It was all coming back to me, the smell of sulphur and the roar of mining bits cutting the sandstone. We started our shift before the moon and sun had traded places, the cold winter air cutting through the layers of clothes and our yellow muck suits. The sun rose and set as we worked through rain and snow on the frozen ground beneath our feet. This was all too similar to my days of work at Frontier Kemper, but now it seemed like just another day. There was no fear, no worry, and no pain. I would often compare this new mine to Frontier Kemper and say to myself, “You were such a wimp back then.”
Through the purchase of Enterprise Mining, LLC and the merger with Alpha Natural Resources, Enterprise Mining LLC had made the decision to expand. The company had made the decision to cut a new slope/shaft mine directly beside the Enterprise #8 Mine. This would allow the two mines to operate at a much greater capacity, which in turn leads to more revenue. We cut a 3,500 foot slope with enough angle to reach the #9 Seam, less than 100 feet below the #8. The slope would be long and steep but still allow us to use diesel-powered mantrips to enter and exit the mine. So here I was, almost six years beyond my first job at Frontier Kemper and I was back to the basics. Granted, I was a certified mine emergency technician, skilled roof bolter, and I had been taught by some of the best. None of that changed the fact that I was standing in the rain and snow, freezing my ass off just to cut through the layers of this mountain to find more black gold.
Just two days after completing my Mine Emergency Technician Program, the company asked me to transfer to the mining construction crew to be a general laborer, MET, and roof bolter when needed. I would be working 12-hour shifts Monday through Thursday. Granted, it paid well, and I would get a three-day weekend, but the superintendent knows that when he asked one of us young guys to step up to the plate, we’re not going to say no. None of us was looking for a spot in the unemployment line. So there I was. I wanted to continue moving up but also taking what felt like a huge step back in hopes of finding some sort of glory from my career as a coal miner. What I found was that 5 a.m. in December is cold, especially when you are standing in water just below your knees. As the wind blew, I pulled my hood over my head and stooped over the frozen water line with an acetylene torch. The cheap rubber boots given to us were about as helpful as the garbage bags we had wrapped our feet in to help protect us from the water that leaked into the boots. Cap Wedge, an older man from Southwest Virginia, was my mentor on the project. He told me, “You gotta toughen up, son. A little cold water ain’t gonna hurt ya, just keep you awake. Go get you a big thermos full of coffee — that’s what will keep ya warm. Now quit cryin’ and help me set these bits.”
Cap Wedge had worked for Alpha Natural Resources through the purchase of other companies for over 40 years. He had hired into a United Mine Workers union mine at the age of 18 and had worked for the same company through the many strikes, fights, and shoot outs. He had stood by the company as they disbanded the union by closing down and opening up under a new business name and license, sold to a larger corporation, and sent him and his family from town to town as mines were “worked out” and new ones were opened. Cap Wedge had transferred to this new mine, travelling 50 miles one way, to act as the miner operator, shift supervisor, and the brains of the operation. He had led the construction of a new slope just one year prior and had worked on over 15 new slope mines during his career. He was a certified foreman in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Not to mention his skills as a roof bolter, continuous miner operator, shuttle car operator, continuous bridge operator … the list went on. He had seen mining slowly transition from physical labor to heavy equipment. This also allowed him to experience the hard times that followed. Fewer miners were employed at each mine, then came the strikes, the lay offs, as the old saying goes, “boom or bust.” Cap Wedge had seen it happen many times over in his years at a miner.
“I don’t stick with this company because they’re good to me or because I think they’re trustworthy. I stick with this company because I have shown them my dedication, skills, and I have earned my experience in their mines. They’re more likely to trust me and keep me on board this way. I don’t drive over an hour each way to work because I want to work in Kentucky. I hate most of you f***ing Wildcat fans. I drive over here because they ask me to. I don’t take my job for granted, and if you’re smart you won’t either. Take every ounce of overtime they offer you, work every shift you can, and don’t go out livin’ high on the hog. You’ll learn, and hopefully not the hard way, that these mines don’t last long. If they say there’s 50 years of mining, you better plan on going to a new mine in 15. That’s just how it goes. Now we go belly up again, you better be prepared for the hardest five or 10 years of your life. I went three years one time in and out of jobs. I did everything from shoveling coal into rail cars, cutting grass at the hospital, even spent a few months working as a janitor for the county schools. Don’t take this for granted. They may cut everyone’s pay tomorrow or tell us to shut down and go home in the next 15 minutes. Nothing’s guaranteed so take what you can get and be happy with it.”
I worked close with Cap Wedge. I learned that he was a hard man, abrasive, yet very kind. He taught me a lot about mining, more about the life of a coal miner than the job itself. So I had to find out why he had earned the nickname Cap Wedge.
(A cap wedge is a triangular shaped wedge, similar to a door stop. It was used in the early days of mining to secure timbers as roof support. In more modern times you would see them used to secure brattice lines, timbers, and anything else that needed to be secured by force. You use the “cap wedge” to squeeze the timber or block between the roof and floor of the mine.)
So, after some time, I finally asked him about his nickname. “Well, I just lie around not doing sh** for most of the time, but you can’t run the mine without me.”
This statement was not a complete truth, and I doubt that is how he earned the name but I accepted the answer for the truth that lay inside it. I have never known of a mine to run without a cap wedge. Without them, there was no brattice line to control the ventilation system, and there would be no way to set timbers to keep us safe during an emergency retreat. But this particular Cap Wedge didn’t just lie around. He worked more than any of us. But it was definitely trying, and the mine could not run without him being there.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.