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EDITOR’S NOTE: This installment of “In the Black” originally ran on February 14, 2016.
Dedication: To my loving wife Marcie Crim. She gave me the support and courage to leave the mining industry. Then she followed up by encouraging me to write about my career.
A piece of slate crashed onto the floor of the shaft where we were drilling. The rock had fallen from 40 feet above our heads — or maybe 400 feet — after separating from the wall.
I jumped back, and everyone laughed.
“Don’t be such a p—y. Just drill the holes and let’s hit some black gold,” another miner said.
I turned back to my drill. I had been with this coal company for nearly a year. I still couldn’t drill properly, and I felt like I was falling apart. But my biceps were swelling week by week. My shoulders were broadening and my beard was growing thick and full. I wasn’t sure if I was turning into a man by nature, through work, or if it was merely rubbing off in the showers from the other men. I had become comfortable enough to hold normal conversation with the men at work and to shower with everyone at the end of the shift. Unfortunately for me, I still wasn’t any damned good at doing the job.
Struggling night after night was nothing new, but this night was much worse than the others. It was beginning to warm up in the day, allowing the ground to thaw after a cold night. Water moving through the walls of the shaft created more falling rock to be wary of. We were much deeper in the shaft and closer to coal. Now we had a proper hoist house and communication lines. We could order parts, ask for help, and call for a ride out. The unfortunate thing for me was that I was still much slower than everyone, and they would often go out to eat lunch, leaving me to finish my share of the work. Which was understandable on the working side, not so much on the safety side.
I was drilling again tonight. Ron, my boss, didn’t have to coach me anymore or curse at me for getting the steel hung as I drilled. It was freezing cold and wet. The water froze in thin layers on the outside of our rain suits. I nervously watched out of the corner of my eye to see if more rock was falling. I was stressed out, in a hurry, and feeling like I would never be as good a miner as the men working around me. Once again, everyone was finished, and they had called for a ride out to eat lunch. I was left to finish my part of the drilling alone, hungry and tired. I rushed the drill, trying to finish before the elevator made it to the platform above, only to screw up again and miss my ride. I would finish drilling and hope the hoist man wasn’t eating lunch with everyone else when I was finished so I could get a ride out as well.
I had three holes left to drill. I watched the elevator go out of sight. I could finish these holes in the same time everyone else finished lunch. Which meant I would be eating while I transported the explosives. I pushed down on the air lever and went back to work. Nervous, scared, and alone at the bottom of the shaft.
Everything went dark.
I came to — soaking wet, on the floor of the shaft, ringing in my ears. The drumming of the drill was deafening. I tried to reach over and pull the air lever to shut off the drill but my arm wouldn’t move. Something was holding me down. The pain started to settle in. Pressure on my arm, ribs, and back. A piece of rock had broken loose, pinning me to the floor of the shaft. I was soaked with freezing water, my hard hat had fallen off, my ear plugs had fallen out, and I couldn’t move.
I lay there for some time, I don’t know how long. The constant drumming of the drill and the pressure of the rock became too much. My sense of time was lost. I was greeted by Ron and the rest of the crew. They ran down the ladder and shut off the drill. The ringing in my ears would not stop, and I could barely hear Ron. I knew he was screaming by the tone of his voice and look on his face, but the volume was only a whisper.
“Holy sh–! Bentley, are you OK?”
I couldn’t speak. The rest of the crew was using pry bars and railroad jacks to lift the rock off me. I felt a release of pressure as Happy Meal and Ron pulled me from under the rock.
“Come on, talk to me, Bentley, can you hear me?”
“Yea, but not real good. My head is throbbing and my ears are ringing.”
Then a tingling sensation overwhelmed my whole body, like when you sit on your foot as a kid watching a movie. I felt confused. I was more worried about being in trouble than being hurt.
“Bentley, we’re going to pack you up to the elevator and get you out of here, OK?”
I didn’t speak, just gave an old fashioned thumbs up.
Outside, Ron, who I later learned was a trained first responder, gave me a bit of a check-up. He looked for cuts and swelling, checked my pulse, and asked the standard questions to see how I was functioning mentally.
“Where are you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Gary Bryant Bentley, I’m 18, we’re in Kemper, Kentucky.”
“All right, I got it. You look fine, little bruised up but nothing serious.”
“It sounds like you are talking from a different room.”
“That’ll go away, hang out here, get some dry clothes on, stay warm, I’ll be back in a minute.”
I got out of my work clothes, stood in the shower and let the steaming hot water run over my face. I was wondering whether I should walk away and never come back. I asked myself, “Is being a coal miner really worth all of this?” Ignoring those thoughts I got dressed and lay on the bench in the bathhouse. An hour or so later, Ron returned.
“How ya feeling now, kid?”
“Just sore, still ringing in my ears, but I’ll be all right”
“You OK to drive?”
“I guess so. I don’t think I’m hurt too bad.”
I was trying to act tough, but by this time the bruising on my right side was beginning to throb and send sharp pain throughout my body.
“OK, well, you go on home. Get some rest, give Richardson a call in the morning and let him know how you feel.”
I drove straight home. I didn’t call my parents as I normally would. They were sleeping when I walked into the house. I went to bed and immediately fell to sleep. My dad woke me up at 5 a.m.
“Why are you already home? Your shift doesn’t end for an hour.”
“They had some trouble last night and sent me home early.”
I lied to my father because I didn’t want him to worry or question my career choice. He was leaning over my bed, right in my face. I was hoping that I wasn’t speaking too loudly and that he wouldn’t notice what was going on with me. He just leaned in, kissed me on the forehead, and walked out. I woke up later that day sometime in the afternoon. The sun was up, it was warm out, the pain just would not allow me to sleep any longer. My body was stiff. I felt as though I had rusted at the joints. My arm and ribs had begun to turn a light shade of greenish blue. I sat on my parents couch watching cable TV until my sister got home from school. An hour or so after her, my mother came home. I told my mother about the ringing in my ears but only said my ear plugs had fallen out while drilling and I didn’t put them back in. She recommended I go to the emergency room but I refused. Then I remembered to call Richardson, the mine superintendent.
Ron had already briefed Mr. Richardson on the accident, so I didn’t have to say a lot.
“How you feeling, Gary?”
“All right, got some ringing in my ears but I’m OK.”
“You going to come out tonight?”
“Yea, I think so. My mom wants me to go see a doctor, but I think I’m OK.”
“You go to the hospital if she thinks you need to and come back to work when you are ready.”
I got dressed, got my dinner bucket, told my mom I was going to the E.R. before work and said I would call her when I was released by the hospital. I had lied to my mother. I drove to the top of Pine Mountain, reclined the seat in my Monte Carlo and tried to sleep. I stayed there for a few hours then called my mother to tell her the doctor said I was cleared to go back to work.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.