Photo by Lance Booth.

“In the Black” is a series by Gary Bentley about mining coal underground. In last week’s installment, Gary got a spot on “Crew A,” a tough group of men with felonies and the jailhouse tattoos to prove it. This week, his mentor, Happy Meal, teaches Gary to use a sinking hammer.

“Bentley, you ready for the hardest day of your life? You better be. Today we start drillin’ the shaft round the mountain.”

We walked out the doors of the locker room. It was still dark – just a few minutes until 6 in the morning. You could hear the rumbling of a partially functioning diesel engine with no muffler and a lot of loose parts. When I turned to see where the noise was coming from, I saw one headlight and two yellow overhead caution lights on what used to be a county school bus coming down the makeshift road from the backside of the mountain. The door opened and there was A.J., the crew boss, in the driver’s seat, smiling. “Good to see you came back,” he said to me.

Spud wrenches
Spud wrenches

The ride around the mountain didn’t seem to take very long, in part because it was a tough task to keep my dinner bucket, thermos, and spud wrench in my control. I imagined the bus was in need of new shocks, tires, and a long list of other parts as well. When we arrived at the shaft site, the sun had begun to rise above the ridge.

With just enough light to see my footing on the ground, I stepped out of the bus. The air was crisp, a standard September morning for Southeastern Kentucky. Not too cold but cold enough that I was wearing a jacket. No more than three steps into my stride, A.J. started giving orders.

“Happy, you take Bentley and show him how to start the air compressors, generators, and water pumps. Mike, you go get the hammers and steel. Cowboy, you get the jib hoist and unroll the hoses. Big boys are gonna be here by 9 to start checkin’ out the high wall and make sure we’re ready to put a shot off.”

I stepped in stride right behind Happy Meal that day and did my best not to fall behind. I had spent enough time with my father working on or around heavy equipment that it was easy to follow his instructions on how to start up the generators, air compressors, and water pumps. It wasn’t until we started helping Mike move the drill steel and hammers that I realized this was not what I expected. Happy Meal was quick to explain.

“These are sinkin’ hammers. They weigh about a hundred pounds so don’t be no [wimp]. You gotta bust balls around here if you wanna make it. Keep your water on, your holes cleaned out good, and don’t get the steel hung up or your day is gonna be a motherf—–”

“They’ll be three of us drillin’. Start on the inside. See those orange dots? Every one of ’em is gonna be a hole, 12 feet deep. Start in the center and work your way out. One, Three, Five, and so on. You’ll drill about 32 of these and then we’ll be ready to load ’em and make a big boom.”

We all pitched in connecting air hoses, water lines, and getting the drill steel laid out for ourselves. This only took a couple of hours but I was already breathing heavy and wondering when we might take a break for a snack or something to drink.

“All right boys, let’s drill these holes and blow some sh—up. I’ll help get Bentley started and then I’ll jump in and catch up.”

Happy Meal showed me the basics: how to change the steel, the controls for the water and air, and reminded me: “These things are older than my papaw. They’re tough as sh–, put some ass into it and don’t let up. If you don’t see no water comin’ out of the hole, be sure to stop or else you’ll hang the steel and your ass will have to get it out”

Happy made it looks easy, drilled the first eight feet of the first hole in seconds. It wasn’t until I began drilling the other four feet that I knew it was going to be a very long day.

I had remembered being abandoned back at Blue Diamond, so I had bought a watch. It really didn’t serve a purpose here because we were outside, and I could tell the day was passing by watching the sun as it moved across the sky. The hunger in my stomach, the pulsing of my muscles, and the numbness in my hands were all signs that it had long since passed 11 o’clock. Regardless, I looked at my watch almost every half hour only to make the day seem more drawn out than it should have been.

No one showed up that day despite what A.J. had said. There was no stopping for a break. Finally, when I thought I could not take any more I asked Happy, “What time do you all eat lunch?” and I didn’t like his response.

“When we drill the last hole.”

It was 1 o’clock and I was hungry, tired, and not wanting to do this anymore. I was struggling, I had gotten sloppy, not paying attention. The water would stop bubbling out of the hole and before I would notice the drill steel would stop turning. Which meant using my own strength to pull, tug, and more often than not swinging a sledgehammer until it worked loose.

Mike and Happy either felt sorry for me or were just ready for lunch. They finished their areas of drilling and began helping me finish mine. It was 3 o’clock when we finished, and I had never been more excited to see a bologna sandwich in all of my life.

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

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