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I sat on a slope car and prepared to be lowered by hoist, traveling deep into the earth to begin my first job as a full-time employee with one of the largest coal companies in the world. My back was facing the opening of the slope and my mind raced back over the previous week, when I’d gone through orientation for new employees.
Things were different for company men. That fact was driven home the first day of orientation as I opened the heavy oak doors to our meeting room. The company had set up our room with tables in a U formation encompassing the podium and projection screen. For the next week, we’d spend our days listening to various representatives talk to us about the company and the importance of our jobs. I chose the seat at the center of the table so I could look directly at the speakers. Other men entered and began to fill the chairs around the room. I knew nothing about them. They were all of varied ages, builds, and personalities.
The first day began like any other. Craig, the director of human resources, came out and talked to us about how lucky we were to be given the opportunity to work for the company. He asked each of us to talk about ourselves.
“Come on, let’s get to know each other. All of us miners are a big family now, don’t be shy and try to hide anything. Tell us where you’re from, your experience in mining, and something interesting about yourself.”
Before Craig could finish the sentence, a man in the far corner of the room stood. He was every bit of 6’6” and pushing all of 300 pounds. At least one-third of that hung over his belt.
“I’m Whistenburg. Danny Whistensburg. Everyone calls me Whi- Whi- Whi-.”
The man began to stutter and his head shook just a bit. But with some difficulty, he got through his statement. “Whit, just call me that. I’ve got four years’ experience at an old truck mine up in Royalton. I just got my electrical card and I’m gonna be the best damned electrician here. Oh yea, I like to fish too.”
Each man around the room stood and said his birth name, nickname if he had one, years of experience, and hobbies. I felt small, like a kindergarten student being pushed through the halls of a high school. I was the youngest man in the room, merely a child in their eyes.
A man named Ricky spoke after me.
“I’ve got boots with more time underground than you.”
I just smiled and sunk into my chair. In the back of my mind, I was the one laughing. Ricky showed up each morning dirty, looking as though he didn’t own a shower or a change of clothes. He looked like crap. He only had a couple of teeth left in his head, and at the rate he drank Mountain Dew he wouldn’t keep those for much longer. Ricky had a slow nasal drag when he spoke. I used to call this the accent of an Eastern Kentucky Pillbilly. Ricky was quick to use his experience, age, and certifications to intimidate the other miners during our orientation.
Despite Ricky, everyone else in our group seemed to have a positive and encouraging attitude. They had all been new miners before. They knew exactly what it felt like to be me. Their encouragement and storytelling made my orientation enjoyable. The day’s clicked by like the miles of an old country road – quiet, smooth, and mostly uninterrupted. Each morning we arrived to fresh coffee, orange juice, and donuts from the local Double Kwik. As midday arrived we had lunch catered in to us by a variety of local mom-and-pop dairy bars, gas station restaurants, and pizza places. The day always ended with a message from the oh-so-inspiring Craig.
“You guys need to know how lucky you are. This is the largest coal company there is. Coal miner’s all over the world want to work for this company. You have been chosen and should be extremely grateful for this opportunity.”
The week-long orientation ended with the chief operator coming to speak to each employee and assign us to our crews and new positions within the company.
“Rick Sexton, you will be the section foreman for our new shuttle car section, #4-A Crew. Daniel Whistenburg, electrician, #4-A Crew. Robert Slone, scoop operator, #4 Midnight Shift. Keith Caudill, scoop operator, #2-C Crew. Gary Bentley, shuttle car operator, #4-A Crew.”
The list continued on until each man in the room had been assigned a position on a crew.
As Friday came to an end we were given our final instructions. “We need everyone to be at the mine at 7 .a.m on Monday morning. We will assign lights, lockers, and give everyone a tour of the mine. Do not be late.”
We all arrived early. It was easy to see the group of new hires as we all gathered in the parking lot just outside the door to the mine office. As we waited the men from the working crews would walk by. Some nodding as they passed, others waving, some giving words of encouragement. “Good to see some new faces here, we need a few more good miners.” Others would give words of a different taste. “Goddamn, look at all that fresh meat. The wife ain’t give me none in two months, looks like today is my day.”
We were each assigned our lights, lockers, and given our brass tags, which attached to our belts to help identify the remains of a body in the case of a fire, explosion, or other disaster. We got a quick run down of the mine map and a layout of the ventilation system. And we each received maps of the working section that we were each assigned to. As we were divided up into our respective crews, I was assigned to the newest section of the mine with the majority of the new employees.
As our tour guide drove us through the mine he explained what was happening. “This new section hasn’t even gotten started. We’re still working on the ventilation, building brattices and shit. You’re gonna be a single unit. One miner, three shuttle cars, one roof bolter. This section is gonna be high coal, good coal, and should be one of the most productive units in the mine once things get running. Right now it’s gonna have old equipment we pulled out of the last panel. But as things get started you boys are gonna get the royal treatment.”
Just 20 minutes into our ride along the rail we came to a stop. “Alright, this is where the mouth of the section is. You guys will be coming in tonight to finish up the brattice work and ventilation so we can begin opening up the panel to the main line. I’ll drive you all around the back of the panel and show you the intake and return airways.” We traveled for another 20 minutes and parked in a supply hole under an over cast – a concrete structure that creates options for routing intake and return air to different parts of the mine).
“Now when you step through this door you gotta be careful. There’s a lot of air coming through and it will knock you off your feet if you ain’t careful.”
Ricky and Danny forcefully pulled open the 36” x 36” man door. A whirlwind of dust erupted around us. I inched my way toward the opening. As I squatted and stretched my first leg into the opening, the air pulled the rest of my body through. In the blink of an eye I was lying on the other side of the doorway with my face in the dirt. My hard hat had blown off and everyone was getting a good laugh. I stood up, dusted myself off, and Ricky handed me my hard hat as he explained.
“We are just a few hundred feet from the main ventilation shaft leading to the surface of the mine. We are also just a few hundred feet from the section we’re going to be working on. As your section foreman, I want to let you know we’re going to run this section right, mine a lot of coal, and show this company we have what it takes to be the top dogs. Let’s ride out and go home to get some rest. We gotta be back here tonight to start our first shift.”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.