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He needed a pill at the start of the shift, another a few hours later, another after we ate, and another a few hours before the shift ended. All to ease the pain of torn muscles and a herniated disc, he said.
“Gary, this is Jake. He’ll be shoveling belt with you. He’s experienced and should be able to help get things in good shape”
I knew Jake. We were classmates from kindergarten until graduating high school. He was a year older than me. He was athletic and the toughest kid I knew. We played football together in middle school. During the county play offs he had broken two ribs, and his parents refused to allow him to sit on the bench. He was our star running back, and his father was not going to let an injury keep him sidelined. He played both offense and defense the entire game. He was the hero of the night.
Going into high school, we chose different paths. He attended parties and I traded my football pads in for a skateboard. I had not seen Jake in six years. He looked the same–small and thin but very athletic–nothing but muscle. I had to remind Jake of who I was. I had gained 60 pounds in the years after high school, I had a full beard, visible tattoos, and I was built more like a linebacker than the scrawny teenager who couldn’t hold his own with a tackling dummy.
Catching up on Jake’s new life before entering the mine that morning, I learned that we’d had different experiences since middle school. Jake now had a child, and he was recently divorced. He told me that he had been into some trouble and was struggling to get his life in order. I was there for a different reason. I was trying to pay for my college education. We had different goals, but we both knew this was the only option for a young man in Southeastern Kentucky.
Jake and I had to shovel the belt line from the mine entrance to the working face. Our job was to keep coal, rock, and mud from interfering with six miles of continuous conveyor belts. It was a tremendous task that would intimidate an average miner, but not Jake. Nothing intimidated him. I wasn’t surprised he could shovel much faster than me. I expected it from his athletic ability in our younger years. However, I was taken back by his generosity. He offered to share his lunch and later offered to give me an extended break while he shoveled around the head drive. He was never this generous in school. I thought of him as the stereotypical jock who bullied anyone he could, took whatever he wanted, and never giving anything in return. It seemed as though growing up had changed Jake for the better.
We spent the most of two weeks working together. Twelve-hour days and six day weeks. Shoveling, sweating, eating, everything short of sleeping in the same bed. When you work with someone in underground mining, you see them more than your own family. They become your second family. You care about your co-workers. The hard work and danger do that to you. I cared about Jake, his child, and his family. I would never tell him that, though. And I never told him my concerns about the choices he was making.
“My back is killing me. You ain’t got anything to help do you?”
“I got some ibuprofen, if that would help.”
“Nah, that’s a waste. I need something stronger than that. I’ll be right back. I think I might have something in my bucket at the head drive.”
I had heard the rumors of men getting injured in the mine and becoming dependent on pain medication, but I had never met anyone who needed prescription pills to get through the work day. I was curious if there was any truth to the rumor. And I wondered if they needed the pills for pain or for an addiction.
After a short time of trying to hide the fact that he was crushing the pills and snorting them, Jake became a little more comfortable with me. I had earned his trust and companionship. I was a coal miner just as he was. But he never talked to me about why he needed the pills.
On one of our many shifts spent together, we were sent into abandoned work areas of the mine to recover high voltage cable, cable hangers, and other items of value. We were more than a mile from any other miners. There were no communication lines. It was like walking into the ruins of a city 25 years after it had been riddled by war. Jagged rocks were hanging from the roof. The floor had buckled and rolled due to the mountain above trying to displace its weight on the pillars of coal left behind to support it. We were in a vulnerable situation. It was my first time seeing the remnants of an abandoned mine, and it was a scary. If we were injured it would take no less than two hours to get to us and another two hours to get back outside. And we had no way to call for help if something did go wrong.
“Hey dude, you mind if I take something for my back? This cable is really getting the best of me.”
“Nah, I don’t guess.”
“You ain’t gonna rat me out for snortin’ a pill are ya?”
“No, it ain’t my business.”
I had lied to Jake. It was my business.
We were in these abandoned works together. We had to rely on each other if there was an emergency. I felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t the first time I had seen someone snort a pill underground. But it was the first time it affected me personally.
I was worried about his kid and his future.
As the hours clicked by, the days rolled over, and the pay periods came and went. Jake slowly stopped showing up on time. He missed work. Before we had worked a full two months together, he had stopped coming altogether.
I still didn’t know whether he was just getting high or if he needed the medication to do his job. For all I knew, he could still have been suffering from those ribs he broke playing football in the seventh grade. I never found out.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. Read more about Gary and his column, “In the Black.”