Photo by Lance Booth.

The lights whipped by like lightning bugs in summer air. The sound of car horns and sirens passed causally through my ears as I floated between sleep and consciousness. For the first time on our band’s tour, I had agreed to sleep in the back of the jeep while our guitarist, Michael, drove us from Scottsville, Alabama, through the night.

My body rolled from one side of the jeep to the other each time we took an exit ramp. The combination of my surroundings and the belly full of Jim Beam was making me nauseated. I’m gonna say the Jim Beam could have been the biggest issue. Just hours prior to this we were on stage at a bar and pizza joint in a shit-hole town just outside of Birmingham. The amps were cranked up, and we were getting loaded. It was the thing we all dreamed about. We were traveling the country, playing music, meeting new people, and trying to break through in the heavy metal and hardcore music scene with our band, Black Lung. The difference between me and the guys in my band or the guys in the other bands we toured with was that I had to be back at the coal mine at 6 o’clock the morning after the show.

When I woke up at my house in Jenkins, Kentucky, it was 5:15 a.m. I had been on the road for six days. We had played in Huntington, West Virginia; Whitesburg Kentucky; Lexington, Kentucky; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and Scottsboro, Alabama. I had to return to work for four days before my next four days off and vacation time would begin for the next leg of our tour. As I crawled out of the back of the Jeep and put my feet on the ground, I could feel the cold air sober me up. I stumbled up the concrete stairs and into the house, fumbling to get dressed as the rest of the band quickly laid down on the sofas and air mattresses to pass out. I unhooked the trailer from my Jeep and had 20 minutes to drive to Redfox for work. I hadn’t eaten since the day before (somewhere at a gas station in Alabama) and I knew I smelled of beer, bourbon, and sweat. I couldn’t make it to Redfox in 20 minutes, so I did the most reasonable thing. I went back into the house to shower and stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast on the way in.

YouTube video
Gary’s metal band, Black Lung, in Georgia.

I pulled into the mine at 7 a.m. I was an hour late, the mantrip was already underground, and I wouldn’t get a ride in until third shift came out. I walked into the mine office. Superintendent James sat behind his desk.

“Bentley, you gonna be a coal miner or a musician?” he said. “Nevermind, don’t answer that. So here’s the deal. You’ve been late numerous times. You’ve used all of your vacation for the year between Halloween and Christmas, you have all of your vacation for next year scheduled between January 1st and February 16th. If you get sick, have a family emergency, or some other shit-storm come flying through, you are gonna be f*****. I’m trying to look out for you here. You are a hell of worker and a good roof bolter, but if you aren’t gonna be at work, you’re not much good to us. So you need to think long and hard about whether you want to be a musician or a coal miner. You ain’t got time to be both.”

I walked out of the office and immediately knew what I was going to do. I would finish the next leg of the tour and work every day and every hour of overtime given to me from February 16th until July 1st. I would work on scheduling a non-stop tour hitting every major city and traveling from July 1st until December 31st. I wanted to be a musician. I had coal mining to fall back on, and I wasn’t giving up on this dream like I had done with my dream of getting a college education.

At the working face, I arrived at the roof bolter two places down. I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open and head up. My bolting partner, Mike, was already frustrated because had been operating both sides waiting on me to show up. Between rows of bolts I caught myself nodding off. Sometimes Mike had to smack the canopy with a hammer to wake me up. Working underground is not a good place to be tired and hungover. I knew this, but I needed to keep this job until I had saved up enough money and planned the big tour.

I continued through the shift. My section boss El-Rod was a dick. One of those giant inflatable contraptions you would see in the mall but with a huge festering pimple on the end. Class-A Dick! We had known each other since I was a kid. He hated my father, my father hated him, and so the cycle continued. He did anything he could to make my life a living hell underground, and I was glad to return the favor. Unfortunately for me, on this day I wasn’t on my game, and he was getting the best of me. We were three places behind on roof bolting at lunch time, and El-Rod had noticed me nodding off at the drill. As we were backing out of a cut, I saw a light walking toward us. It was the shift foreman, John.

I knew this game, and I wasn’t going to fall for it. If I agreed to go outside and get some rest, the company would say I abandoned my job. Then I would be fired or, if I was lucky, suspended for a few days without pay.

“Hey Bentley, come down to the power center and talk to me.”

I walked behind him, knowing what was going on. El-Rod had called outside to try to get me fired or at least suspended.

“What’s up, John?”

“I just wanted to make sure everything was all right. I know you were late, but I just wanted to make sure you were OK to work today. If you need some time off or got something personal going on, I wanted to give you the chance to get outside and get some rest.”

I knew this game, and I wasn’t going to fall for it. If I agreed to go outside and get some rest, the company would say I abandoned my job. Then I would be fired or, if I was lucky, suspended for a few days without pay.

“Nah, I’m good man. We’re a little behind because I was running late, but we’re catching up. If you could tell Dick-Rod to cut in the right cycle, we might actually get caught up. He’s taking multiple short cuts on our side, one deep cut on the other, then coming back to get a deep cut on our side. You know you can’t catch up like that. We’re bolting three and four places to the other side’s one.”

John and I talked for a few minutes. He followed us around to watch me work and bolt top for a minute.

At the end of the shift John met me outside to apologize.

“Listen, I know you came in late. I know you are young and like to party, but be careful. El-Rod has it out for you, and he’s going to do anything he can to break you or get you fired. He came to me and James this morning accusing you of smelling like booze and being drunk. He said you couldn’t get a bolt up, you were so drunk. Of course, I came down and saw that wasn’t the case but, you know, those accusations build up over time. You’re a good kid. Just be safe.”

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

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