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For the past two years, six days a week, 12 hours a day, I did hard labor. I had the biceps, triceps, and forearms to prove it. I was 20 years old and an eastern Kentucky coal miner. But I still didn’t have a company job. I was a contract miner, working through an employment agency.
I stepped off the mantrip and walked across the coal yard to the mine office as Terry, the mine superintendent, walked out of the office.
“Hey Bentley, come here for a minute. I need to talk to you.”
“Yea, what’s going on, Terry?”
“I promised if you did a good job that I would get you hired on. Well, you have proven yourself, and the company is going to give you a company job. You need to go to the office in Mousie tomorrow morning to fill out the application. Be there by 8 a.m. Schomo will be there waiting for you.”
I woke up the next morning at precisely 4:30 a.m. with nowhere to go. I was in my truck and driving 45 miles to Mousie, Kentucky, before 6 a.m. I arrived at the office an hour early. But I’d much rather be early by an hour than to be on time. The security guard let me through the gate, directed me up the gravel road to the parking lot, and informed me that Schomo wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour.
I sat nervously in my truck. I had worn my nicest mining uniform, brand new company hat that Terry had given me when I first came to the mine, and a brand new pair of Matterhorns. Schomo arrived at 8 a.m., not a minute early or a minute late. I had seen him around the mine site before but only in passing. He was a short, stocky man with coal-black hair. When I’d seen him, he didn’t speak and kept a stern look on his face. He was all business, no play. I stepped out of my truck and greeted him before he could open the door to his SUV.
“Hello, I’m Gary Bentley. Terry Slone from Beaver Creek sent me over to pick up an application.”
“Gary, son, I know who you are. I see you all the time. Come upstairs with me and stop being so damned formal. You are making me uncomfortable.”
I followed Schomo up the stairs and down a short hallway to his office, where he casually tossed me a company employment application.
“Go to the Prestonsburg Hospital,” Schomo said. “We need you to do a physical and drug test. Fill this application out in the waiting room or wherever and bring it back when you get done.”
“My daddy told me he would disown me if I ever worked in them mines. He said only a yellow belly would work in one of them scab holes.”
I walked out of his office, ran down stairs, jumped in my truck and drove to Prestonsburg. On the way I called my mom and dad, leaving voicemails to tell them the good news. It was the same feeling I got as a kid Christmas morning walking through the hallway of our trailer wanting to see what Santa had brought for me. I had lost focus on my college education. All I could think about is everything that a 20-year-old could do with $70,000 a year. I was going to move out, get an apartment. I was going to buy a new vehicle, an ATV, and I could start spoiling my younger sister by giving her all of the things my parents could not afford. This was going to easily provide everything I needed, or so I thought.
I took the exit for 23 North toward Prestonsburg and Paintsville and pulled in at the Marathon gas station just a mile north of the exit ramp.
“Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the Prestonsburg Hospital?”
The gentleman at the counter was older, pushing 60. He was balding and what hair he had left was silver. He stepped from behind the counter at a slow pace as his words fell from his mouth in a tired mumble.
“Well, I think you go up here past the tradin’ post and you’ll see a McDonald’s. Just turn right there and you’ll see the hospital signs. They’ll take ya right to it.”
I thanked the man, but not until I finished bragging about my first company job as an underground coal miner.
He with something I wasn’t ready to hear:
“My daddy told me he would disown me if I ever worked in them mines. He said only a yellow belly would work in one of them scab holes. He watched men die working them seams, and he watched men die fighting with the company thugs just so they could go die a-workin’. I figure I didn’t want to die just so I could make a few bucks. Money ain’t everything, kid. But I wish you the best and hope you come out better than the rest of ’em.”
I was young, cocky, and ignorant. I ignored what the man said — shrugged it off and drove to the hospital.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.