Photo by Lance Booth.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gary Bentley is tired of the stereotypical ways coal miners are portrayed in American media. He decided to start writing about his own experience. Lucky for us, he’s sharing his work with the Daily Yonder. Gary’s series starts at the beginning with his first day in the mines. For more about Gary and his thoughts on media portrayals of mining, see this related story.

“I’m here with P and P Construction, said I’d be shoveling belt.”

The man I was speaking to behind the desk was strong, arms the size of oak trees, what a lot of folks refer to as a mountain man. He wasn’t very old, but the lines on his face, the way he spoke, and the glare in his eyes said that he was physically and mentally much older than his age in years. He was simple and to the point.

“You got your miners card and papers?”

“No,” I said. “I just got my papers last week at the state office in Hazard, but they said this Xerox copy would do until my card comes in.”

“All right, you’ll work for me then. You work every night from 9 ’til we get done. Now go get your sh– together. We start in about an hour”

Nervously I tried to lace up my new matterhorns, get my cap light adjusted, and look like I knew what I was doing, failing miserably. My knee pads were still in the plastic. My belt was so stiff it would have served more purpose as a walking stick. All I could do was push back the fear and walk back into the mine office.

“Hey, boy, where did ya work at before now, the pie factory?” I just grinned and held onto my dinner bucket so tight that my knuckles turned white. “You too pretty for a coal miner. I imagine we’ll get some use out of ya somehow though. Stop starin’ at the lockers and get out there, you’re gonna miss the mantrip.”

I walked a fast pace out to the rail car, 20 burly men lying side to side somewhat spooning, just like my girlfriend and I would do at night. I was intimidated and scared. I wasn’t scared just because we were riding a rail car seven miles back into the mountain to work in a 36 inch seam of coal. I was scared because these were “real” men, fathers of the kids I went to school with, men who had enough strength to bend a one inch steel bar with their bare hands. I was just a skinny teenage boy with glasses, bad skin, and not enough ass to pick up a loaded number four coal shovel.

So I just laid down in the first opening I saw, turned on my headlamp, and closed my eyes as the wheels of the car barked against the rails and the diesel engine roared into my ears.

A few minutes after we entered the mine, a voice cut through the noise like nothing I had ever heard before.

“WHOA! Stop g–damn you!”

Sparks flew up past my face and the wheels of the car screamed as the operator brought us to an abrupt halt.

“Alright now, it’s Sunday night after pay day. Everybody chip in so we can get this night started right. Don’t any of you sons-a-bitches hold out neither.”

All the men were bearded, haggard, eyes sunken back into their skulls. The darkness and glow of the head lamps made everyone look like death. Pulling plastic bags, pill bottles, and emptied Skoal cans out of their pockets and dinner buckets, they dumped the contents onto the top of the rail car. Lortab, Xanax, Valium, and whatever other prescription drugs they had.

“New kid, you got any medicine or candy to put in on this?”

I simply shook my head right to left, right to left, right to left. When I could finally stop, I watched the men use their mining certification cards to cut lines of a multi-colored rainbow assortment of powders they had crushed from the pills. It disappeared as quick as we did when we entered the drift mouth. So did my romanticism about miners.

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

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