Photo by Lance Booth.

I got to work before 4 a.m. to help “pre-shift” the mine, inspecting things before the day-shift crew arrived. Ralph had been sick, and Dean had his hands full pulling power, belt, and trying to keep up with the ever-growing list of grunt work that the company piled on him.

While I drank my coffee and traveled out of the mine on the foreman’s man trip, I noticed that the travelways and the cross cuts along the brattice line were flaking. The winter had dried out the strata and the warmer temperatures in the spring brought in moisture, causing draw rock to fall. The roof and ribs were dark grey and blotted with coal black where the thin layers of rock and shale had fallen. The moisture in the air was absorbed by the rock dust, which made the walls of the mine look as if they had dark grey paint running down them. It looked nothing like the bright white and well-kept mine I had entered my first day on the job with Enterprise Mining.

J.R., the mine manager when I was first hired, had eventually been pushed out of management after Alpha Natural Resources purchased the mine. There were plenty of rumors: he had stolen millions of dollars in mining equipment that had come back to bite him in the ass; he purchased new mineral rights and permits to open another mine of his own; and the best one – Alpha Natural Resources gave him a hefty bonus and he bought an island somewhere near Hawaii or Carr Fork Lake, no one really knew.

I could have asked his son. We played music together almost every weekend. But I just let the rumor mill continue to run. I had no desire to seek out the truth, and his son had made it known to me that he didn’t care to talk about his father. So I just let it be and remembered J.R. for the mine manager he was to me. The fact is, he took pride in this mine. But from the way things looked, that pride was long gone, swept away by all of the hustle and bustle of the newly opened #9 slope mine. I intended to bring back the shine to #8.

I found myself developing a sense of ownership of #8. It was the mindset that Lloyd had instilled in me while working for Consol. Lloyd had been meticulous about keeping the mine orderly and cleaned up, even when he could have coasted into retirement. Now I was feeling that way about #8. Not only did I like the conditions of the #8 mine more, but I also favored the management of the #8 over the as**oles from Virginia who came over to run #9. There was Bob, an arrogant man, pushing 6’2” and 300 lbs.He bragged about how he worked his way up into the position he held. Roger had filled me in on the truth about Bob. He had worked as a spad man (surveyor) when he was young and married into a coal-operating family. Then he slowly moved up the ranks with the help of his father-in-law without ever having to put in any hard labor. He never worked as a scoop operator, never bolted top or sat timbers. So I didn’t buy his line of bullsh*t and found it difficult to have any respect for him when he talked about how hard the job used to be and how lucky us young miners were.

Then there was James. He was just a couple years older than me, had less experience than me, and was working as a mine superintendent. He was a cocky as**ole who tried to intimidate miners by threatening to fire them if they called him out on his bullsh*t and showed that they knew more than he did about the job.

I remember one time an older miner, Herman, told James, “I’ve forgotten more in the past 10 years than you’ll ever know. I’ve been bolting top for more years than you’ve been alive. Don’t you ever try to tell me I don’t know bad top when I’m the one putting my life at risk and you’re sitting out there on your ass in a leather chair.” James was like Bob and, coincidentally enough, had married into Bob’s family, which lead to the position he held. I, like the other experienced miners, had no plans on following instructions from any manager who didn’t have the experience to back up what they were saying.

I stopped at the #1 head drive to call out my pre-shift.

“How ’bout ya, Aaron? How ’bout ya? Hello #8? Anyone for the #8 mine?”

I heard the receiver of the phone click.

“Hey, this is Larry, What ya got, Bentley?”

It was the section foreman for day shift. I gave him the conditions of the seals, the belts, the travelways, all of the power centers, and continued through my list. Thankfully Aaron had taught me to take notes throughout my pre-shift inspection. I finished the call and asked to speak to Aaron.

“Hey man,” I said. “I asked Bob a few days ago if I could rock-dust the travelways and cross-cuts from the portal to the last head drive, but he ignored me. James acted like I didn’t know what I was talking about and said, ‘You ain’t been a foreman long enough to make that call, do what your told and quit trying to dig up extra work.’ Now, Aaron, I know I’m a new foreman, but this place is going to sh*t real fast. They don’t care about this mine. All they’re concerned about is #9. I haven’t seen James or Bob in this hole since the day they came on board here at Enterprise. See what you can do. All I need is one or two guys to help and an out-by scoop with a bucket duster. Hell, if you want we can stage pallets of bag dust throughout the mine and use the low track with the hose duster. I just know the mine is starting to look like sh*t and whether an inspector writes us up or not, the folks working in here notice and they’re starting to question how much longer we’re gonna be open.”

 “Bentley,” said Aaron, “today is your lucky day. We brought on two contractors to work with you on getting the mine straightened back up. You’ll have Kenny and Lonnie Jr. working with you now. They’re both red hats so don’t let ‘em out of your sight. Also, find out how good of workers they are. Come on outside and I’ll introduce you all. You can have them help you dust with the low track today. I’ll have Dave stage a few pallets of dust for you all. I’ll put one at each head drive and you all just get as much as you can.”

I pulled the foreman’s man trip into the barn. I saw Aaron walking toward me with two new miners, one on each side. One or them wasn’t much over 4 feet tall and was just as round as he was tall. The second was a lean and muscular kid, but they were both just that: kids. They couldn’t have been anymore than 19 or 20.

“Bentley, this is Lonnie and Kenny. Lonnie Jr. is one of the Heltons. If he’s half as good as his uncle and father, we’re in luck. Kenny is from Virginia but swears he’s going to be a harder worker than the rest of the scabs we’ve got from over there.”

Aaron was only teasing the two guys. Lonnie’s family, the Heltons, had built up a reputation of being hard workers, so Lonnie Jr. had big shoes to fill. But we all knew it took time to adjust to the conditions. Kenny was just unfortunately born on the wrong side of the state border. We had some really great miners from Virginia, but that didn’t mean anything. We were going to ride him all the way home about not being from Kentucky. It was all in good fun, and if they didn’t realize it just yet, they would in due time.

Not so many years before, I had been the new one on the job, the one in the red helmet. But today, I was the one with experience. I called out to the new miners.

“Alright, Lonnie, you leave your dinner bucket out here. You don’t need it. We don’t wanna see anyone gettin’ wedged out down there, and you’re about as round as the top is high, so might as well not pack a lunch for a few weeks.

“Kenny, you look strong and lean, but not real smart. That’s good for you. We just need weak minds and strong backs. I catch you lookin’ at my ass when we’re shovelin’ belt and I’m liable to put my tongue in your throat, so you better keep your eyes focused on a shovel. That is, unless you think I’m cute.”

Then it was time to get to work.

Gary Bentley, a native of Eastern Kentucky, mined coal underground for 12 years. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

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