Photo by Lance Booth.

After the accident in which a snapped cable slashed Tracy across his throat, he was out of work indefinitely. I visited Tracy in the hospital just a few days later. His wife and daughter were still shaken and not sure about Tracy’s desire to go back to work. Tracy was in a positive mindset, talking about how eager he was to return. He was planning a fishing trip with his daughter for the day of his release. As miners, we know the dangers of our work. It’s not if we get hurt but when. It’s more difficult for our wives, daughters, sons, and parents. The pride of returning to work is something they can never understand unless they were miners as well.

Two months passed. Tracy was released from the hospital after only a few days, but the facial reconstructive surgery and recovery from the accident would keep him away from the mine much longer. I had passed my electrical exam since the accident and was focused on studying for my Mine Foreman exam. I had decided to study for the test on my own rather than take a class. Sitting at a classroom for two hours a day, three days a week, after working a 12-hour shift was not something I was interested in. So, to prepare for my career-changing opportunity, I studied the only materials I had — online documents provided by the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals.

I woke up at 5 on the morning of my exam and drove to the Floyd County Department of Mines and Minerals. I was one of three miners there to take the exam to become a certified mine foreman in the state of Kentucky. I was the only person who had opted to take the exam without taking a state course. The first repercussion of not attending class was showing up without the proper documents. The man at the front of the room let me know immediately.

“Mr. Bentley, you do not have a notarized statement of your five years experience as a miner. You also do not have an updated copy of your annual re-training. You cannot take the test without these documents.”

I pleaded with the man and explained that I could get all of the documents to him before the end of the day and he replied, “You get them here whenever you want, but I’m not going to allow you to take the exam without them.” I came back with a counter offer: I could go get the documents and return to take the exam.

“Son, this is the most important test you can take as an underground miner. We begin in 15 minutes. You only have until 2 p.m. to complete the exam. I don’t think you can go to Knott County, get the documents, have them notarized, and return with enough time to take the exam.”

So I did what I do. I went to my truck, drove to Knott County as fast as possible to get the documents signed and verified by the superintendent, and then to the main office in Sassafras to have them notarized. I returned to the Department of Mines and Minerals at 10 a.m. Three hours for my unexpected detour. Not bad time, but I was sweating bullets when I walked back into the room.

“Son, you have 4 hours to take this exam and to complete the air reading and gas testing portion. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

I sat down at the desk, worried I might not finish in time. I worked my way through the different sections of the test: ventilation, electrical, safety … I finished the final packet and with a sigh of relief laid it on his desk.

“There ain’t no way you took this whole test in two hours. You either didn’t give a damn or you’re a genius. I think you just wasted both of our time, but go back to those double doors and do your air reading and gas test.”

I was a little pissed off that he would insult me for trying so hard to complete this exam, and I knew in my mind I was able to finish quickly because I had worked underground for six years and studied my ass off. I knew what I was doing.

When I opened the double doors there sat a familiar face, but I couldn’t recall his name. When I handed over my testing sheet his voice brought me back to the place where I knew him.

“Well, look at you, Gary, you’ve grown up! When I remember you from the slope mine on 80 you was a little scrawny guy with glasses and didn’t hardly know your way around the mine. I’m sure glad to see you here today. Looks like you’re really doing well.”

It was Brian, a rover mechanic at the Consol slope mine where I made Youtube videos that got me in trouble. It’s also where I met Lloyd and watched my friend Josh fade away from pain and pills. Brian was one of the good guys. He worked with Lloyd on a regular basis. Lloyd had trained him to be a mechanic, and Brian picked up Lloyd’s compassion as part of the training. Brian was always willing to help another miner, offer advice, give you a tool that you needed. I enjoyed seeing him again. He walked me through the test for reading air measurements and doing proper gas detection test. I passed both. I walked out of the office just after 1 p.m. that day, with an hour left to finish the exam. I knew, deep down, that I had passed and was now a Kentucky Mine Foreman, even without the results in my hand.

Gary Bentley is a native of Eastern Kentucky who worked underground for 12 years mining coal. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky. Gary said he shares his stories to educate people about the realities of contemporary coal mining and Appalachia.

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