John, Cecil and Black Lung
Editor's Note: Late last week federal prosecutors said they were considering criminal charges against coal mining companies that have deliberately violated coal dust rules. This comes after a series of stories showing a rise in black lung disease in the eastern coalfields appeared in the Charleston Gazette and on National Public Radio.
We asked West Virginia writer Berry Dotson-Lewis to tell us what black lung meant in the lives of people who live in the Appalachian coalfields. She sent us this story of two of her friends, John Adkins and Cecil Butcher.
Grace Adkins is one of my best friends. When I visit her, she tells me she feels like half a person now since she lost her husband, John.
The brown recliner chair sits empty in the corner of the living room and a pair of hard-toe work boots are behind the front door, as if John would be coming out of the bedroom any moment to pick up his lunch pail and head off to the mines.
I wish you could have met John Adkins. He made you laugh. He told little stories about hunting, fishing and mining. The way he told them, he usually outwitted all of his buddies.
He was small-built but strong and tough as nails when I first met him. That strength came from his 30 years of hard labor as a coal miner. He started shoveling coal full-time by the age of 15.
Grace said that black lung came like a ghost in the middle of the night. There were little warning signs, a cough that would not go away and spitting up black phlegm. As the symptoms worsened, John went to doctors. But there’s no cure for black lung.
The little coal mining community of Enon, four miles out of Summersville, West Virginia on Rt. 39, watched helplessly as “Big” John’s health spiraled downward. His strong, wiry body became hollow, a bony frame. He coughed until he bent over double. His appetite was gone and his breathing was labored.
Grace didn’t feel much like talking. The house felt empty except for the hacking cough. John still put on a good front when visitors came but he couldn’t hide the pain. He took breathing pills, he wore an oxygen mask and made sure he had extra tanks on hand. He used a walker to slowly glide the short distance from his recliner to the TV.
His best friend, Bill McCutcheon, who lived on the hill beside him, also a life-long coalminer, was consumed with worry over John. John and Grace no longer walked the few hundred feet up the steep hill to exchange Christmas gifts or eat supper with Bill and Elsie.
When John was in the hospital in Charleston, WV, near his final days, I offered to drive Bill down to visit but Bill told me he couldn’t take it. He said, “John is like a brother to me. He’s the best friend I ever had.”
John Adkins died from black lung.
The most valuable piece of equipment in a coalminer’s house is the portable oxygen tank.
Cecil Butcher and I got acquainted at our church. He and his wife sat in the pew behind me. He was a preacher and a coalminer. They were new members.
When our Baptist preacher instructed us to turn and greet our neighbor, I always turned to Cecil and his wife. He wore a portable oxygen tank strapped on his back. He had black lung.
After a few Sundays, we discovered we both were interested in history, especially coalmining history and he was a walking history book. They invited me to their new house a couple of miles down the road to see his coalmining photo collection — and, I think, show off their place. There was plush off-white carpet, a sunken living room and a fireplace in both the living room and dining room. It was a long way from a coal camp house in Widen, WV.
Cecil survived one of the most violent coal strikes in the U.S., which took place at Widen, where John L. Lewis was trying to unionize. High-powered rifles were attached to tree branches and miners were shot at from that vantage point. Cecil was nearly beaten to death on a coal train, hit in the head and shoulders with the butt of coal picks.
He survived those attacks, but now he had developed the most severe form of black lung. There was no cure.
I often ran into Cecil at the post office. He would wave and motion for me to wait, he had news for me.
Getting out of his car he would carefully remove the oxygen tank from the passenger’s side to his back making sure no hoses disconnected. Tank strapped in place and mask over his mouth and nose, he slowly walked the short distance from the handicapped parking spot to the front door of the post office. He could only utter a few words or a short phrase before sucking in more oxygen.
Soon his pew was empty and reports were that Cecil’s health was failing fast. Cecil, preacher and coalminer, was soon gone. Black Lung put an end to his life after only a year or so in his new home with the off-white plush carpet and two fireplaces.
A few month’s after the funeral I noticed a “For Sale” sign in the front lawn. When I asked at church what was going on, they told me that Preacher Cecil’s widow was selling the house to move the 12 miles back over the mountain to the coal camp they had come from to be close to her children.
Every coalminer, his wife, children, friend and neighbor are affected by black lung. There is an alarming increase in the number of new black lung cases in the Appalachian coalfields, more than 10,000 in the last 10 years.
Black lung is an incurable disease.
It is also preventable.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writer and co-author of The Girl From Stretchneck Holler.