Photo by Lance Booth.

“We were working in low coal, ‘bout like this,” Thurman said to me. “None of the equipment had canopies. Nothing to shield us from the top. I was at my lowest of low points. I just pressed the lever to raise the deck, thinking I could bruise my shoulder, scrape myself up a little. I thought it would be a quick trip to the hospital to get me a fix [of pain pills] until my next appointment. Once I got myself wedged against the top I couldn’t move my arm enough to release the lever and if my buddy wouldn’t have walked around the corner I might have ended up dead. Instead, he was able to shut the pinner off and I only suffered a fractured shoulder blade and couple of broken ribs.”

Thurman was telling me about his last day underground before taking a two-year break from mining. He had worked at one of the largest and oldest mines in Perry County. Whether they died from a mine accident, health issues, or an overdose, it was well known that these men were often worked to death, literally. Thurman began working for the coal company at 18. He had dropped out of high school his sophomore year to work at a small-town garage doing oil changes and tire rotations, the minimum. Like the majority of young men in Eastern Kentucky, he had seen the coal miners bringing in their new-model automobiles and their restored classic cars, and he wanted to be in the driver’s seat, not covered in oil under a rack doing service.

Thurman told me about his 18th birthday

“I didn’t have a birthday party and I didn’t go out drinking with my buddies. I went up to the office of mines and minerals and started my underground training. My father worked for the company and they had told him that if I got my papers, they’d hire me immediately. It was one of the big booms of the 80’s. So while my brother was off to college getting a degree in numbers and money, I took a week-long class and within six months I was making more money than what my brother would make in two years. Shortly after I got my job in the mines, I got married and ended up with a baby.”

Thurman’s first home with his new family was a used double-wide trailer on a piece of property his father-in-law had given to them. Thurman’s brother had just graduated college and had moved back in with his parents. Despite Thurman’s ability to create a comfortable living for himself, he said he could not convince his brother to take up ranks in the mines, giving up his dream of working in management, finance, or some other “puny office job,” as Thurman referred to it.

“My brother sold used cars for years because there weren’t many options for him in the region, and he didn’t want to leave mom and dad. He moved around to a lot of different car lots before landing his big job at Cardinal Chevrolet in Hazard. Of course, he started at the bottom, doing detail work and working with customers that no one else wanted to because everyone in town knew they didn’t have a pot to piss in and their credit wasn’t good enough to get a candy bar on loan.”

As his brother climbed the ranks of the car dealership chain, Thurman’s life was headed in the other direction. He descended into a dark and lonely place, and he didn’t come up for a long time.

The problems started when the work got harder and the hours got longer.

“It was a crazy time. The company didn’t care about us, we were working 16 hour shifts, seven days a week. There were times that we would work 20-hour shifts. They would tell us to sleep in the shower house and be ready to go back in after a four hour nap. This would go on for weeks and sometimes months before we would get a day off. I remember one time I didn’t go home for three days. My wife had gotten so worried she drove to the mine with our 3 year old son and demanded they bring me outside. They let me take the weekend off to be with my family that week.

“But, ya know man, a person works his body into the ground like that and it eventually is going to break down. That’s when we all started doing pills, crank, and coke. Anything we could do to make it through the shift without pain and without nodding off while pinning top.”

Some men would break bones and never miss a day’s work. They would cut themselves underground and wrap the wound with old rags and electrical tape. Sometimes it would heal just fine, other times they would end up with a nasty infection. All to avoid missing a day’s work. The cycle of money, drugs, and hard work took its toll on the miner, his family, friends, and the people he came in contact with in the outside world.

“It went on like that for a long time. Once safety regulations got more strict and there became more inspectors, the company was forced to hire more men and to give us more reasonable hours. The only problem was our dope habits didn’t change. I was doing just as much dope as I ever had but I wasn’t working as much overtime. This meant I was putting my family in a financial bind and it seemed as though I would spend just as much time away from home as I ever had trying to get a fix or being laid up somewhere with some pill whore.”

Thurman got a little choked up as we sat in the dark on the back of the roof bolter. His wife left him. His parents and his brother took care of his son while he struggled to hold down both a job and an active drug habit.

“It got bad. I had began cooking crank in the RV that I was living in. At one point my father kicked me off of his property, and I began sleeping at my dope dealers and giving crank to people to let me sleep on their couches and floors. I tried to get better. I started going to the methadone clinic and the suboxone clinic, but those didn’t help. They were just legal ways of getting my fix.”

He said he didn’t think all of these clinics were bad, but, in his experience, they would continue to up his dose instead of lowering it, no matter how much he begged. They always said, “You’re not ready to go lower, we have to raise your dosage to break you of the addiction before we can start bringing you down.”

“I just couldn’t keep living that way, and I was always craving more no matter what I did. It was the day that I almost killed myself when I knew I had to do something. When you are being crushed between a big piece of equipment and the roof of the mine, you quickly reevaluate everything you are doing.

“I didn’t go back into the mine after that accident. I went straight to my parents’ house, in tears, I explained that I had to change. I wanted to be there to see my son graduate. I wanted to see him go to college, I wanted to see my grandchildren. I moved into my parents’ basement and went cold turkey. It was the hardest time of my life. I wanted to die some days. I lost weight. I lived on Pedialyte.

“My mother once came in to check on me and called 911 because I was having a seizure. That was almost six months ago. I still miss the feeling of being high and forgetting about everything, but I hate myself enough that I’ll never give myself the pleasure of feeling that way again. I’ll also never put one of these f***ing black holes before my family or myself. I’ll go back to changing oil and brake pads if I have to.”

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.

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