Photo by Lance Booth.

The dust settled around us as we bolted the fresh cut in the #8 entry. I turned to grab a roof bolt from my tray and watched the clouds of coal dust as they traveled toward us, across the heading and behind the return ventilation curtain. We didn’t have to be working in this much dust, but El-Rod, as usual, was doing his best to make our work more difficult than it had to be.

El-Rod cut in a reverse sequence because he knew our only choice would be to work in the dustier return air or fall behind have to stay late. Neither alternative was that good. And legally, we couldn’t bolt on the dustier, return side of the continuous miner more than twice a shift.

The coal dust stuck to the sweat on our arms and faces. We looked like zombies from a low-budget black and white film. Mike was pissed, but I stayed silent.

“You know what, f*** El-Rod!” Mike said.“Tim and Dawg [the other roof-bolting team] are sitting over there on their asses while he keeps cutting doubles and punch throughs on our side just to f*** with us. It’s Friday night, third shift ain’t coming in. Let’s really lay one on El-Rod. If we stay over, he’ll have to stay here with us. There ain’t another foreman to stay underground.”

There we were, two roof bolters with enough experience to stay caught up or screw with the section boss we despised. We both knew El-Rod loved nothing more kart racing on Saturday. What better way to screw him over than to keep him underground into the morning so that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his Saturday of racing.

I made the first call. “Hey, Mike, watch out. I’m gonna use this roof bolt plate to pinch this hydraulic hose. We both might get soaked, but that’s OK. Dempsey will have to come up here and replace it, then refill the tank. That will buy us a little bit of time to eat lunch.”

I carefully placed a stack of 10 roof bolts at an angle just under the rotation hose on my drill pot. I slowly lowered the drill pot onto the plates insuring that the corner of the plates would make contact with the hose. As I lowered the drill pot, I could feel pressure building. Then I saw the drill pot drop a half inch. Success! Hydraulic oil pooled where the plates had dug into the ground.

“OK Mike, let’s finish this cut,” I said. “We can get this place bolted before we run dry on oil. Hell, maybe we’ll burn up the hydraulic pump and be down the rest of the night. I’d rather stack a brattice and shovel belt than to be up here working for that ass anyway.”

The roof bolter’s hydraulic pump didn’t burn up, but we were able to eat lunch while Dempsey made the repairs. We moved the roof bolter to the #7 entry to bolt a right hand turn and the heading. It was Mike’s turn to push the blade a little deeper into El-Rod. “Stop right there, Gary. I think I can get this old bit in between the chain links and the gear on this side.” Mike was going to place a drill bit just between the chain link and the gear that propelled the roof bolter forward and reverse. It was a well known trick for a roof bolter to get a break by snapping the drive chain.

“OK, go slow. We don’t want the bit to fall out”

The tension on the offside built as I slowly pressed both tram levers forward from the side of the roof bolter. Then we heard it, like a shot from a .410 shotgun. The chain broke, and the roof bolter would only swivel left to right because the offside wheels would no longer turn. The repair could take an hour or two. We didn’t worry that we’d have to shovel belt, because Dempsey would need our help getting the chain back on. When Dempsey arrived on his maintenance buggy, El-Rod was sitting beside him. The look on his face said more than words could have.

“You boys are gonna be hurting tonight. You’ve got this heading and a double in #6 that are down. The miner is cutting a double in the belt entry right now. You all are gonna be here all night if you don’t hurry up.”

I laughed silently on the inside, because El-Rod had forgotten that there was no third shift coming in tonight and Mike and I would hold him hostage while we finished the job. We would decide what time we left. We might bust ass and leave the mine by 2:30 or 3 a.m., but we were feeling froggy tonight. It might be daylight before we leave.

We continued our slight sabotage throughout the shift. We were intentionally hanging up roof bolts, bending our drill steel, clogging up our dust filters, and loading the drill with supplies numerous times throughout the night. El-Rod was catching on to what we were doing and to get his revenge he continued to cut doubles and punch thru’s on our side of the mine. At the end of the shift, 11:30 p.m., Tim and Dog had only bolted three cuts and built one brattice. Mike and I were working on our fifth cut of the night and we had five places down. El-Rod had cut himself out on our side and it was the end of the shift. He was smiling when he walked up to the roof bolter as the crew parked the continuous miner just out by the last open cross cut.

“You all go ahead and sit there eating. You’ll need the energy to finish out the night. You got five places down on bolting. We’re gonna go to the house and get some shut eye. You boys have a good weekend. You’ll sleep Saturday away. I’m gonna go down to the track in Isom and kick some ass and drink some cold ones”

I was right. El-Rod had forgotten that there would be no incoming shift tonight. It brought me delight to deliver his sentence.

“Who’s gonna be our foreman? I’m an MET but neither of us got foreman’s papers. Dewayne and his crew didn’t come in tonight. I guess we can go home but ya know if an inspector comes in Sunday with the bull crew, they’ll shut this place down for leaving those deep cuts unbolted.”

El-Rod snickered with a look of confusion on his face.

“Third shift will be here. I’ll call outside to make sure they’ve left. I won’t leave you without a babysitter.”

Mike and I sat at the drill discussing what would happen next. We drank another soda and waited on a foreman to arrive. I looked at my watch it was 1:02am, El-Rod was walking towards us at a brisk pace.

“You all better hurry the f*** up! No one is coming in tonight to follow us, so I’m gonna stay with you all. Don’t be f******* off up here either. I got plans for tomorrow, and you a******* aren’t gonna keep me from enjoying those cold beers in my fridge.”

Mike and I took our time bolting each cut. We installed straps on all of the brows and hung anchor bolts for the shuttle cars at each necessary entry. El-Rod was not happy with us.

“Why the hell are you all wasting your time with anchor bolts? It’s 3 a.m. I don’t know about you all, but I have a life outside of here. They can put those anchor bolts up when they move belt next week.”

I couldn’t help myself. I had to give him a resolving answer.

“You always say that we should not miss an opportunity to put forth extra effort to make everyone’s job easier. I figure we’re in here on overtime which puts us just above $30 an hour. I’m gonna make sure I earn every penny of it and assist the next crew coming in.”

When El-Rod walked away, Mike cackled out loud. It was a laugh you only hear from an evil villain in a cheap film from the old days.

“You got him on that one. He couldn’t say s*** with me standing here to defend you”

As we bolted the last cut, I looked down at my watch. It was 6:15 a.m. When Mike and I walked down to the power center, it was to our liking that El-Rod was leaned up against the rib of the entry sleeping against a bag of rockdust. I gave Mike the pleasure of waking him up.

“Hey boss man! You missed your on-shift inspection. You better go make your rounds before we head out of here. You don’t want some federal man or superintendent coming in here and busting you for something so silly.”

As El-Rod drove us out of the mine, I looked at the clock hanging in the man-trip barn. It was 6:45 am.

“Have a great weekend El-Rod! Good luck at the kart races, I’ll see you first thing Monday afternoon!”

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

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