Photo by Lance Booth.

Five o’clock came early Monday morning. I had struggled to sleep the night before. All I could think about was that I would be a mine foreman, officially, when I began my shift that morning.

After rising, I put on one of my never-worn uniforms. We all put one uniform to the side in case we had to attend a meeting, safety event, or a company picnic. I was told early in my career, “Ain’t nothin’ finer than a well dressed miner.” I arrived at the mine one hour prior to the start of my shift. Before 6:15 a.m., I had on my boots, knee pads, belt, and cap light. I walked around with a smile on my face that would have put the Joker himself to shame.

At the mine foreman office, Aaron, Arvil, and Jody were taking the pre-shift inspection calls and logging them into their respective books. Air readings, methane gas levels, roof control issues, and out-by inspections (out-by is the part of the mine that is further from the working face and closer to the mine entrance.) It was overwhelming just listening to the questions and the amount of information that had to be recorded from each mine foreman in the #8 and #9 mines.

The mine phone on the far end of the room called out. “How bout ya, Aaron, Hello outside. How bout ya Aaron?” Aaron, who was already on another phone, looked in my direction. “Hey Bentley, that’s the #8 phone. Sounds like Ralph. Better go take down that pre-shift, you’re following him now.”

Ralph was the oldest miner I knew who was still working, or so I thought. His hair, mustache, and beard were completely white. He mumbled and barely lifted his feet when he walked. He kicked rocks across the parking lot as he made his way in. We would watch Ralph when he came out of the mine. He spent as much time walking to his truck as we did eating lunch. It was a painful sight.

Sometimes I wondered how Ralph managed to get around underground. I also wondered why he was still working. So one day I asked his nephew, who was a shuttle car operator on another crew. The answer was not what I expected.

“Ralph ain’t that old man,” his nephew said. “He’s only in his early 50s. He got crushed by a miner back in the 90’s and he has struggled to walk since then. I don’t know why in the hell he mumbles like he does. Hell, maybe it crushed his head at the same time. Maybe it’s cause he went to school in Knott County. You know the boys K-not read, the boys K-not write, and the girls K-not say no. All I know is he can’t afford to quit, and he won’t get any disability because his dumbass went back to work as soon as he got out of the hospital.”

When I picked up the receiver, I thought about what Ralph’s nephew told me. “Ralph, this is Gary. What ya got?” Ralph replied and I barely understood anything he said. Between the roar of the head drive behind him and his habit of mumbling while chewing tobacco, I had to ask him to repeat himself two or three times. I felt bad. He was obviously frustrated, but I was nervous and didn’t want to get any of the information wrong for the log. After talking to Ralph, I signed the bottom of the page, dated it, and walked out to the mantrip to meet with Aaron.

“Hey Bentley,” Aaron said. “I put in a good word for you, and they said they will give you a shot. You got two weeks to make a good impression. After that they’ll either bring on two contractors to work under you, eventually hiring them full time, or they’ll hire someone else to be the out-by foreman. We got a lot of projects coming up and we need someone reliable that will put in the work needed to keep us up to date. You’re gonna learn that being a mine foreman isn’t all that glamorous. Sometimes the job can be more work than being up there pinning top, but if you want to make sure a mine runs good and is productive then being a foreman is the job for you.”

I expressed my gratitude, promised that he would not regret giving me this opportunity. Aaron cut me off before I could make anymore of an ass of myself.

“All right, just do good work and work hard. Today the #4 belt needs some work. We got a ticket on it a while back because the off-side had too much build up and some of the structure was broken.” Coal and debris were piling up alongside the belt, interfering with safe operation. “I want you to start at the head drive or the tail piece, clean the off-side from rib to under the rollers and level any of the structure that’s fallen. If you need any parts, come outside and Jeremy can help you get them. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask. I can send one of the out-by mechanics or a rover to help out. The most important thing is to get this belt back legal.”

Aaron pointed me toward my new out-by electric single-man transportation buggy and a new #4 shovel, and sent me on my way. On my ride into the mine, I thought about my first day underground and my first experience shoveling belt. I found humor in the fact that I had worked so hard to become a mine foreman and I was back to the start again, shoveling belt.

The #4 belt was one of the older sections of the mine. It had been there for more than 10 years. The belt structure, which holds the rollers in place, was beginning to rust and fall apart. The roof and rib of the area did not look much better.

The average height of this panel was 34-38 inches, with the bottom heaving up in places because of years of pressure from the land above. That changed the clearance in some areas by as much as 4 inches. That meant shoveling belt required you to sit on your ass, lean to one side, and throw the coal through the small gap between the belt and the roof of the mine. It was not an easy task, and less than an hour into my first shift as a mine foreman, I was completely soaked with sweat and desperate for a drink of water. Things were different now, I had been mining for over five years. I was now in the same role as Hawk was on my first day of mining. I stopped for a drink of water and then got back to shoveling my ass off. I refused to be like Hawk, who supervised me on my first day underground. He hadn’t lifted a finger to help. In fact, he did his best to make things worse for me. I was determined not to follow Hawk’s example. I wanted to the kind of foreman Aaron was — hard working and highly respected, a supervisor who worked just as hard as the miners working for him.

Gary Bentley, a native of Eastern Kentucky, mined coal underground for 12 years. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky. 

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