Photo by Lance Booth.

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Dust floated under the fluorescent lights of the locker room. I sat on the end of the bench while the other men laced up their boots, pulled on their sweat-stained overalls, and knocked the mud and dust onto the floor. T.J. walked into the room wearing jeans and a polo shirt, smiling as he pulled out his Skoal can to get a dip. His arm in a sling, forearm and hand in a cast, it was obvious he was not going underground with us today.

Days before, T.J. had gotten his glove caught in the steel of the roof bolter. He was lucky to still have his hand. From T.J.’s perspective, he’d also been lucky to get time off so he could attend the Black Gold Festival, a festival in Hazard he said never missed because of the many pretty college girls who also attended.

“I bet y’all are happy as sh*t to see me back, ain’t ya?” T.J. said.

Scott ignored T.J., as did I. Jerry our mechanic/electrician didn’t look from lacing his boots and responded:

“I don’t know how happy we are to be working with someone who would put themselves and their co-workers in danger just to get a weekend off, but I guess I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Ahh sh*t Jerry, you don’t really think I did this on purpose, do ya? I mean hell, even if I did, I didn’t put no one at risk but myself”

With this remark Jerry looked up, glaring at T.J.

“That just proves how f***ing stupid you are. You’re lucky you have a job left.”

Before T.J. could say anything more, the door to the trailer opened and a very familiar face walked in. It was Ronny. I knew him from the church my mother dragged me too while I was growing up. I remember seeing him play guitar on Sunday mornings during altar call. Ronny was a short and thin man with white hair and a beard to match. He was quiet natured, so as he began to speak no one listened. The conversations around the room continued until Scott spoke up for Ronny.

“Everybody, shut up! Can’t you see that Ronny is up here trying to say something? You all show a little respect and pay attention.”

As Scott wiped the sweat from his brow, he opened the Mountain Dew bottle next to his boot and took a drink. I watched half a bottle disappear in a single swallow. My eyes moved to Ronny. You could see him nervously shuffling through the papers in his hands.

“David and Aaron aren’t here today. They’ve ask me to talk to you all about what’s going on at Redstar.”

Redstar mine had almost worked out, and they would be transferring those employees to our mine. That meant more overtime and more weekend shifts would be needed to get the second section ready for production before the transfers began. Ronny gave orders to Lonnie and Richard, the two new hires who were shoveling belt.

“Lonnie, you and Richard will be going with Larry up to the second unit to start prepping for the new section. There are a lot of brattices that need repaired and new ones that need built. Larry and I will take you to the section and help out as much as possible. Aaron will be here before the shift starts to ride up to the car section with the rest of the crew.”

Then T.J. spoke up, interrupting Ronny.

“Hey, what am I gonna do? The doctor say’s I can’t go underground, but J.R. told me I need to come to the mine anyway.”

“Well, I can’t really say, son. You’ll figure it out in a few minutes. Aaron and David will be here soon. Don’t worry.”

As we all finished getting dressed for our shift, Ronny covered our daily safety topics and asked to lead us in prayer before we traveled underground.

“….Be with these men as they travel into the ground, Lord. Keep them safe, watch over them, be with their families while they are away, and thank you for giving us this precious rock that allows us to keep food on our tables. May everything we do be in your name. Amen.”

I stared into the inside of my hard hat, reading over the step-by-step directions of the emergency decal placed just above the liner of my hat. These decals were given to miners to be placed inside of our hard hats in case of a fire or explosion. If we were to panic during one of these events, we were supposed to look inside our hats and follow the directions on how to operate our self rescuers. I placed my hand on the top of the large orange breathing apparatus that was more of a 5-pound hindrance strapped to my mining belt than any sort of rescuing device. I had zoned out thinking of how I would react to a disaster . I didn’t notice Ronny had finished praying and everyone was walking out to the mantrip. I was brought back into reality when I heard Aaron’s voice.

“T.J., I need you to come with me to David’s office. Bentley, you better be on the mantrip in 10 seconds. Scott’s driving and you know he ain’t waiting on anybody. I’ll be up on the section in a minute. Biggun [Big One] said he would stay with you guys until I get done.”

The only space left on the mantrip was a small gap between the frame of the machine and the boots of Dana the miner, Jerry the electrician, and Carl, one of the ram car operators. I tucked my body into the small space facing away from the other men and tried to brace my body for the rough ride ahead of me. When the one-hour trip was over and the engine stopped, my body was numb from the vibrations and impacts. I wasn’t sure I could move. Lifting my legs over the edge of the frame to duck walk to my scoop seemed impossible. A few nudges into my ribs by the three men whom I had made so uncomfortable on the ride in gave me all the reason I needed to move. I overheard Carl calling out to Thor as I duck walked over to the scoop.

“Hey, Thor, since I’m gonna be pinnin’ top now, you better take damned good care of that ram car. It was my baby.”

I went through the normal routine of my shift. Cleaning the feeder, checking the roof bolt supplies, and hanging curtain as necessary. On one trip from the working face to to gather my roof bolt supplies, I passed Aaron.

“Hey, Gary, you got a minute?”

“Yea, I’m just picking up supplies. What’s going on?”

“We’re going to be a little short handed. I need to know if you can run the scoop on your own full time?”

“Of course, that’s what I was hired for.”

Throughout the day word spread that Carl was going to be our full time roof bolter with Scott, permanently replacing T.J. Thor would be taking over on the ram car, and I would be working on the scoop by myself.

T.J., it seemed, had been let go. We never heard the exact reason. But we all assumed it was his injury. Some men said perhaps it wasn’t an accident, after all, timed as it was to coincide with the Black Gold Festival. We were got the details and would never know the truth. But one thing we did know: We weren’t upset that T.J. would no longer be working with us.

Gary Bentley is a former underground miner from Eastern Kentucky.

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