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I wiped the sweat from my brow as I drilled the last roof bolt in Kemper, Kentucky. My forearms were tight and the muscles were swollen as I finished my final shift. My work with Frontier in Pike County, Kentucky, had come to an end when we completed construction of the shaft. It was time to move on or travel with the crew to a new job in Illinois.
Some men talked about going to Chicago. Happy Meal said he would be asking to take a position in California working on a new underground transportation unit. I was just thankful my time with Frontier was complete. I dreamed of continuing as a miner in Eastern Kentucky.
I knew of a mine contracting company that functioned more like a temp agency. Star Energy had a good reputation for putting miners to work, and that is what I needed. I stopped by their office on my way home, pleased to see an old classmate from high school behind the front desk. Tasha was very friendly and quick to find an open position for me at a nearby mine.
Three days later, I pulled into my new mine’s gravel parking lot at 5 a.m. I laced up my Matterhorn boots, tightened my mining belt, turned on my cap light, strapped on my knee pads, and grabbed my dinner bucket. I was nervous. I knew what it was like working underground, but there would be new people and a new environment. Going to a new mine is much like the first day of school, if the school had a history of mass shootings. You walk in knowing you may not go home.
I climbed the steps up to the mine office, the metal stairs teetering side to side and the landings shifting with each step. The “office” was really an old single-wide trailer that had been stripped and converted, with changing rooms in the back. The trailer eerily resembled the trailer where my cousin used to cook meth. The small office was filthy; everything was covered in coal dust. The man behind the desk was weathered, his hair completely white, his face wrinkled. He was agile though, no delay. He stood up quick, wearing the mining uniform just like all of the other miners.
“I’m Terry. Are you Gary Bentley?”
“Yes, I’m Gary. They said you all needed a belt shoveler.”
“Yea, we need a lot of things around here. What kind of experience you have?”
“I’ve shoveled belts, drilled and loaded powder, construction work on belt lines, ’bout it”
“You got your certified card, right?”
“Yes, here is my card and my ATF certification for transporting explosives, if you need me for that”
“All right, you’ll be shoveling today. Rio will show you the mine entrance.”
Just as he finished, a tall, wiry man came walking in. I guessed his age to be 60. He had long gray hair pulled into a ponytail. He was smoking as he walked through the door – he was usually smoking, as it turned out. His gate was that of an old man in a nursing home trying to strut through the halls like John Travolta in “Grease.”
“Terry, I heard you were retiring,” the man said. “What you gonna do with all that money when you retire?”
“Well, Rio, I’ve thought about it and I think I’ll buy me a miniature miner (gesturing with his hands to be about the size of a matchbox car) and a block of the best cocaine I can find. Then I’m gonna chase that little motherf—- around with a straw until I die.”
Both men chuckled. Rio patted Terry on the back and walked past me. Terry nodded in my direction, their eyes met and apparently Rio knew he should acknowledge my being there.
“I’m Rio. You the sucker going with me today?”
The scent on his breath was familiar. It was the same as my father, cheap beer and cheaper vodka.
“Follow me. I’ll show you everything and teach you even more.”
At the drift mouth, we climbed into the rail car that hauled supplies into the mine.
“You’re gonna help me first, then I’ll take you back up to the airlocks. You from around here?”
I told Rio that I was from Whitesburg, and he went on to talk about a man I didn’t know. Apparently Rio traded horses with the man, bought some moonshine, and somehow lost his wife to the man. The man he was speaking of lived in Whitesburg and, because I did as well, Rio expected I should know him too.
I sat in the seat next to Rio, knees to my chin, as the car moved through the mine.
“Now, you gotta watch your head. It gets pretty low in here. Some of these places are 32 inches and shrinking.”
We had been traveling on the car for more than an hour. The only light for the mantrip came from our cap lights. I was disoriented by the quick turns through the mine that were followed by steep descents. I was hoping Rio wouldn’t drop me off alone as Hawk did back at Blue Diamond. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find my way out. When we arrived at the end of the rail, Rio informed me “This is the end of the track. Mines close to being finished up. They’re pulling back the pillars so I doubt we’ll see any more new rail put in. I ain’t packing this sh– by hand, so we’ll just unload here and let them figure it out.”
Rio was the supply man. His job was to haul timbers, roof bolts, oil, parts for repairs, rock dust, and anything else that was needed from outside to the working face. He had to unload at least a hundred timbers by hand. Timbers were small trees varying from 6 to 12 inches diameter and cut to 36 to 60 inches in length. That’s why I was with him and not shoveling belt like Terry had wanted. Rio needed a young man with a strong back who didn’t know enough to say no. It was hard work, bending over with only 42 inches between the floor and roof of the mine. I couldn’t imagine what kind of pain this would have been if I were Rio’s age. I continued unloading until the job was complete, then climbed back into the seat of the rail car. Rio offered me a soda and candy bar, but I declined. I was soaked with sweat, breathing heavy, and I felt like if I ate anything I would just throw it back up on the ride out.
As we neared the entrance of the mine, I could see daylight seeping through the cracks of the portal doors. I stepped off the rail car to open the doors, wading through mud above the top of my boots and struggling to make each step successful.
I heard a click, looked over my shoulder to see Rio had fired up another cigarette. Smoking and underground mining can be a volatile mix. That’s why regulations required us to leave lighters and cigarettes on the surface. But Rio didn’t seem worried, as he motioned for me to jump back on the car.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.