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NOTE TO READERS: Miners cuss and use words you never heard in Sunday school. Please be advised that this article contains language that some may find objectionable.
As I prepared for the next shift and the long night ahead of me, I stopped at the Hindman Midee-Mart to pick up my lunch for the night. Two cokes, a honey bun, a pack of sunflower seeds, and a can of Vienna sausages (which, in Eastern Kentucky, we pronounce “Vi-eenee”). The meal was simple and not very cost effective, but for a single man in his early 20s, I was never too picky. Bart and most of the other men I worked with would bring leftovers from their family dinner or a special lunch their wife had packed fresh for their shift. I was one of the few who stocked dinner buckets with gas station junk food and bags from the fast food restaurants that littered the highways between home and the mine.
I tucked the plastic bag into my plastic lunch box and turned over the key of my pickup truck as the neon glow on the dash let me know the time, 10:12 p.m. As I traveled the last few miles to the mine, I wiped sleep from my eyes, yawned my last time for the night, and tried to mentally prepare for the long shift ahead, which could last from 8 to 12 hours. On night shift, the work was different from my previous assignment of running a scoop. Instead of producing coal, the night crew changed belts on the conveyer, built brattices, and did what some might call “brute” work.
In the changing room I laced up my boots and loaded my belt with the tools I would need for the night. Channel locks, pick hammer, crescent wrench, vice grips, and a utility knife. I checked my watch: 10:45 p.m. – 15 minutes until the shift officially began. Paul, my new boss walked in.
“Hey Gary, haven’t seen you in a long damned time. You’ve grown right up. How’s your mom and dad doing?”
Paul was a father of one of the kids I had grown up with in Letcher County. Paul’s son and I had played in summer baseball leagues and gone to school together throughout my childhood. Growing up in such a small town meant that Paul knew my parents. They had gone to school together as well.
“Ahh, they’re all right I guess. You know Dad. He’s working every day and drinking every night. Mom, same as always, going to church, cooking, and taking care of my baby sister.”
“Yea, your dad’s a good one. A hard working son of a bitch and a hell of a drinker, too. I never could keep up with him. That’s why I always stick to the good stuff, a little ‘pick me up,’ if ya know what I mean.”
“You need anything to get ya going for the shift?” Paul asked
I politely declined and walked out to wait for the crew at the top of the slope. As I did, Bart walked around the corner of the office.
“How ya feelin’ bout this night shift?” Bart asked.
“Ahh man, it’s a good job. I’m gonna miss being in the middle of the good stuff. Getting to be a part of the action but I can’t complain. I’ll have the weekends off now.”
Paul walked up.
“Hey, y’all, don’t get too excited. We got big ol’ list of sh-t to get done tonight. We’ll get done what we get done, stay over to do some more, and then they can figure out the rest until we come back to do it again. Now, Shorty and the rest of the belt crew came in early tonight to get everything setup. We got about 12 splices to make tonight, a section of belt to pull in, and six brattices that need built. When we get to the bottom, Gary, I want you to go with Shorty and work on some splices. He’s been doing this sh-t for years and knows what to do, so just listen. Bart, you go with me and we’ll pull in some belt. I’ll show ya the tricks of the trade. Don’t get in no f–kin’ rush and don’t get hurt. This sh-t will be here for us to finish when we come back, OK?”
As we stepped off of the slope car and walked through the airlock doors, I could see the glow of a miner’s cap through the dust. It was shining from beneath the main line belt. I thought it was one of the men from the belt crew crawling, because the belt was no more than 60 inches from the ground. I could hear the man’s voice over the roar of the conveyor’s head drive but still couldn’t clearly make out who he was.
“Anybody want a Vi-eenee? Anybody want a Vi-eenee?”
The voice sounded as if it was coming from someone who had smoked since he was 5 and snorted enough Xanax to collapse or annihilate his sinus cavity. The tone was rough, hoarse, nasally, and high pitched. Interesting, to say the least.
When I could see better, I made out that the man wasn’t crawling. His small stature allowed him to stand beneath the main line belt. His pants were around his ankles. The sweat dripped from his ponytail. He nodded his head, and my eyes naturally followed the illumination of his cap light down to his pudgy hand and nubby fingers. He had cut the bottom out of a Vienna sausage can, placed his penis through the hole, and was flicking it with a plastic fork. As he did so, he called out to everyone on third shift.
“Anybody want a Vi-eenie? Anybody want a Vi-eenie?”
Paul laughed and struggled to put his words into sentences.
“Well, that’s Shorty. He ain’t much but he can damn sure splice a belt. Just don’t take anything he offers you for lunch. Hey Shorty, put that little sausage away and take Gary down to belt #4. It has the most splices to replace.”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.