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NOTE: Miners cuss. We’ve attempted to tone down the language without destroying its authenticity. If you find four-letter language offensive, you may not enjoy reading this article. It’s your choice.
There was an awkward silence as I walked through the dressing room. Some men half naked, some lacing up their boots, but no one was speaking. There was no joking and there was no complaining about the work ahead of them.
As I stepped through the doorway to the supply room to sign out my cap light, I could hear K.J.
“Yea, I went up to Marlow’s Saturday night, picked up the prettiest little piece of…”
Before he could finish his story, the mine superintendent, Schomo, stepped into the room.
“Shut the f–k up! I don’t wanna hear any of this pissy ass pretty boy bullshit. I don’t wanna hear anyone complaining about their job, and I don’t want to see any horse playing! We just lost one of the best f–king coal miners in this world and the least you mother–kers could do is pay him a little respect. He loved this f–king job and he would have done anything to keep this mine running just so all of you pieces of shit could get a f–king payday at the end of the week. Now cut this silly shit out and think about what just happened to one of our brothers.”
He stepped out of the door as he finished his sentence.
As we slid into the seats of the slope car, it was silent. You could listen to the strands of steel cable tighten. You could hear the wheels crushing bits of coal and rock as we rolled backwards down the slope. During the hour-long ride to the working section, not a single word was spoken. The entire crew sat with cap lights off, eyes pointed toward our boots, focused on our own thoughts.
We went through the motions of the day quietly, but as time passed, the crew slowly moved into their normal routines. It was just a few hours before I could hear people cursing and name calling across the section.
As we loaded onto the man to start the ride out, Sonny sat beside me.
“Hey Gary, I know you worked with Lloyd and Dave on Saturday. They both seemed to really like you. Lloyd’s wake is going to be tomorrow night at Slone Funeral Home in Garrett, and the funeral will be Wednesday morning. I think you should take Wednesday off and be there. Lloyd would have wanted you there.”
It’s been over a decade since this conversation happened, and I still don’t know if it’s the truth. But for that moment, I felt proud of my work and proud to be a coal miner. If you could impress Lloyd and he respected you as a coal miner, that meant you were doing a damn good job.
Tuesday morning there was a bit bucket sitting in the window of the cage where we stored our mining lights. Scrawled on the front of the bucket was “Lloyds Family.” I asked for my cap light, handed over my brass tag, and asked Jimmy, “Who put this bucket here?”
“Gary, I reckon Schomo did that. Looks like a hefty bunch o’ cash in there.”
“Ain’t they worried someone will steal it?”
“Nah, kid. These miners got more sense than that. Ain’t nobody gonna steal from a dead man’s family. Anyways, if they did, they know the other 150 men working here would kill ’em anyway.”
Before going underground that day, I went back to my truck. I had only a 50 dollar bill and a 5 dollar bill in my wallet, so I decided to be a better person and put the 50 in the bucket for Lloyd’s family. We entered the mine and went to work just like any normal shift, except we knew Lloyd’s funeral awaited us at the end of the shift.
As I drove to Slone’s Funeral Home in Garrett, I thought about how mean the world is. Lloyd had worked in the mines twice as long as I had been alive. Two weeks from his retirement, he was killed in a car accident on his way to a family vacation. “These mines ain’t no more dangerous than getting behind the steering wheel of that car and driving down to Wal-Mart.” That was a phrase I often heard miners say. It rang true on this evening.
At the funeral home, there were trucks, SUV’s, and cars in the parking lot and lining the sides of the road. All displayed stickers, license plates, and other assorted insignia to let passersby know the owner was a coal miner, a coal miner’s wife, or a “Proud Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The dim yellow glow of miners’ lights lined the entrance of the building. On the handrail of the wheelchair ramp hung a ribbon with the words “A Miner’s Light Guides the Family” written in fabric paint.
There were a lot of men from the mine there that day. I didn’t recognize most of them, and they didn’t recognize me. We were all clean, wearing button up shirts, and our heads were not covered with mining caps and lights.
Lloyd’s son was standing at the door greeting everyone who entered, including me.
“I’m Jerry, Lloyd’s son. Thanks so much for coming. Did you work with Lloyd?”
“I did. My name is Gary. Your dad was the best electrician I’ve ever met.”
“Well, thank you. I’m sure he’s smiling up in heaven right now.”
I sat as close as I could to the rear of the funeral parlor. Emotional events made me uncomfortable, and I wanted to be able to bail out the back doors as soon as I had the opportunity. A man and woman made their way to the front of the room, stood just to the left of Lloyd’s body, and started to sing. The room filled with the sounds of Old Regular Baptist hymns. No guitar, no bass, no percussion. Just the voices. That’s the Old Regular way. Musical instruments weren’t part of their worship. Between the hymns, the man talked about redemption and salvation. While he spoke of fire and brimstone, my eyes were focused on the tallest flower arrangement in the room. It was a large wreath with a miner’s cap and light on top, the coal company’s logo large in the center, and “A Miner’s Work Is Never Done” written in gold lettering on a black banner. I felt resentment. The arrangement looked like an advertisement and a cheap way for a company to pretend they cared about us.
After nearly two hours of gospel hymns and talk of salvation, Lloyd’s son, Jerry, made his way to the front.
“As a lot of you know, my father was a proud coal miner. I felt as though he was disappointed in me when I moved to Lexington to go to college, but when I stepped off of the graduation stage, I saw the brightest smile I had seen in my entire life. It was my father’s. I know there are a lot of his co-workers who are here right now and I’m not going to ask you to stand up, but I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart and from our family. My dad praised you men and women for being the hardest working people in this country. He loved each and every one of you like family. Thank you all for being there in the times of need when our family needed you the most.”
He wiped the corners of his eyes and sat beside a young girl who looked to be no older than 6. They wrapped their arms around one another and began to sob.
As I drove home that night I thought back on what Lloyd had told me the last day we worked together. “Kid, you’re young and got a lot of life to live, but I’m gonna tell you. Find a good woman, have you some beautiful children and you will never have any regrets. There ain’t nothing in this world better than a good woman and a house full of kids.” You could see that in Lloyd’s son. The happiness of his family meant the world to him.
The idea of marriage had not been on my mind. And I can’t say I suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to settle down and raise kids. But I did gain a little insight. I didn’t know it then, but it would come in handy when it was time for me to start my own family.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.