Photo by Lance Booth.

Rat hosted our safety meeting and discussed the mine fatality reports from the past week across the nation. The coal miners sat quietly listening. Likely each of us was imagining ourselves in the place of the victim. I know I was. Who was I leaving behind? Who would be crying at my funeral? Any of us in the room could be the next statistic to be brought up in a pre-shift safety meeting.

We were interrupted by the stairs that lead into the changing room. It sounded as if an excavator was pulling the steel grating off each step and the porch was ripping off the side of the building. Everyone in the room looked around confused. Rat grinned.

When the door opened, a man stepped sideways through the opening. He was all of 6 foot 6 and so wide that he had no choice but to enter the door sideways, ducking as he stepped through the frame. Behind him came another man, bearded, just over 5 feet tall and just as round. We gave a bit of a snicker, and a third man squeezed through the door. He was young, baby faced, and didn’t look to be more than 16, but by his size he could have consumed a couple of 15 year olds on his way to work. Aaron, the foreman, walked through the door behind them and pointed at the first man.

“This is Tiny. He worked for one of our contract mines as a car operator. He’s got years of experience and should prove to be a valuable member of our team.”

Aaron stepped over the bench and pointed to the second man.

“This is Rick. He came from the Consol slope mine. He is another veteran shuttle car operator, and we’re excited to have him here with us. Now, Calvin over here is green,” Aaron said, pointing at the youngest miner. “He’s not got his 45 days in yet, but he graduated from the Mine Technology School over in Prestonsburg. He’s a smart kid that knows his stuff, but he’s going to need you all to help me along his way. Treat him good or else you may be the next one looking for a job.”

Aaron explained that these three men were hired to help bring new shuttle cars to our section and to move the current ram cars down to the #2 section. In less than a week we would be changing haulage equipment and some of the crew members would be moved around to suit the needs of the company.

“Rat, take these guys over to get their brass tags and rescuers. I’m gonna lead prayer, then you can give the new hires a tour of the mine.”

As Rat led the new employees out of the room, I immediately raised a hand to get Aaron’s attention before he began prayer.

“I’m curious, Aaron. Did you all hire this load by the ton or by experience? ’Cause I don’t think our man trip is gonna fit all three of ’em.”

The room filled with laughter as other men on the crew chimed in with jokes.

“You better get a padlock for your dinner bucket.”

“We better hope they got wide deck frames for those shuttle cars.”

“They gonna wedge out when we back into low coal.”

“I guess we won’t be running canopies on any of the equipment now.”

Aaron was quick to put a stop to the jokes.

“You all need to shut up and listen right now! We’re not going to name call and make fun of any miner. I bet those three men are twice the workers half of you are. Before you start talking down to someone you better look in a mirror and check yourself. Now let’s pray and go to work!”

By the end of the shift on Friday night, the three new hires along with the help of Lonnie and Richard had brought all three shuttle cars up to our section and Jerry had them wired up and ready to haul coal. We knew this meant another shift on Saturday. It would be all of us working together to get the ram cars, battery stations, and chargers setup on the #2 section so that when the miners at Red Star finished pulling out they could move to our mine and go straight to production.

The following Monday, while we sat in the changing room waiting on David, Aaron, or Rat to come give us our pre-shift meeting, Tiny and Rick walked in. Aaron was following.

“OK, guys. We got a few changes today. I need Carl and Doug to get with Larry and the rest of the guys working out-by. You all need to get that #2 section looking good, because we may be getting a new crew in the next day or two ready to run some coal. Tiny, Rick, and Lonnie, who’s been working out-by, are all coming up to our section to run the new shuttle cars. Things may be a little bit slow at first, so keep safety in mind. We’re all going to have to work together to get used to traveling across the section with cable cars, so watch where you tram your equipment. And if you have to cross a cable with a scoop or roof bolter, you better be using crossover pads.”

We had our daily prayer and loaded up on the man trip. As we sat down, Rick spoke up.

“I know all you skinny boys don’t have a problem, but you’re gonna have to rearrange yourselves for this fat boy to get on here. I ain’t trying to be rude, but you can’t fit 10lbs of sugar into this little tin can.”

We all had a good chuckle and began to shift in order to make room for Rick. As we traveled to the section, Tiny told us a little about himself. We learned that he was a member of a local Pentecostal church and before mining coal he drove a big rig hauling gas for an oil Company. The thing I remember most was that Tiny loved to talk.

When we arrived on the section, Aaron gave us all instructions.

“Dana, take the miner to the belt entry. It’s gonna be the easiest place for us to get started and get these guys use to these new cars. Bentley, you go around and hang all new curtain and make sure everything is dusted good. J.R. is going to ride up on the section tonight to see how these new cars are running and everything needs to be perfect. Scott, you and Thor get those places bolted, and when you get caught up, get the extra scoop and haul your own supplies. Gary needs to be focused on cleaning and rock dusting.”

Dana cut into the face and the continuous miner chewed away the coal. The drums of the head – the parts the spun and chewed out the coal – began to disappear in the cloud of black dust. The dust rolled across the top of the head and behind the ventilation curtain. Lonnie was the first shuttle car operator to the miner. While I was hanging curtain he yelled out to me.

“Hey Bentley, get out of the way. You’re slowing me down. Also, I think I saw them big boys trying to get in your lunch box.”

He laughed and hauled his load of coal to the feeder. Just 45 minutes into the cut, as the miner was backing out for a clean up run, all of the equipment shut down and all of the lights went out. The crew gathered around the tail of the miner to talk and eat their snacks. I continued across the section replacing ventilation curtains. After I had replaced all of the ventilation curtain, I crawled down to the power box to check in with Aaron and see what the next move would be.

“Ahh hell, there he is. I told y’all he didn’t run away. One of these days he’ll learn to take his breaks when he can.”

Then I heard Aaron from behind the power box.

“Dana, if every man took his breaks like you there wouldn’t be a decent place in this mine for you to work. Now you all grab some shovels and start cleaning the ribs.”

Aaron was on the phone with Jerry, the mine superintendent. He had traveled out-by to find our power issue only to find that Carl had cut the high voltage cable trying to pick up a load of concrete blocks with a ram car. Aaron knew that we would be shut down for quite some time and made the right decision as a foreman to have us use a #4 shovel – or as some may have said, a “Mexican scoop” – to clean all of the ribs. The ribs are the joint of the wall and floor of the mine. These areas often have the biggest accumulation of coal and dust, because they hard to reach with heavy equipment and the coal that spills from haulage gets pushed out of the travel way and against the rib.

As we all grabbed a shovel and began crawling around the immobile equipment, Tiny just sat there.

“I ain’t shovelin. I was hired to run a shuttle car and that’s what I’ll do. I ain’t got any need to pick up a shovel.”

Aaron was on his feet and in Tiny’s face before I made it to the backside of the shuttle car.

“You’re gonna shovel because that’s what I ask you to do. Now, I ain’t trying to be rude, but you were hired to be a coal miner, not a shuttle car operator. Best thing I can tell you to do is get that shovel and get to it or if you want I can call you a ride and you can go on your way.”

Tiny replied, and suddenly, the conversation became theological.

“Well Aaron, the way I see it is, if God wanted us to have this coal, he wouldn’t have put it under this mountain. I guess there ain’t no need for me to be worried about getting it out, because maybe God never planned for us to be down here anyway. Go ahead and call for me a ride. I don’t think God really wants me to be a coal miner these days.”

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

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