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A NOTE TO READERS: Coal miners cuss. We’ve toned down the expletives but not tampered with the underlying flavor of the language. If you like your fare less salty, please read accordingly. — Ed.
I was soaked with sweat. My sleeveless T-shirt was clinging to my body showing the muscles on my chest and back. It was another day of shoveling belt and clearing blockages from the transfer points between belts. It was hard work that required nothing more than a strong back and the willingness to push your body to its limits.
This line of work was changing who I was. Not just my personal appearance but my thought process, my personality, the way I spoke. I would often catch myself yelling words like “g– damnit” or “motherf—–” when I would smash a finger or a piece of rock would fall and scrape my arm. I had never spoken like that in my life. My mother would have been ashamed, and I was often ashamed myself for the changes that had taken place.
“Gary, you’re doing a good job,” Terry, the mine superintendent, said. “You come to work on time every day, and you never refuse overtime. I’m happy as hell you came here to work. You think you might want to work for the company one day?”
I was still employed through a contract agency. If I got hired by the coal company, I’d earn more and get medical and retirement benefits.
“Of course I would, Terry. That’s my goal. I want to make as much money as possible. I want to stay in college and move up in the company.”
“Well, you keep thinking like that. This mine’s only got a short time left and I’m retiring when we’re done here. You keep it up, and I promise you I will get you a company job.”
The light from the head drive’s starter box was reflecting in Terry’s eye. I would have said he was lying if the promise had come from anyone else. The way Terry spoke to me let me know there was not a single bit of bull in his promise.
“We got another new guy coming in today to help shovel. He’s gotta stay within sight and sound of you at all times. He’s green, I don’t even know if he has ever been underground. You stay here and clean up this tail piece. Rio will drop him off soon.”
It was close to 8 a.m. I had only been shoveling for a little over an hour at the head drive, where the coal came off the conveyer belt and landed on the tailpiece of the next belt. I heard the diesel rail car roaring down the tracks and within a minute or two, Rio came crawling through the cross cut. I could see someone behind him but, with the glare from his cap light, I couldn’t see his face.
“This is Tim. He’s from Jenkins. He’s never worked underground. This is his first day. Keep him close to you, show him around, and keep him safe. Terry said he’s all yours so do what ya want with him.”
“All right, old man. You gonna do anything today or just ride around listening to the radio?”
“Ahh, I might go cook some steak outside, drink a few beers, might go ride my horses. Smartass.”
As Tim crawled over to the head drive, I could see his face. I knew him. It took me just 30 seconds and it clicked.
“Hey man, you ever work at the elementary school in Whitesburg?”
“Yea, I was a teacher’s aide.”
“I remember you from when I was in grade school! You taught karate classes at the library in town.?”
“I still teach kung fu. It’s my passion. This job is just to pay child support and help keep my classes going.”
Tim was an interesting guy. He was divorced with a couple of kids he hadn’t seen in years. He was married to a woman half his age, and they had a few kids together, as well. His only concern was kung fu. He talked about kung fu all day and he would practice writing Chinese in the rock dust around the head drives while we ate lunch. He wasn’t interested in coal mining or doing any actual work. The first week I just thought maybe he was having a hard time adjusting to the demands of the job. The second week I started to push him a little. I would speed up my pace of shoveling, thinking he would also speed up to stay within sight and sound of me. I was wrong. I would often shovel out of sight. I would crawl back and he would be practicing writing Chinese in the dust or sitting on his ass doing some sort of stretching.
“Tim, you gotta stay within sight or sound. Terry would have my ass if he knew you were this many breaks away.”
“Ahh, it’s OK. We got a tournament this weekend and I have to get prepared. I have to stretch man.”
“All right, but you got to stay close”
Not long after this conversation, Terry showed up. The section belt drive had “gobbed off” and all of the coal from the face was spilling onto the ground around the head drive and tail piece. I was shirtless and covered in coal dust.
I was cursing in my head. I knew Terry would show up when Tim was away, he would be screwing with his Kung Fu crap.
“He walked around the break to take a piss.”
I was hoping that Tim had heard the diesel engine and was somewhere very close. Terry yelled for Tim but got no response. He yelled again and got no response.
“I’m gonna go over there and see why in the hell he’s not answering me.”
I heard Terry calling my name. “Gary, get over here. Look at this sh–.”
I walked around the corner and saw that Tim lying on the ground with his cap light turned off. He had his hard hat over his face and his arms were crossed as if he were laid up in a funeral home.
“Gary, what the hell is all this sh– scrawled on the brattice?” A brattice is concrete block wall that divides mine corridors.
I chuckled a little because Tim had found a can of high-visibility spray paint and had been practicing his Chinese lettering on the brattice.
“I have no clue, Terry.”
Terry kicked the bottom of Tim’s boot. “Wake up, you don’t get paid to sleep here.” Tim came to in a sort of panic. He was trying to get his hat on, turn on his cap light, and wipe the sleep out of his eyes in one motion. He resembled a toddler trying to fight away a mother spooning cough syrup at his face.
“Why is Gary down there shoveling his ass off trying to clean up that spill and you are up here sleeping?”
“I got sick, my blood sugar got low and I think I passed out.”
“You saying you need to go to the hospital?”
“No, I’m fine. I’ll be alright. I’ll go eat a snack and drink a pop.”
“You go do that. I better not catch you passing out in here again. Low blood or whatever the f— you said. I don’t care if you’re d-ck falls off in your hand. Don’t be sleeping in here”
Terry started to walk away. “Oh yea, don’t be drawing any of that chicken scratch on my brattices anymore either. That’s a waste of paint and a waste of time.”
Tim didn’t stick around much longer. He called in sick the very next day. For a while, he worked a few days and called in sick a few days. After three weeks with that attendance record, Terry told him the mine didn’t need him any longer.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.
For Daily Yonder readers in Central Kentucky, Gary will give a public reading in Lexington on March 20. The event is 3 p.m. Sunday at Wild Fig Books and Coffee 726 N. Limestone. Nick Stump will provide some music. The event is free.