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The Big Y Market sat on the side of Highway 160 just a few miles from Carr Creek Lake and had become my favorite place to grab breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one stop on my way to work each day.
I never knew the real name of the business because there was never a sign. Everyone at work called it the Big Y. Every day at 1 p.m., I would walk in to pick up something from the grill for breakfast, food for my lunch at work, and something that I could leave in the truck to eat for dinner when I got home at 2 a.m. It was never crowded, only a few coal truck drivers and fellow miners doing just the same as I. There were also five gentlemen gathered around a small table in the back – smoking, chewing tobacco, and playing cards. They’d often ask what seam I was mining, how the top was, and if it bothered me mining next to the lake. I’d give them as much information as I had. But I often said something wrong, and they would heckle me for not knowing what I was talking about.
“Yea, it ain’t too bad,” I told them one afternoon. “Our continuous miner broke down halfway through the shift last night, so I had to drive the scoop outside to pick up a new piece of chain for the conveyor.”
One of the older men replied, “You don’t drive a damn scoop, son, you tram it. Remember that, you don’t drive that equipment. You tram it! You talk like that and everyone’s gonna think you’re a greenhorn.”
The old man was right. I was 22 years old and even though I had four years of experience, I was still a “greenhorn” compared to the miners on crew who had 10, 20, and as much as 40 years of experience. They had forgotten more than I knew.
That’s why I would do anything to fit in and be more like them. I wanted nothing more than to be the romanticized coal miner that I looked up to and aspired to be. So while at the register of the Big Y Market, I quickly made a decision among Skoal, Levi Garrett, and Cumberland Twist tobacco.
It was 1:30 p.m. on a beautiful October day, and the crew sat in the doorway to the barn by the man trip. The wind was blowing, the sun was shining, and the temperature was just breaking 70 degrees. Dana lit another cigarette, and Scott opened the top of a Gatorade bottle to spit the tobacco juice from his dip as I broke the seal and opened the brand new pouch of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco. I had never chewed tobacco before, unless you count the time in sixth grade when my friend stole a can of Bandits pouched Skoal and we all dipped in the run-down barn behind his house. I remember my dad coming to pick me up for baseball practice. As I ran down the driveway, my legs felt uncontrollable, my vision was blurry, and the back of my throat burned. That was my first and only time ever using tobacco, until that day, 10 years later.
I took a small pinch of the tobacco, the sweet smell filled my lungs and I thought I had made the right decision. As I chewed on the tobacco and spit, I felt like one of the guys. There was a burning sensation on my tongue and the back of my throat, but I didn’t feel light headed or nauseous. I felt like I had made another step towards becoming one of the men I looked up to.
When Aaron called for us to all come into the locker room for our daily safety talk and prayer I stood up, felt a little uneasy, and decided to spit out the tobacco before getting sick. I still had a job to do and that was much more important than fitting in. Sitting in the locker room I could barely pay attention to what Aaron and David were saying. A lump had climbed out of my stomach and was sitting in my throat, making it hard to breathe. I tried to focus but the burning sensation inside my mouth would not let me. As I heard David’s final words, “You all remember we have to work together to make it work for us all,” I made a break for the door and straight to our water storage area. I pulled a gallon jug out of a cardboard box, ripped the seal and cap with one hard pull, and began to chug a gallon of water. I climbed onto the man trip sitting as close to the front as possible to get as much cool air as possible while continuing to drink the gallon of water. The last thing I wanted was to get sick from chewing tobacco and be labeled as Dana would put it “a nutless dog.”
Days went by as I tried to slowly adapt and acclimate my body to this new poison. I went to concerts with friends and would secretly go on walks to explore cities alone just so I could chew tobacco and try to adapt before returning to work. I would chew tobacco driving to band practice, out riding my ATV, and occasionally I would sit on the sidewalk by my apartment with a chew in just to make sure I could handle it before trying again at work. After two weekends and one full week of practice, I felt as though my body had accepted the poison and was not going to make me sick in front of all of the men at work.
As we all loaded up on the man trip, I opened a brand new pouch of Levi Garrett. I had come to enjoy the smell of a freshly opened pouch. I took a good three-finger pull of tobacco and crammed it into my right cheek. As the man trip traveled across the gravel haul roads of the mine, bouncing over fallen draw rock and dipping through rutted out areas where the sump pumps couldn’t keep up any longer, I laid there concentrating on not swallowing. No matter how dry my throat became, I knew I could not swallow. I had not mastered the art of drinking or eating with tobacco in my mouth, at least not without becoming instantly ill. During the one hour commute I hung my head over the side of the man trip to spit. More often than not, it seemed it was just before Scott would take a turn too fast and scrape the side of the frame against the pillar of coal, spraying everyone on the side with debris and dust.
When we arrived on the section, I immediately removed the tobacco from my mouth, rinsing with water, and trying to hide the fact that I still had no clue what I was doing. As I crawled back to my scoop I opened a can of soda trying to rid my mouth of the taste of tobacco. I removed the charger “bells,” which were much easier than removing the taste and sensation left behind by Levi Garrett. I connected the scoop to the battery and began my workday. As I was cleaning the feeder, I saw lights behind the power box and me being the curious and social person I was, I made my way around the entry to see who was there.
“Hey Gary! This is Lonnie. He’s been shoveling belt and helping prepare the #2 section for work. Larry said he’s a hell of a ram car operator, so he’s going to come work with us, and Carl is going to go down to the #2 unit and help with roof bolting.”
Before I could speak or Aaron could say anything else, Lonnie spoke up.
“Oh, I know Gary, we hired in together. I think he might be a little funny, if you know what I mean.”
Lonnie twisted his hand in the air left to right and was gesturing that I might be homosexual. Aaron looked at Lonnie, confused and unsure how to take this poke at me. Lonnie then pulled out a Skoal can to get a dip. In my mind that was a perfect opportunity to open my Levi Garrett and show them both that I was one of them. As I pulled out another big wad of tobacco and crammed it into my jaw, I knew I couldn’t sit around long just in case I became nauseous or lightheaded. I crawled over to my scoop and began to tram out by the section to pick up supplies.
I had traveled three cross cuts when there was an explosion of sound, the lights on the scoop went out, and my head slammed into the back of the canopy. A piece of draw rock had fallen. I didn’t see it, and before I could react, the scoop had bounced over it, jarring so hard it knocked the breaker. It also jarred me. I swallowed all of my tobacco.
There was an instant eruption in my stomach. Before I could get out of the scoop, I had to stick my head out of the small opening and begin throwing up. My mind was racing, and I was scared, I didn’t give a sh** about getting the scoop running or doing my job. I was only worried about not allowing the crew to find out I had gotten sick because I swallowed tobacco. I had heard guys talk about swallowing their dip in safety meetings and training sessions. I couldn’t be the weak man on the crew who couldn’t handle a chew.
I crawled out of the scoop with my head was spinning. I was sweating profusely and vomiting with every step. I finally made my way into a cross cut and out of the travel way, where I began to take off my uniform shirt and hard hat. I poured water over my head as I puked. The dizzying effect turned into a head ache and the upset stomach turned into gut-wrenching pain. When the vomiting subsided, I crawled over to the scoop and stretched my body out in the steel bucket to lower my temperature in hopes of feeling somewhat better. Within seconds, which felt like minutes, the sickness came back. As I raised up to place my head over the side of the bucket, I saw a light traveling in my direction. At this point I didn’t care who knew; I only wanted to not be sick any longer.
“Gary, are you OK? We heard the scoop from back at the power center, and when it never started back we came to check on you.” It was Aaron and Lonny. Loud noises and equipment shutting off are fairly normal underground, but when the equipment doesn’t start back up, you know there is a real problem.
“I’m really sick,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong but that’s … ” And there was more vomit.
“I think I had a migraine and wasn’t focused, and all of a sudden, BOOM! Everything happened and then I started puking.”
Lonny was quick on his feet. He had experience with accidents.
“Gary, if you’re puking you may have a serious concussion. You need to get to a doctor.”
“Nah, I’m just really sick. I didn’t hit my head.”
Aaron sent Lonny to call for an emergency ride out of the mine and began checking my pulse, breathing, and looking for any cuts or swelling. He was following his first responder protocol. Within an hour I was being helped onto the man trip, given a bit bucket to puke in, and placed on a soft pad to cushion the uncomfortable steel floor of the man trip as we traveled across the rough roads out of the mine. Lying with my eyes closed and listening to the roar of the diesel engine somehow calmed my stomach and eased the pain in my head. But when we traveled to the top of the slope and exited the portal of the mine, it all came back. In an uncontrollable fit, I spilled green bile, water, and whatever else may have been left in my stomach onto the floorboard of the man trip.
There was a chuckle from the background and then I heard Lonny speak. “Man, Chuck is gonna enjoy the hell out of cleaning that mess up.”
I apologized repeatedly, swearing that I would clean it out as soon as I felt well enough. Aaron and Rat King (the evening shift mine foreman) spent every minute of the next hour trying to convince me to go to the hospital to be checked for a concussion. I didn’t have the balls to tell them the truth. I insisted I just needed to cool off, drink some water, and then I could go back underground. Two hours later, a few bottles of water, some Saltine crackers, and a lot of tossing and turning on the floor of a filthy mine office trailer and I was able to go back to work.
Now, just over 10 years later, I still cannot stomach the smell of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco, something that once smelled so sweet and was going to turn me into my image of a real miner.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.