In the Black: Two Weeks from Retirement

“Lloyd was always quick to offer some on-the-job training. He knew he was only going to be working for two more weeks, and he wanted to know the mine was going to be taken care of.”

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A NOTE TO READERS: Coal miners cuss. We’ve toned down the expletives but tried not to tamper with the underlying flavor of the language. If you like your fare less salty, please read accordingly. — Ed.

Part of a series.

The arc of Loyd’s spine was proof of the decades he worked in low coal, selling his body as a non-renewable resource to the mining companies of Eastern Kentucky.

Lloyd worked underground for 45 years . He endured years of hard work and trouble. In the end, he came out on top.

Lloyd once told me he had never missed more than a week’s work in all of his years as an underground miner. He had worked through historic mine disasters, the continuous cycle of boom or bust, and the dangers that underground mining presented to him on a daily basis. Lloyd didn’t complete high school. He carried an eighth-grade education from Wheelwright Elementary School. Lloyd was also the best goddamned electrician I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

“Hey Lloyd, go get your walker. They need some help up on #3 section.”

David was quick to give Lloyd a hard time about his age. David was 53 years old, 10 years shy of Lloyd. The two worked together in a harmonious fashion and as we all would say underground, the duo could “get shit done.” They often spent more than 70 hours a week working together. They were fishing buddies, they were brothers, they were family. They were not formally related in any way, but after 20 years of working side by side, day in and day out, they became family. That is a part of mining that you can’t understand until you work in an underground mine.

As Dave and Lloyd loaded their belts with electric meters, tools, and tape, I sat in the corner lacing up my boots. I had volunteered to work an extra shift removing high voltage cable and hangers from an abandoned section of the mine. Luckily for me, it gave me an opportunity to spend one more shift working with Lloyd.

“Kid, I grew up on dirt floors and outhouses. My daddy would have killed a man for a good paying job like this. And if I don’t do everything I can to make sure there’s jobs here for the next man, then I ain’t doing my part.”

“Hey Bentley, get your bucket and come on. We could use an extra set of hands. I think we may be up there a while and it’d be some good experience for you.”

Lloyd was always quick to offer some on-the-job training. He knew he was only going to be working for two more weeks, and he wanted to know the mine was going to be taken care of. He loved that mine in a way I would never understand. The equipment and everyone working there were like his own property and family. Lloyd wanted to see every miner in the region working, operating well maintained equipment, and to see the company earning a good profit. As we sat down in the seats of the slope car, I began to ask Lloyd about his career and why he cared so damned much about this mine.

“Lloyd, you know you are retiring in two weeks. Why are you so worried about what happens here?”

“Kid, I grew up on dirt floors and outhouses. My daddy would have killed a man for a good paying job like this. And if I don’t do everything I can to make sure there’s jobs here for the next man, then I ain’t doing my part.”

“I get that, but you are still working six and seven day weeks. Sometimes 16-hour shifts. Aren’t there other electricians that can help out and let you rest?”

“Dave’s the only man I trust to work on my equipment. See kid, you got a lot of folks that just don’t give a shit. They wanna get their pay day and go about their business, and that ain’t no way to be. You gotta give it your all and treat this mine just like it’s your home. Hell, you’re here more than you’re home, and this is the bread and butter that feeds your family. Take care of it!”

As we descended, I could see Dave’s frustration with my questions. He knew I had gotten Lloyd fired up talking about this new generation of miners, so I had to change the subject.

“Lloyd, what are you gonna do tomorrow? Or you gonna work Sunday too?”

“I’m pulling the boat down to the lake. My wife and grandkids are driving down today to stay at our house on Cherokee Lake and I’m going to drive down and meet them tomorrow to spend the week.”

As Lloyd spoke you could feel the words coming out of his mouth. His family meant everything to him. His wife was the love of his life. They had met when Lloyd was 16 years old. He was working in a local coal yard when one of the miners invited him over for dinner. Lloyd didn’t know he would meet his wife at the dinner table that night and over four decades later they would be taking their grandchildren to vacation at their lake house.

“Kid, you’re young and got a lot of life to live, but I’m gonna tell you. Find a good woman, have you some beautiful children, and you will never have any regrets.”

As our shift ended and we sat in the slope car traveling out of the mine, Lloyd turned to me and said “Kid, you’re young and got a lot of life to live, but I’m gonna tell you. Find a good woman, have you some beautiful children, and you will never have any regrets. There ain’t nothing in this world better than a good woman and a house full of kids.”

Being the person I was, I just smiled and nodded my head while I was thinking to myself “This man is nuts. I don’t want anything tying me down to this shit. I wanna do what I want to do when I want to do it. I ain’t marrying or having kids if my life depends on it.”

As Sunday came and passed, I didn’t think much about Lloyd. I had spent the day with the guys in my band working on new songs for our demo and upcoming tour. The mine and the miners I worked with were in the back of my mind and one of the last things I would think about on my day off. Soon, it would be Monday morning and the coal dust, dirt, sweat, mud, and blood would all be hitting me in the face 12 hours a day for six more days.

At 5 a.m., Monday I was sitting on my trunk wiping coal dust from inside my hard hat and adjusting the straps on my knee pads. I looked over in the corner of the room and Lloyd wasn’t there. I remembered that I hadn’t seen David this morning either. I assumed they had started early again this morning and had gone underground before anyone else. As I laced up my boots, Ricky tapped me on the shoulder. His voice shaking

“Did you hear about Lloyd?”

“No, I didn’t. Where’s he at?”

“He was pulling out of the BP in Allen on Sunday morning and a car ran the red light.”

“Oh shit! Is he gonna be ok?”

“He died instantly. We’ll let you know the arrangements as soon as we hear.”

I finished lacing up my boots. I slowly wrapped electrical tape around the top of my boot where it met my pants. This kept water and debris out of my boots, it also reminded me of Lloyd. Everyone knew that when Lloyd was in the room, you did not tape up your boots.

“You goddamn p-ssies! A little water and dust ain’t gonna hurt your precious little piggy’s. You need to toughen up and be real men. Now quit wasting my f–king electrical tape or I’ll personally piss in every single pair of boots in this whole f–king trailer.”

There was nothing Lloyd despised more than someone being wasteful. To Lloyd protecting your feet from water and small bits of coal was being wasteful. So as I wrapped the last bit of tape around my boot and broke the tape, I began to smile just a little. I whispered to myself “F–k you old man, you can’t stop me now.” And I felt a lump in my throat.

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

 

Topics: In the Black
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