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Crawling in a 36 inch coal seam six days a week will take a toll on your body. As I stepped out of my truck at home after my shift, I could feel the blood drip from each hair follicle on my knee and make its way down my leg to my ankle. The straps of my knee pads had caused blisters to form in the bends of my knees during the first week. Before the end of my second week they had begun to bleed and get infected. I attempted to work without knee pads for only one shift and quickly learned that I would have been just as well off to strap my father’s old liquor bottles to my knees instead. The knee pads were necessary for the duties of my job. It was just unfortunate that the pain and suffering were just as much a necessity.
I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house at 4pm everyday now. I would back the truck up the steep narrow driveway, pull the emergency brake, grab my dinner bucket from the bed of the truck, and walk onto the porch of my parents’ single wide trailer. My mother would always bring me a sandwich and a soda. I would sit on the porch and eat while she would take my dinner bucket inside to prepare it for the next morning.
I came home dirty, covered with coal dust and mud. There was no bath house at the mine, which meant that some men would change clothes in the back of the mine office by their lockers or in the parking lot beside of their trucks. I didn’t see much point in changing clothes only to drive home, shower, and then change clothes again. I chose the more reasonable option. I kept an old sheet across the seat of my truck, tossed my boots into the bed of the pickup, and drove home completely covered in mud, coal dust, and sweat. My mother would always ask me to take off my uniform outside behind the trailer and come in the back door in my boxers and T-shirt.
“Take that nasty stuff off outside so you don’t track it all through the house,” she’d say. “Put it all in the laundry hamper by the door. Look at you, walking like an old man. You’ve done made your choice now. You said you were gonna be a coal miner.”
“I know. I just didn’t know it would be this bad.”
“You’re just going to have to toughen up. Your Uncle Benny worked in the mines till he got hurt and your Uncle Ronald works in the mines every day. You ain’t no better than they are. You just gonna have to keep doing it until it gets easier.”
As I walked up the stairs to the porch and sat down, I could feel my knee caps burning, the back of my knees bleeding, the muscles in my arms throbbing from the constant swinging of a number 4 coal shovel. All of the pain aside, I felt a sense of pride. I was an Eastern Kentucky Coal miner.
I finished my sandwich and walked slowly to the back of our trailer. My mother had made a decision to be cold and hard about the matter. She didn’t want me to give up on my goals, and she had grown tired of keeping me fed and sheltered. She didn’t give a damn about the pain. She had watched her brothers, father, and grandfather endure. She knew mining stories about all of them, plus her great grandfather. In her opinion, I just needed to toughen up and keep going to work every day.
I unbuttoned and unzipped my pants and started to slide them slowly down my thighs. I knew there was a lot pain coming, I was waiting on it. It would bring me to tears each day when I had to tear the polyester blend away from the bleeding wounds on the front and backsides of my knees. On this day I had enough. I didn’t want to do this every day. I had a change of heart, and my mind and body were in complete agreement: I was going to give it up and quit.
After I showered, I put on shorts and walked out onto the front porch to talk with Dad about our day at work. It was mostly me describing everything that happened underground. He would sometimes ask questions or talk about people he knew who had worked underground. Most importantly, he would sit and listen. As I sat down beside him, I could smell the cheap vodka and it reminded me of the men I worked with, showing up in the mornings smelling of liquor and cigarettes. These men had been mining coal for close to 40 years. Why couldn’t I get through the first month?
“Damnit, Gary! You need to do something about that.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Look at your knees. That’s not good. You want me to go over to Frazier’s and see if they have some better knee pads?”
“Nah, I don’t think it matters. Everyone said you have to deal with this until you toughen up, get some calluses built up on your knees, or get a good job up in the working face.”
“Well son, you can’t keep going like this. That ain’t no good”
I just gave him a smile, nodded my head, and went back inside. My mother woke me up at 4:30 the next morning.
“Mom, I don’t want to go in. My knees are killing me, I’m tired. I just want to rest. I’ll call and tell them I am sick.”
“No, this is your last chance. You took this job, you wanted this. You are going to get up, get dressed, and go into work today. I don’t want to hear it. If you quit this job, I’m done helping.”
Which meant, I either went to work or I find somewhere else to live. I got dressed and picked up my dinner bucket as I walked out of the door. I knew I wasn’t going to work that day, but she didn’t. I drove my pickup truck to the top of Pine Mountain. It seemed to call me in when I was in need of comfort. I called Terry the mine superintendent, told him I was having some issues getting my truck started, but I would come in tomorrow morning on time.
“Gary, if you need a ride I can come get you. I know you are always here on time. You never miss a day. If you need some help just let me know.”
“Thank you but I just need to wait on the parts store to open so I can buy a new starter and put it on.”
It was another lie, a way of pretending to be the coal miner I aspired to be but never really succeeding. I reclined the seat of my truck and closed my eyes. My emotions were getting the best of me. My mind was going in a hundred different directions at 200 miles per hour. I need to relax and think about my life. I walked the Little Shepherd Trail, which runs on the ridge of Pine Mountain. I ate my sandwich at the overlook and attempted to walk off the grief and dread. Four hours later, I could not take the pressure any longer. I knew my parents would know something was wrong when I came home in clean clothes, not tired, and no story to tell. So I drove to Beaver Creek. I pulled into the mine parking lot before 10 a.m. Terry and Rio were sitting on the steps drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
“Hey kid, you made it in after all. You get your starter replaced that fast?”
“No, it turned out to just be the battery. Can I stay late and make up the hours I missed?”
“Yea, sure. Help Rio for the rest of the day and when day shift comes out you can pick up trash in the yard till dark. That should get ya close enough to the hours you missed.”
I worked the rest of the day watching Rio, an underground miner with more than 30 years of experience. He laughed the work away, and no job seemed to affect his happiness. For many years to come, I would search to find his peace of mind.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. Read more about Gary and his column, “In the Black.”