EDITOR’S NOTE: With this week’s article, Gary sent the following note: “I would like to dedicate this story to my good friend Boone. He is the person who encouraged me to write. He pushed me to do this and was the first person to read my work.”
“In the Black” is a series of articles about coal mining from the perspective of former miner Gary Bentley.
I was watching sweat beads roll down my biceps and work their way down my forearms through rock dust, coal, and mud. Breathing heavy, mouth parched, wanting nothing more than to take a drink of water, shower, and lie on my momma’s couch.
I couldn’t do that, though. Hawk would have a fit.
I watched the fat, greasy bastard stick his pudgy, dirt-covered fingers into the can of Vienna sausages he picked up at the Double Kwik on his way into work. I guess that’s what happens when you spend 30 years down here in the mines.
I was shoveling the beltline that carried coal to the surface, keeping the moving parts clear of mud, rock, and coal. I stopped once, and Hawk said, “Boy, if you can’t shovel no better than that, you might as well go back to playing Barbie dolls with your little sister. We ain’t got time for slouching.”
But that’s all Hawk knew how to do, bark orders and watch someone else do all the work. I would often shovel the belt lines and he’d lay on his back, cap light shining up, and the belt line just barely missing the zipper on his fly. I often would hope he’d have a good dream about some pretty woman he met at Gabby’s last weekend, causing his fly to get close enough to the belt that a broken splice would come through and just rip it clean off. That never happened though. I would just shovel my way down the line, and when I’d get close enough to see his eyes were closed, he’d slither his way out from under the belts, move another couple hundred feet down and repeat the process.
It wasn’t until my last day working for Hawk that I had learned how much of a prick he really was. I was still “green” and by state law required to be within sight and sound of his smelly, sweaty, fat self. He gave me another order. “You shovel this belt clean. Come meet us by the tracks at quittin’ time.” I was too young and scared to remember I didn’t wear a watch so I would never know when it was quittin’ time (7 a.m.), and I didn’t know how to get back to the tracks. I just shoveled as hard and as fast as my body would allow me. I didn’t stop for lunch; I didn’t stop to take a drink of water. For all I knew Hawk could have been watching around the corner. All I wanted was to prove that I was just as hard and mindless as everyone else working these coal seams.
Time goes by pretty fast when all you’re concerned about is how much blood has soaked through your work pants into your knee pads or how bad it hurts with every shovel of mud, coal, and rock you throw back onto the belt. There ain’t no light down there, there’s no sense of time, just darkness that you can never know until you are in it yourself. It’s just hard work and pain.
I never did make it out to the tracks for quittin’ time. I never even found the damned tracks that day. Sometime into the following shift another belt boss came up on me. I was finally tired enough to ask “Hey, when’s quittin’ time?”
“’Bout 3 .p.m” he said.
As tired as I was I simply stated, “I started at 9 last night. I didn’t know how to get back to the tracks.”
Luckily this guy was a lot nicer than Hawk. He gave me a sandwich and Coke. Hell, he even gave me a ride out to the tracks. Only problem was, there wouldn’t be another rail car coming out until the end of the shift. He told me if I was lucky, one of the supply men might have room and let me ride out when they came through. I guess that was my lucky day. Around 2 p.m. one of those supply cars came by with a load of trash. The operator told me if I didn’t mind lying back on the flat car with the empty oil cans, workers’ dinner trash, and other assorted crap, I could ride out with him. So I did.
I finally saw sunlight. I never saw Hawk again. I never saw that belt line again. And, though I eventually went back working underground, I wouldn’t never go back in that particular mine again, that was for sure.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.