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EDITOR’S NOTE: This installment of “In the Black” originally ran on May 30, 2016.
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.
“It’s your last day on our crew. You better be ready ’cause we’re going to cut your pants off, paint your d-ck pink, and make you ride outside like that.”
Bobby just laughed as the rest of the crew picked up cans of high-visibility spray paint and began to shake the cans. It was the beginning of my last day on this crew. I would be going to third shift as a scoop operator on Sunday night. It also seemed like it had become my time for some sort of initiation as a coal miner.
I had heard stories of crews initiating miners by holding them down, cutting off their uniforms with a utility knife, and making them ride out of the mine with nothing on but a hard hat and pair of work boots. I had not witnessed this, but the embarrassment of riding out naked seemed like the lesser of the two evils. A group of men cutting my clothes off with a utility knife seemed like the bigger problem. Throughout the shift I thought about it. Could I fake being sick and leave early? Could I just quit and leave the mine for good? Those solutions seemed easy enough, but my pride wouldn’t allow me to take the easy way out.
As I changed the batteries on my scoop, I saw the box of hi-vis paint that was used to mark the center lines and cutting points for the continuous miner. I was tempted to destroy the paint and hide the evidence, but I knew this crew. The men were resourceful, and it was possible that my initiation or leaving ceremony would only be worse if I tried to sabotage their plan. I just ignored the box of paint and went on with my business.
As I loaded roof-bolting supplies into the bucket of the scoop, I thought about whether I had worn a new pair of underwear or if I had thrown on an old pair that had elastic showing. I started to feel embarrassed, like a kid in a junior high locker room. Were they going to make fun of me telling me I had a small penis? Would they laugh at my body? Fear set in and I could not focus on my work. As I pulled the scoop up behind the roof bolter, I saw a large pile of trash. Glue boxes, old food wrappers, bent roof bolts, paper towels, and a pile of human feces. As I got off the scoop K.J. and Squirrel were standing there with their lights shining in my eyes and they began to howl with laughter.
“Have fun picking that up! Oh, by the way, Bentley. You’re gonna have to pack the supplies to us. Sonny says we have to bolt this place before the miner gets done.”
I packed 500 roof bolts and 16 boxes of glue to load the roof bolter with supplies. I did it by myself as K.J. and Squirrel slowly roof bolted and made jokes across the hum of the roof bolter.
“Hah. Squirrel, it’s a shame you couldn’t make it to the return. I know you had all that chili last night. It’s a shame we ain’t gonna have time to help him load supplies or pick up our trash.”
“Yea, I hate to just take a sh-t right there on top of everything, but when ya gotta go, you gotta go.”
As the laughter and jokes continued I could feel something inside of me changing. I was no longer scared, intimidated, or insecure. Rage built up from deep inside me. I knew exactly what I was going to do after I had finished loading the supplies. I was going to leave the trash and human feces right where it lay and leave. K.J. and Squirrel could clean up their own sh-t, literally. As I started the hydraulic pumps on the scoop and turned on the lights, the roof bolter stopped.
“Hey, Bentley! You can’t just leave all that trash. We gotta back out and bolt the next place!”
“Well good luck with that, assholes! I got things to do and I ain’t handling your sh-t!”
“You motherf—ker. You don’t pick up this trash we’ll make you pay for it!”
“Oh, you want me to pick up all that trash? OK, then!”
I trammed the scoop forward, carefully placing the bucket under the glue box with the human feces and began to scoop it up into the bucket. I trammed forward just a few more feet and began to extend the ram of the scoop pushing the human feces out onto the top of the roof bolter. I looked up to see both K.J. and Squirrel moving towards me.
“You stupid son of a bitch! You get out of that f–king scoop and clean the top of this pinner! We ain’t cleaning it, and we ain’t bolting another place until you clean the sh-t off the top of it!”
I put the scoop in reverse. “Have a good rest of the day, assholes!”
As the shift approached its end, I made up my mind. I was not going to be bullied. I was not going to let fear control my career. I had seen a lot and I had grown into a man. I was going to start pushing back. I looked at my watch and knew the next crew would be arriving with the man trip in a few minutes. I trammed the scoop back to the charger and had decided what I would do. As the evening shift crew arrived and traveled past me to the working face, I began to undress. I took off all of my clothes, folded them up into my lunch box, and put my belt, hard hat, and boots back on. While I sat on the mantrip waiting for the rest of the crew, Bobby was the first to arrive.
“Gary, what the f–k are you doing?”
“You said you were going to cut my clothes off and paint my d-ck. I ain’t letting you all near me with a damned knife so I made things easier.”
In my mind I had imagined that my willingly taking off my clothes might have taken the fun out of this experience and they would leave me alone. As the rest of the crew arrived, I learned I was wrong. Sonny grabbed my wrist. Whit grabbed my boots. They began to lift me off the mantrip. K.J. stepped up “Ain’t you gonna fight back Bentley?”
“What’s the point? There’s 12 of you and one of me? I’m not a f–king idiot”
The crew gathered around my body as I was laid out like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” after eating way too many eggs. Then came the smell. I began to choke, and the mist of 10 cans of spray paint filled the air. I could feel the cold liquid running around my scrotum, between my thighs and onto my ass. I began to cackle and laugh, like a madman.
“Sonny, what the hell is wrong with this kid? He’s just laying there. I think he likes it.”
“Ah, hell, Bobby, this ain’t no fun. F–k it, let’s go.”
“Bentley, put your clothes on and get up you f-=king sicko. Enjoy third shift, you asshole.”
“Ah, Sonny, don’t be sad. Just make sure K.J. and Squirrel clean the sh-t off the top of their roof bolter.”
I wasn’t about to put my clothes on. These assholes wanted to embarrass me and intimidate me. They were going to ride out with me, pink d-ck and all. As I sat down on the mantrip the rest of the crew slid away from me and didn’t speak. As we walked through the airlock doors at the bottom of the slope the cold air chilled my nude body and I could feel the goosebumps rise on my skin. I was not going to give in. I was going to take this all the way. As the slope car neared the bottom, Sonny walked over. “Come on Gary, the joke’s over. Put your clothes on before we ride out. Everyone’s over it.”
“Oh, it’s funny when you want to cut my clothes off, when you spray paint my d-ck, when they sh-t on the supplies and expect me to load them, but it’s not funny when I want to carry out the joke all the way through?”
“You know as well as I do that if you go outside and Schomo sees you like this, we’re all going to be in trouble.”
“Well, you all should have thought about that when you had me pinned down and spraying me with pink paint.”
“Well, if you get fired, Gary, it’s on you, not me.”
I wasn’t backing down, I knew the truth. Sonny was scared for his own job. I liked Sonny, but I thought back to the “prank” the crew pulled on K.J. It was time that someone answered for this type of harassment. I sat on the back of the slope car away from the rest of the crew. As we exited the mine I could feel the cold air against my skin, and I began to shiver. As I walked through the yard, I could see Schomo, the superintendent, standing on the steps of the mine office. Then I could hear his voice.
“Ha ha ha! Bentley, you’re the craziest mothef–ker I know. I guess you got your going away present from the crew?”
“I like to think that the crew got a present from me instead.”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.