator side today.”
“All right, T.J. If you can put two bolts up to my three, I’ll let you have it today.”

T.J. thought that was a great bargain. “It’s on you, red-headed f***er,” he said. “I told you, I’m the best pinner man in Perry County.”

“Well, good thing I’m from Leslie County, otherwise you wouldn’t be.”

T.J. had been quick to let everyone know he had worked with Scott when he saw him walking through the parking lot on Wednesday evening. They had been teasing and bickering with one another like two adolescent brothers for the last two days. You could see that T.J. was the younger of the two, and just the day before I saw how quickly agitated Scott would become with T.J.

That had been our first night together on crew. I was helping run a scoop and hauling supplies to the roof bolter. I carried a box of glue to the operator side. The dust from the rear of the machine made it hard to see. The roaring sound of a pulsing hydraulic tank made it almost impossible to hear. And within 10 feet of the rear of the pinner, the heat was overwhelming.

“God damnit, T.J, didn’t I tell you to put some oil in this f***ing thing?” Scott yelled. “I can’t even get enough pressure to push my drill pot to the top.”

“I ain’t a f***ing mechanic. I told you I’d go get some oil when I got a chance. If you weren’t busy sucking ass and running that miner when we had a break, you could have helped me put oil in it.”

“Least you could have done is cleaned your f***ing dust box and filter,” Scott responded. “This sh** is ridiculous.”

“Quit your bitchin’, Scott. Just put the bolts in the top so I can get a nap.”

At that point, the motor stopped running, dust stopped blowing from the rear of the roof bolter, and Scott was crawling around the backside of the machine. He grabbed T.J. by the back of his T-shirt and pinned him on the ground. Everyone across the section heard him.

“Listen here, you wormy little son of a bitch. We might have worked together years ago. We might have partied after work every night, but I’ve changed. I come here to do a job, make a good living, and go home to my kids each night. If you want to f**k off and be a dumbass you go right ahead. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll kick your ass and take you outside myself before I’m going to put up with it.”

T.J. just began to snicker. “I knew I could get you, Scott. Same hot headed asshole you’ve always been. Now finish putting up that bolt. We got a good break coming after we bolt this place.”

Scott shoved him back into the ground, shook his head, and crawled back around to finish bolting the cut they were in.

The very next day, T.J. was working on getting himself into the same damned situation.

“Scott, I tell you what. You just keep that operator’s side today, I feel bad for ya.”

“Why would you feel bad for me? You just don’t want me to show you up on that pinner.”

“Nah, while all you idiots are down here rolling in the mud and sweatin’ your asses off, I’ll be at the Black Gold Festival with all them little honey baby’s comin’ in from college.”

The mantrip had finally come to a stop and it was time to get to work. I was helping Thor with the scoop. We loaded roof bolt supplies, cleaned the section, and hung curtain.

Suddenly the section became surprisingly quiet. The power had been shut off to the roof bolter in the next entry, and everyone had stopped working. As we duck-walked out of our entry, which was about 36 inches high, I saw Aaron running under the low top. He was bent over with his knees hitting him in the chin. You could hear his hard hat hitting the roof bolts, and I could only imagine the tears in his flesh from the corners of the roof plates. Thor and I crawled beside of the shuttle car. Jerry, our mechanic, came around the corner on his electric buggy with the first aid kit. I saw Chris sitting on the edge of his shuttle car and yelled over to him.

“Hey man, what’s going on? Everyone OK?”

He smiled, a smirk maybe that contained a hint.

“T.J. said one way or the other he was going to Black Gold Festival. Well, by god, he’s getting a first-class trip in an ambulance tonight. The dumbass got his glove caught in the steel and twisted his hand up pretty bad. He’ll live though. Hell, he ain’t even hollerin’ or nothing, just giving Aaron hell because they can’t get his glove unraveled from the steel to get him out of here.”

Thor and I went back to work, we finished cleaning and dusting the entryway before Aaron came over to talk to us.

“I need everyone to come to the power box. We had an accident and need to talk to everyone about the situation.”

We followed Aaron. Surprisingly, at the power box, T.J. was sitting on the side with his hand wrapped in a rag as blood soaked through and dripped into the rockdust. Scott sat on the opposite side of the power box sweating profusely, eating a Snickers bar, and drinking a Mountain Dew. Finally, Jerry spoke up.

“T.J., you seem to be in pretty good spirits, and since you’re still waiting on a ride out, why don’t you tell us what happened?”

“Ah, I think the thread came loose in my roof bolting gloves and got caught in the connector of the drill steel and before I realized, it I was being all twisted up.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you fell into the panic bar or it could have been much worse.” The panic bar cut the power to the bolter. “I had a buddy back in ‘85 who lost an arm the same damned way.”

“Yea, well I might not get my finger back so how’s about that for f***ing luck?, T.J. responded. “ I guess I can still eat a funnel cake tomorrow night at the festival, though.”

T.J. climbed onto the mantrip for the ride out.

Aaron told us all that there was no excuse for this type of accident. We were using a “hands off’” drill steel, meaning there was no reason for T.J. to have his hand on the steel when he was drilling. It shouldn’t have happened.

Aaron looked over at Thor and me.

“Thor, you go bolt with Scott tonight. Gary, looks like it’s your time to shine.” I was going to run the scoop on my own.

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Letcher County, Kentucky.

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