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I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch telling my dad about how clean the Enterprise mine was and how strict the operator, J.R., was about keeping it clean. I talked about his bucket inspections and that everyone knew not to come outside with an empty dinner bucket, because J.R. said there was no man working in the mine who didn’t take something to drink or something to eat with him. J.R. said if he didn’t bring any trash out, that meant he left it somewhere in the mine, and J.R. demanded those mines to be treated like a home. My dad ended the conversation by telling me about the time J.R. fired a fellow coal truck driver because he threw a Reese’s Cup wrapper out of his window as he was leaving the preparation plant.
The clouds of white dust made it impossible to see, but thankfully I had Thor to guide me.
“You gotta use the corner of the bucket to feel the rib. You can’t be looking at where you’re going. You gotta chalk line that rib by feel.”
Thor was just a year older than me and had started underground straight out of home school. He was tall, thin, and would have easily passed the entrance to a junior prom.
“I’m gonna roll this curtain up while you try one more time to get that rib clean. Then I’ll show you how to clean the offside rib. It’s a bit trickier, but once you get the feel it’s just as easy as takin’ candy from a baby.”
As the dust cleared, I saw a line of tobacco spit come from Thor’s mouth and just miss my shoulder when I traveled past him on the scoop, trying once more to clean the edge of the mine wall and floor. I had been a scoop operator before. Apparently not a very good one. I had never worked in a mine that was kept this clean and required such attention to detail. The entry ways were scraped until the rock on the bottom showed and a white line marked the intersection of the floor and wall of every entry. This is what a scoop operator would call “chalking” the rib. I was told this was J.R. King’s way of operating a mine: clean, organized, and safe.
I slithered out of the deck of the scoop onto my knees pulling a 40-pound bag of rock dust from the back of the scoop. Throwing the bag over my shoulder, I duck walked around the scoop to begin dusting, as Thor fired up the scoop to clean the other side.
“Hey Gary, you be sure to get the roof real good. Don’t worry about the face. I’m gonna push all this gob up in there anyway. Just get the top real good. Aaron will flip out if it ain’t white.”
I duck walked in the 42-inch coal seam and tossed handfuls of crushed stone powder against the roof. I could feel that 80 percent of the work I was doing was falling back down into my shirt collar. I thought Thor was messing with me like the guys at Consol, so I stopped, allowed the dust to clear the air, and turned my head side to side motioning for him to stop with my cap light.
“Hey Thor, this sh** ain’t sticking to the top. You just f***in’ with me? It’s all down my shirt, my nose is clogged up, and I’m gonna cough up both lungs before too long.”
Thor just smiled and spit more “jaw ’backer” across the ground.
“Come here, Bentley. Let me show ya how to do this.”
Thor grabbed a bag, tore open the top, and began slinging rock dust side to side against the roof of the mine. He was moving as fast as a man could when he’s bent over and humped up like a cat sh**ting. He had covered the majority of the entry and emptied five bags of rockdust in less time than I had emptied one. As the dust began to settle again, he pulled out his pouch of Levi Garret chewing tobacco, reaching out to me, gesturing for me to get a “chaw.” I politely declined and leaned back into the pile of coal, mud, and rock dust that was piled against the mine face.
“Thor, what caused you to go into the mines?”
“Ahh, when I got done with homeschool I met a girl working at McDonald’s. One thing led to another and I needed a good paying job so I could marry her.”
“What about you, Bentley?”
“Ahh, I was gonna go to college, get a teaching degree, and this was my only chance to pay my way through.”
“Then why are you still here?”
“It ain’t like I could have graduated by now anyway, but I found out I was making more money at Consol than I would have been teaching school. So I decided to stop wasting my money on books and tuition and just buy me a nice vehicle and start traveling with my band.”
As we sat seven miles beyond the drift mouth, leaning on the gob pile at the face of the entry Thor and I talked about growing up and what we were doing then. He was from a small community just outside of Hazard in Perry County, Kentucky. He was home schooled his entire life and was raised in a very strict Christian home. The church was his school, his friends, and his family. Thor married at the age of 18 to a woman who already had two children and was struggling to provide for herself and the kids, which meant he had to grow up quick and find a way to help make ends meet. Thor was the most mature man I had met in the mines, and he was under the age of 30. He was experienced and never had a bad word to say about the men we worked with. His only vice was his love for the church.
If I were to go back to this conversation, I would tell Thor how his time in the mines would change his life. Not for the better and maybe not for the worse. But it would definitely take a turn in a direction that neither of us would have expected that day.
He was a hell of a coal miner, and I’d sure like to set down and have a “chaw” with him today.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.