Photo by Lance Booth.

In the Black” is a series by Gary Bentley on working underground mining coal. In last week’s column, Gary described working for a man nicknamed Hawk and his decision to leave the mine and not return. This week, pride and economics conspire to put Gary back on the job.

After turning my back on Hawk and my hopes of being a miner, I was flipping rough lumber in the sawmill for the local cabinet factory. I struggled everyday with the shame of not toughing it out, not being “man enough” for the mines, not making the same wages as the guys I’d see at the Jeff Mart in their four-door diesel pickup trucks.

After three weeks of this shame, guilt, and broken pride, I gave in. I was going to go back into the darkness. I was going to be proud. I wanted to walk into the gas station or the grocery store in the mornings wearing my work uniform, proud of what I did every day, no matter the price.

“I need 10 on pump eight,” I told the cashier, knowing it was all I had left. Fear in the back of my mind, regret tying my stomach in knots. I focused on the 60 miles of two-lane highway I had to travel to where I was promised I could get another opportunity to join the ranks of the romanticized, honored, and hard-working coal miners of Eastern Kentucky.

“I’m Gary Bentley. I spoke with Mr. Richardson earlier and he said you all are hiring today.”

“You got your certified miners card?”

“No sir, but I have my time in. I shoveled belt for a couple months” — knowing this was blatant lie, but without it I might not get the job.

“Well, why ain’t you got a certified card?”

“When I told the boss I was quitting to go to the cabinet factory, he wouldn’t sign my papers. Now I’m here.”

“All right then, give us a few weeks’ hard work and we’ll get your papers signed for you. Now fill out all these forms, and when you get done we’ll get you some muck boots and all the other gear you’ll need. It’s going to be a cold and wet job. Hope you can hack it.”

I did the best I could to forge my work history on the form, lie about the time I had worked underground. The last line hit me in the gut hard with sickness, dread, and fear:

“Emergency Contact in case of serious injury or death.”

The only name I could think of is the person who it would hurt the most – my mother. I didn’t want to think about it, but I couldn’t control my imagination. Roof collapse, trapped, breathing my last breaths. My mother at home losing her only son because I didn’t do well enough in high school to get a college scholarship. I filled in her name, phone number, and handed the paperwork back to Mr. Richardson.

“You done? Everything filled out right? Let’s get your stuff together so you can go get some sleep. You’ll need to be here by 5 tomorrow morning, we start at 6.”

Mr. Richardson was a well dressed man, seemed nice enough. A lot cleaner than Hawk and much more likeable. He walked me through this rusty, filthy, storage container filled with tattered boots, rain suits, hard hats chipped around the bill, and the smell of sweat. “What size boots you wear?”

“Twelve? Well I guess you’re one of the lucky ones. We ain’t got no used ones, I’ll order a pair and have them in the office for you in the morning. Grab one of these belts then get a rain suit and a hard hat, unless you got your own.” I grabbed the most ragged belt, the hard hat covered in stickers and with a chipped brim. I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing and that I had the experience I had lied to Mr. Richardson about.

Drying racks for clothes, boots, and gear are often adjacent to the showers in a mine locker room. Hanging the gear high saves floor space while it dries between shifts.

I didn’t worry about setting an alarm that night, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Hell, it didn’t matter anyway. I was a momma’s boy. I was going to get up just like my dad did. We’d get up at the same time, sit on the porch together while my mom packed our dinner buckets and we’d both pull out of the driveway by 3:30 that morning. I was lucky enough to be young, scared, and running on something that doesn’t last much past your 20s. I didn’t get any sleep that night, didn’t really need it at 18 years old.

I walked into the mine office, uniform on, hard hat, mining belt, cap light, knee pads, prepared to work. No one was there but I saw a pair of yellow and brown rubber boots sitting by the door. Post-it note stuck to the toe of one boot and my name clearly written in big bold letters. I picked up my boots and walked through the parking lot. Lucky for me the other men had started showing up so I followed them trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

As we entered the locker rooms, I was immediately taken aback by the stench of sweat, mold, and stale clothes. That’s when I saw their faces, dark eyes that were sunken, swollen, no emotion, just grit and anger. These men were different, some naked, showing off tattoo’s on their backs, stomachs, arms. Not the kind of tattoo’s you would see at a parlor on Main Street; these were thin blue lines, I had seen them before, but only on TV. Without speaking I knew these men were hard and tough. They had lived a life much different than I. I was in a trance; I was in shock. Is this what I wanted to be?

“You must be the new kid? Gary Bentley”

“Yes, that’s me”

“I’m A.J., I’m the walking boss. You’ll work for me on A Crew. That’s Happy Meal over there. He’ll show you around today while we lay track and pour ’crete.”

I looked over at Happy Meal, a small-framed guy, young, not much older than me but I could tell he had lived a lot of lives. Standing naked, muscles showing through his entire body, only hidden by the thin blue lines of the tattoos that covered his entire right arm and leg. He turned my way, nodded. It was the same look I had gotten from the other men, something dark, something not quite right or at least not like anything that I had seen before.

A.J. called me outside of the shower house.

“You got a record? Any felonies?”

“No, why?”

“Well, we use a lot of explosives. Everyone here’s got a record. They can’t get certified to transfer the explosives from the top of the mountain down to the shaft site. You seem like good kid. I’ll get the paperwork together. You’ll be responsible for all of the explosives on this crew. Wait here, I’ll tell Happy Meal to show you around.”

Happy Meal walked right past me with a stride that seemed to be a running pace.

“Come on, we ain’t got all day. We work here. Ain’t no f——‘ round on this job.”

By the time I made up ground and was right behind him, we were at the drift mouth.

“This is what we’re doing, we’re gonna drill, load dynamite, blow the f— outta this rock, and at some point we’ll hit coal. You do exactly as you’re told and work your ass off, everything will be OK. Today we’re just laying track and pouring concrete, so it’ll be easy as pie. Tomorrow is when the sh–t is gonna get tough. We go back to drillin’. What’s your name?”

“Gary Bentley.”

“All right, I’m Happy Meal. They call me that ’cause me and a buddy of mine thought we’d take a couple shotguns into the McDonald’s over in Grundy and walk out with some cash. I guess I don’t have to tell you, that wouldn’t a good idea. I’m good now though, got this good job, making good money, I’ve learned. Now let’s get this sh– done so we can go home.”

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

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.