Three hundred feet below the snow-covered surface, an exhaust fan was blowing 20,000 cubic feet of air. The turbine chilled the air outside from 25 degrees to less than 5 degrees where we stood. It was miserable and cold. We layered socks, gloves, and pants, packing hand-warmer packets in every possible crevice. We were fighting giant rotating jackhammers. Ragged water lines showered water over our heads rather than into the drills. We occasionally caught a droplet of freezing water as it ran over the brim of our hard hats. Occasionally, a rock would break free of the shaft wall and come crash down amongst us.
It was always loud – constant hammering, roaring winds, men screaming at one another, air horns signaling someone entering or exiting the shaft on a crane-hoisted platform. I was constantly nervous, watching out of the corner of my eye for falling rock, a piece of shattered steel drill flying my direction. More often than not, the problem was an angry coworker who had grown sick of helping me finish the job. I had never worked so hard and failed so miserably.
“Goddamnit! Bentley, you gotta watch the water, now get that f—ing steel out of there and drill those holes!”
I did the best I could, never saying a word. My new boss, Ron, was a real asshole, or at least it seemed that way at the time. He would scream at the top of his lungs, cuss, rip tools from my hands, and then in great detail show me what needed to be done and how to do it. He’d pat me on the back in an encouraging way like a high-school football coach.
“Keep it up kid. You’ll figure it out. This is hard work. Just keep at it.”
I often imagined walking out, going home, giving up again. Unless I could levitate, however, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was 300 feet down and the walking boss was not going to ring the bell so I could ride the hoist out. Without the signal, the crane operator wasn’t raising that platform for anyone. I just pushed through another shift, another week, another month. At some point, I thought, it would get better.
“Bentley, you gotta focus. Let the machine do the work for you. Stop fightin’ it. You’re gonna kill yourself”
“Thanks Happy,” I said. “I just don’t know if I’m cut out for this. I want the job, but this is hard.”
“You been here a few months and I ain’t heard you cuss or scream not once,” Happy said. “That’s the problem. Let it out. Why ya think we’re all yellin’, screaming, threatening to kill each other? We ain’t mad at nobody but ourselves for being stuck down here.”
“What ya mean?” I asked. “I love being a coal miner. It’s the best paying job around here when you’re not a doctor or lawyer.”
“That ain’t what I mean,” Happy said. “You’ll understand soon enough. I’m proud of being a miner. Just a few years ago I was in prison, no hope. Now look at me, new Mustang convertible, just put a new roof on my mom’s place, good insurance if I need a doctor, but I ain’t f—ing with them pain pills no more. I’ll just suffer. I mean sh-t, I couldn’t never have all this if I wasn’t a miner. I thank God for it every day, if there is a God. Just keep at it. It’ll get easier. Now put the f—ing Little Debbie cake down and let’s load this powder.”
That was my first and last look into Happy Meal’s thoughts — as much as he would ever let me see. If he wasn’t quiet, he was carrying on about drinking liquor and raising hell on a strip job at a bonfire. I did as he said. I respected Happy. He was the hardest working and most skilled worker I had seen. We loaded powder, the one job I was good at. I could count, I didn’t have a felony, which allowed me to transport the dynamite, and I had gotten pretty good at running the blasting cords.
I think Happy got a kick out of the shot we set off that night. We loaded a few extra sticks of dynamite, just to get a bigger “BOOM,” as he said. I didn’t care. I was tired, sore, and ready to go home.
The hours were just like the rest of the shifts since Happy and I had gotten transferred to night shift. The new boss, Ron, would yell and scream, and then encourage me, all night. Happy would help out until he became frustrated. Then he would yell and scream at me, as well. After 12 hours I would get in my car and drive as far as I could, then sleep on the side of the road for a few hours. I would wake up, drive home, shower, and sleep until it was time to go back to work again. I would spend two hours driving there, 12 hours at work, and two hours driving back. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend anymore, and she had too much time for me.
Smiley, who thought his new uniform would make him irresistible to women, didn’t know what he was talking about. Women didn’t want a coal miner — at least not one who’s gone two-thirds of the day and sleeping the rest.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.