I was lying on a pile of gob – a mixture of coal, mud, dirt, and debris – trying to finish installing the last row of roof-support bolts in the cut. The coal seam had all but disappeared, and we were working in areas that were often only 26 inches, due to the gob left behind by the continuous miner.
Each 48-inch roof bolt had to be bent twice, once about 16 inches from the top and again about 16 inches below that in the opposite direction to make some ugly version of a “Z” shape. And we had to do this while lying in the mud. As the machine pushed the folded bolt into the hole, we reversed the process. I straightened the first fold, pushed the bolt further into the hole, and straightened the second bend, leaning on the bolt with my body pushing into it. All of this had to be done before the resin hardened, or else I would be leaving a “meat hook” hanging from the roof of the mine. Working in 30-inch coal, you didn’t want anything as little as the corner of a roof bolt plate bent over to tear the flesh off of your back as you crawled across the section. Leaving a bent roof bolt hanging 12-inches from the top was not an option.
Crawling out of the entry I looped the roof bolter’s electrical cable around my ankle and crawled toward the last open crosscut dragging the cable behind me. At the opening of the cross cut, I heard Thurman in the background, his voice was filled with anger but in the comedic way. Imagine Roseanne Barr screaming at her “Roseanne” TV-show husband, Dan, because he was smoking and playing cards with his friends when Jackie came over to cry about her “man-problems.’”
“That old bastard! That f***er can’t see s***. He tore out this whole row of roof bolts. Now we gotta spot the motherf*****s back, and he left this entry full of water. That old f*****r needs to retire.”
The tirade was about Dana, the continuous miner operator. Dana bragged that he could retire any day because he was old enough to get his Social Security check. Yet, he still came to work every day and because of his age, stubbornness, and lack of eyesight, he made our jobs as roof bolters a living hell. I knew that Dana would often intentionally make my job more difficult by leaving the gob on my side of the entry and cleaning Thurman’s side. He would pull down anchor bolts with the miner passing through the entry ways if he knew that it would be on my side to put back in place. Thurman played it off to him being old, not having good vision, and just not caring enough to take the time to try to make our jobs a bit easier. I spent the first few hours of my shift each day cursing at Dana over the roar of the roof bolter and imagining all of the things I could do to pay him back. But I did nothing and never confronted him about this harassment.
I crawled back up to the operator side of the roof bolter, extended the ears on the T-bar, set the T-bar against the roof and began spot-bolting the roof bolts that Dana had broken off with the miner’s cutting head. When I backed out to the crosscut, I knew there needed to be an anchor bolt installed before the next belt move and that Lonnie would be happy to tease me while I did so. That made it much more enjoyable. I squared up the roof bolter and began drilling for the anchor bolt.
As Lonnie rounded the corner, he said, “I’ll try not to let Dana know you just put up a fresh anchor bolt. I’d hate for him to tear it out.”
He laughed as he drove away. I could feel my blood pressure rise, but listening to Thurman cackling in the deck lightened my mood and I thought nothing more of it. I sat down on the bumper of the roof bolter as Thurman sat in the deck, his feet propped up on the controls while he ate a Snickers bar. We waited as the miner backed out of the entry and Dana trammed it across the open crosscut. He halfway sat, leaning on the continuous miner situating himself in the center of the side rail, placing his feet on the cable as the miner moved so he could grab a free ride. J.R., the mine superintendent, despised this action because it was not only unsafe, it was illegal. I had heard J.R. once declare, “If I ever see any of you miner men in the red zone pulling that bullsh** cable surfin’-miner-man stunt, I will fire you on the spot!”
Dana had made it clear that he knew J.R. wouldn’t come underground unannounced, and if he were to get caught and be fired, he would consider it an early retirement.
I watched as the miner traveled in front of us. In a smooth motion, the head moved to the right. Dana tapped the control causing the cutting head of the miner to turn on and rotate the drum. I watched him intentionally tear out the anchor bolt I had just installed. I furiously flashed my headlamp from side to side signaling him to stop. Dana looked away and continued forward pretending he didn’t notice my signals.
“You saw that, Thurman. That old motherf***** intentionally ripped out that bolt. F*** him! I’m gonna go over there and kick his ass. I ain’t putting up with this shit anymore. F*** him!”
Thurman switched into parenting mode and calmed me down.
“Now Gary, you go over there acting all crazy and you’re gonna lose your job. He don’t care and he knows if he instigates the problem but doesn’t physically attack you, they’re not going to fire him for that. Now if you wanna get him back, you gotta make his life hell. You figure out how to do that. Play his game.”
I thought about this for the rest of the night as we continued roof bolting. I explained the problem to Aaron, the supervisor, and he laughed at me. He also said he would talk to Dana, because tearing the heads off of roof bolts was a blatant safety violation and an action that put everyone’s lives at risk. So with no help from my supervisor, I began to devise a plan.
On the ride out, I sat behind Dana, staring into the back of his hard hat trying to decide if I should cut his tires, smash his mirrors, or confront him at the end of the gravel road off of company property. As hard as I tried I could not think of a sensible plan of attack. When the man trip climbed to the top of the slope and we stepped off, I followed Dana into the locker room. He was always the first one to arrive before the shift and the first one to leave after. He put his boots in his locker, hung his coveralls on the front of the door, slid on house shoes, a ball cap, and headed toward the parking lot.
I took my time changing, washing my face, and preparing to leave. I was the last person out that night because, in the time I spent watching Dana go, I felt a slight pressure in my bladder. That is when I knew my plan of attack. His locker was on the other side of the room. It was never locked, and there is nothing that would hold my piss any better than his size 10 rubber boots.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.