Photo by Lance Booth.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Miners cuss. Please exercise your individual discretion if you prefer not to be exposed to a sampling of underground-miner profanity.

It was during our two week rotation of working day shift, 6am-4pm. I didn’t like the shift because I had to leave my house in Owensboro, Kentucky, at 4 a.m. to get to the mine office in Bremen in time for the pre-shift report. To make matters worse, Tony had finally felt comfortable enough to be himself. I had been warned.

“Now you got a pretty good crew, for the most part. You don’t have a scoop man worth a shit but we will get someone trained up. Tony, the little wormy guy, is a good scoop man and car man, but he lets his bad attitude and mouth get in the way of his work. He’s all right, he just needs to keep his mouth shut.”

I was sitting at the power box trying to decide on my next move to get the section squared up and back on track. I knew that if an inspector came in and saw how deep these headings were with no open crosscuts that we would be shut down. I struggled to keep the sweat off my brow as I painted the center lines. There was no air moving in the middle three headings. I had to get these crosscuts turned and punched through regardless of how bad it hurt our production for the night. As I studied the mine map of our section I watched Bubba dump in the middle, then Patrick and Goat dumped on the offside. Then Bubba was back again.

“Where the f*ck is Tony?” I yelled over to Patrick as he dumped.

“He’s probably over by a brattice jacking off. You know he’ll do anything to get out of working.” Patrick yelled back as he turned in the deck of his shuttle car to head back for another load.

I began to duck walk and crawl through the 40-inch coal seam following Tony’s car cable from the anchor bolt toward his car. The cable lay limp on the ground. I knew his car was not powered on. He had not come to the power box to get a mechanic and he had not been told by his boss, me, that he should be doing something other than hauling coal.

I crawled up to the deck of the shuttle car. There Tony sat in the dump end seat with a Coke and a Little Debbie cake just enjoying his snack.

“What the f*ck is this, Tony? I don’t hear the miner moving. Why are you parked?”

He shined his light in my eyes (note: this is the eighth deadly sin to coal miner. You never shine your light in another miner’s eyes, else it might get knocked out — the light, or the miner, maybe both) so I pointed mine back toward his.

“You best toss that cake and soda into the belly of this car and start f*cking hauling. If you don’t want to work you shouldn’t even show up!”

He took a large drink of his soda before he answered me, “I legally get breaks. You can’t tell me when and what time to eat lunch. I’m allowed to stop and eat when I’m hungry and if you have a problem with it you can take that and those bossing papers and shove them up your ass.”

At this point I was getting angry. For those who don’t know me, I am the gentlest and kindest person you will ever meet. It’s unheard of for me to lose my temper. But at this time I was tired and under more stress than I had been in my entire life.

I crawled over to the side of Tony’s car, smacked the Little Debbie cake out of his hand. He quickly put the soda can up to his mouth and began to take a long drink.

“I tell you what, motherf*cker, you might be 10 years older than me but I’ve got a good 10 years of experience in these holes on you. I take it easy on everyone here. I let you all rotate breaks when the miner is moving. I let you eat during break downs. If we are on a good run and meeting our goals I let y’all shut down the whole goddamn section and eat lunch together. You wanna see what it’s like to be a miner back in Eastern Kentucky? I’ll show you how f*cking hard it is.”

Tony kept his cool better than me. He didn’t miss a step and from what I remember he wasn’t shaking with anger and adrenaline like I was. His voice didn’t quiver or shake when he spoke.

“Oh yea, big bad boss man gonna whoop me for eatin’ a snack? You think you’re bad enough then bring it on. I don’t wanna know what it’s like to be an Eastern Kentucky miner, I got no interest in f*cking my sist—”

I cut him off before he could finish his sentence. I grabbed a handful of work shirt with one hand and his miner’s belt with the other. Tony couldn’t have weighed more than a buck fifty and by the look in his eyes he was as surprised as I was when I grabbed hold of him and pushed him up against the rib (the wall of the mine). I could sit on my knees with my hard hat just brushing the roof, so I leaned in good and hard, one hand balled up with the buttons of his shirt digging into my fingers and my forearm pressed hard against his Adam’s apple. I could hear him choke and grasp as I spoke to him. My lips were almost touching his as I tried to convey my message.

“Listen here, you piece of shit. I’m tired. I just moved here, leaving my daughter six hours away with her mother. I don’t want to be here but I need a f*cking paycheck and I don’t have the patience to deal with motherf*ckers like you who don’t want to work. If you don’t want to do your job and pull your weight like everyone else, you can go back to shoveling chicken shit at Tyson. I really don’t give a f*ck. Now I’m gonna let you go, you’re gonna go back to hauling coal, and you are going to learn to keep that mouth shut. What happens underground stays underground, and I’ll tell you right now, if you go out and file a complaint, I’ve got the word of every man on this crew that they will call you a liar. No one likes you and they’re all sick of pulling more weight than you.”

As I let go of his shirt and relieved the pressure on my forearm he took a few small breaths and while crawling back to his shuttle car he murmured, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life.”

I didn’t say anything back. I felt horrible about what I had done, but I also really disliked this guy and would not have been the slightest bit upset if he had never returned to work. Unfortunately, he did return to work and was still on my crew, pushing my buttons. Sometimes I wondered if he got some kind of enjoyment out of seeing me blow up and lose my cool. I wondered if he was just so goddamned stupid that he didn’t realize he was pushing more buttons than mine and that one day it may come back to bite him in the ass in the form of being in the unemployment line or facing a line of co-workers where the company road meets the public highway. Neither of those were uncommon things to run into when you didn’t work as part of the team and had a bad attitude to go along with it.

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.

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