After two years of working through fresh cuts of coal, roof falls, and pulling pillars, I had earned the respect of my co-workers, the mine foreman, and the superintendent. Working 70-hour shifts was the norm and it was not out of the question to work 16-hour days, 7 days a week, for more than three weeks straight. I had finally learned how to make the roof bolter work for me after long shifts of that machine working me to the bone.
I had proven myself as an equal amongst the ranks of the coal miners in my hometown.
I stepped off the man trip, poured water over a shop rag to wipe the coal dust and sweat from my face and arms. I sat my dinner bucket on the ground next to the stairs of the mine office before walking into the changing room to remove my sweat-soaked uniform and t-shirt. I pulled a clean uniform from my locker, pulled it on over my dirty body, leaving the shirt unbuttoned so the sun could shine on my chest as I walked to my car. This was one of the perks of transferring to day shift; I could enjoy the afternoon sun just before it sat behind the ridges of the surrounding mountains. As I walked across the parking lot, the superintendent, David, was standing on the porch of the office.
“Gary, you got a second?”
Of course I did, it was the superintendent. I wasn’t going to say no or blow him off.
“You’ve been making a good showing here at the mine. We’re very happy you chose to come to work here but we want to see you grow. We need more MET’s (Mine Emergency Technician) here and you are young and reliable. Would you be interested in going to the evening classes at Yellow Creek and get certified?”
I was ecstatic. There was a warmth inside of me that filled me with joy. To me, it meant something special for the superintendent to ask me, out of the many other miners, to take on the role of an MET. Granted, looking back on it, maybe I was just the young sucker willing to bite this hook and take the line and sinker for an opportunity to brown nose and suck up to the boss. Either way, I was going to make 75 cents more on the hour and it would guarantee my position on day shift. I was going to take this opportunity and run with it.
“Classes will start on Monday at 5pm. You will have class on Monday and Wednesday evenings for 4 hours. You don’t get paid for attending but the class is free and you will get dinner from Ramey’s Quick Stop on us.”
On Monday I brought a change of clothes with me to work with soap and a washcloth so I could clean myself up in the mop sink before going to class. I undressed down to my boxers and washed myself the best I could, and put on clean jeans, t-shirt, and my ‘nice’ sneakers. I walked across the parking lot, looking at my work car, a 1974 Ford Pinto with a Bush/Reagan sticker proudly displayed on the rear trunk. The car was older than me but it was a conversation piece and something to laugh about. It was a 4 speed, no heat, no A/C, and I barely fit into the front seat. I would have been better off ripping the seat out and sitting in the back, but it had a sunroof. That made this a bitchin’ ride. As I drove out of the holler on Defeated Creek Road and into Redfox, I spun the tires on the gravel and slid sideways through the sharp turns as I imagined myself into the seat of the Double Kwik #32 open wheel modified dirt track race car. I turned the gravel haul road into the Mountain Motor Speedway and looked up into the stands to see myself, 8 years old and sitting beside my father as he threw back another Old Milwaukee’s Best.
I pulled into Ramey’s Quick Stop and walked in to pick up my dinner, a meatloaf sandwich and tater wedges. I slid a six-pack of High Life on the counter. I slid back into the car, opened the first can, and began driving through Vicco to Yellow Creek for my first night of MET training. I turned into the parking lot, pulled up in the most level spot of the parking lot because my damned emergency brake didn’t work and I didn’t trust the transmission to hold this death trap from rolling. I sat there as the sun went down eating this microwaved meatloaf on two slices of white bread as I swallowed the last of my second beer. I was exhausted from a 10 hour day of roof bolting and these ice cold beers were causing me to second guess my decission of going through with this training in favor of reclining the seat and going to sleep. I chose training, I don’t think the seats in that Pinto reclined anyway.
Walking into the training room brought back memories of my first day of orientation at Enterprise Mining. We’re in the same room with the same cheap conference tables set up in the very same formation. The only differences were the people in the room. Paris Charles, the company’s safety director, a gentleman I didn’t know was the instructor, and the men who make up the rest of the class. Some were covered in coal dust and grease and others are clean cut with button down dress shirts and slacks. It seems as though they had been pulled from all divisions of the company in a chance to have a MET at every mine and in every office. Not knowing any of these men other than Paris, my breaks were spent in my Pinto nursing the rest of my six pack, being sure to save one beer for the drive home.
As I was driving home, I finished the last of my beer as I drove through Dry Fork, across Whitco hill, and into Whitesburg. I looked over at my parents’ house and thought to myself, “Old man, this one’s for you. Looks like you trained me up right.”
I tossed the can out of the window and continued on HWY 15 towards Jenkins, where I hoped that my wife would either be sleeping or gone so that I could walk in with no one to talk to and pass out. 4:00 AM would come early and I didn’t have time to talk or deal with anyone.