My eyes burned as the steaming hydraulic fluid sprayed into my face and chest. My skin and body burned when the oil soaked through my uniform. I couldn’t see and had no idea of the danger I was driving into. But I figured it out soon enough.
As the ram car I was driving traveled forward, I suddenly felt zero gravity. My body floated for a split second, like I was taking the first big drop on a roller coaster. Then I felt a cool liquid splash across my face while my body was being beaten and jarred. Unable to see, I’d driven into a sump hole, a low spot that collects water runoff.
I had never operated a ram car, which transports coal from the mining face to the belt, which carries the coal to the surface. However, this was a Saturday night and we were preparing the #2 section for a new crew. William decided this was a perfect opportunity for me to learn.
I could hear Bill laughing when the power to the ram car shut off.
“You drive like a mad man, Gary. You ain gotta go so fast, you know.”
I started to laugh, too. In the excitement, Bill’s R’s sounded like W’s. He called me Gay-wee.
I saw Bill in church every Sunday morning for the majority of my life. My mother forced me to go with her. Bill had been a member of the church for as long as I could remember and sat in the same seat every Sunday morning for all of those 16 years. He was a quiet man with a great sense of humor, and through laughter you could really get to know Bill.
Through my laughter, the pain of the crash and the burning sensation of the hot oil seemed to disappear.
“Hey Bill, you got any rags? This oil is burning the sh** out of me and I don’t know if this is mud or p*ss all over my face right now, but I’d really like to wipe it off.”
Bill brought over a few mechanic’s rags. While I wiped my face and hands free of oil and mud, he inspected the damage to the ram car.
“Well, Gary it looks like you blew a hose on the hydraulic pump, and that’s why you got covered in oil. Looks like when you pulled an Evel Knievel and drove into this sump hole, you ripped the leads plum outta the breaker box.”
The leads connected the ram car to the battery, which powered the machinery.
I knew this was a very serious repair, and I was more worried about how much trouble I would be in than how quickly the repair would be made. Luckily, I was with Bill. He he would take care of my mistakes and give me guidance.
“Let’s take the buggy up to the power box. Jerry is wiring up the feeder. We’ll get him to come down and fix these leads and no one will ever know this happened. Before you get on my buggy, though, you better take off that oily shirt. You got anything else to put on?”
I didn’t. I removed my uniform and T-shirt wearing nothing but my underwear, mining boots, belt, and hat. Bill just laughed some more.
“You gonna have a fun ride up to the section like that. It’s cold out on that roadway. You better hope Jerry has some coveralls up on the section you can wear.”
Bill was right. The ride to the section was miserable and freezing. All of the intake air for the entire mine was making its way up the same entry we had to travel.
“Bill, stop! I see a piece of curtain over there.” Curtains are heavy, reinforced sheets of plastic hung to control mine ventilation.
“Yea, what ya gonna do with that?”
“I’m gonna wrap my ass up in it so I don’t freeze to death going to get Jerry.”
I stepped off the buggy, picked up the curtain, and wrapped it around my body like a towel. It was cold and covered in rock dust, but it kept the cold air from blowing against my bare skin as we traveled. When we arrived, Jerry was leaned up against the wall of the mine with his hard hat over his face, and he didn’t move as Bill parked the buggy inches from his feet. When Bill blew the horn on the buggy, Jerry came to startled and in a sleepy voice said.
“I wasn’t sleeping, I was praying. I was getting ready to eat lunch and wanted to pray first.”
Bill and I both laughed. Then I began to explain
“Jerry, it’s OK. We’re just up here because we – or really I – need your help. I screwed up and pulled the leads out of the battery on the ram car. If I push the batteries back onto the rack with a scoop, will you hook the leads back up for me?”
“Why yea kid. Ain’t no need in anyone knowing about this sh*t. None of us wanna be in here while everyone else is on the couch drinking good cold beer.”
Then Jerry looked at me while shining his cap light in my face.
“Good lord, son. What the hell has Bill done to you down there? What in the world is going on?”
He walked over to his buggy, opened his tool box, and threw a pair of neatly folded coveralls at me.
“Put these on and put ’em on quick. Lord, kid. You orta tell someone you ain’t got no clothes when you come up here like that.”
Bill was laughing through Jerry’s rant, his arm holding his stomach and his head tilted far back. Loud cackling laughter. When he finally spoke, he didn’t help the situation.
“I think Gary might be eating Quaaludes, Jerry. Ya know, like we did back in the 70’s. You should have seen him, Jerry. It’s like that time me and my brother was runnin’ from the law. Ya know, they thought I had done somethin’ so I was sitting up on the hill and I saw the sheriff’s car so I started shootin’. Then me and my brother jumped in my Pinto, and we ate so much Quaaludes, the front end of that Pinto looked like it was 50 feet long. I went about a football field from the driveway and got in the ditch, and I just kept going and going. It felt like we was doing 100 miles an hour but wasn’t getting nowhere. Finally, the car got stuck, and we jumped out to start running. We got in the woods, and the trees branches all turned to looking like hands and arms and reaching out for us, so I ran back to mom’s and hid in the cellar. I had to drive all the way to Florida the next day and couldn’t come back for almost 30 years. Gary was drivin’ that ram car ’bout like I drove that Pinto. He was doing a 100 miles an hour, jumped down in that sump hole, and just wasn’t going nowhere.”
I sat on the buggy beside Bill completely blown away at the story he had told. Bill was older than both of my parents, and I had known him to be the quiet, reserved, Christian man I grew up with in church. I would have never in my wildest imagination thought that Bill would have been an outlaw in his past. Doing drugs, shooting at the cops, fleeing to Florida, and waiting until the time when it would all be forgotten to come home and build a new life from scratch.
This also showed me the strength of relationships that were built underground. There were no skeletons in the closet. There were no secrets to withhold. We were all in this together. As the mine manager, J.R. King, made it plain and simple in his company motto, “We all have to work together to make it work for us all.” I guess that means we all have to share our stories to make our time underground worthwhile.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.