For Former Coal Miner, the Success of His Column, ‘In the Black,’ Came Out of the Blue
Gary Bentley’s honest accounts of life as an underground miner hit the Daily Yonder just as coal and blue-collar labor issues cut through the chatter of the 2016 presidential contest. Now he’s working on a book about mining and growing up in Eastern Kentucky. Bentley says the response to his stories far exceeds his expectations.
“In the Black” columnist Gary Bentley will be stepping back from his weekly Daily Yonder column to focus on a deadline for a book he’s writing for West Virginia University Press. He’ll continue to write columns for the Daily Yonder occasionally.
The book will include some of the stories Gary has told in “In the Black.” Besides exploring what it’s like to work in an underground coal mine, Gary will also share more information about growing up in Eastern Kentucky.
“I think people will pick up the book because it’s about mining,” said Andrew Berzanskis, Gary’s book editor at WVU Press. “I think they will finish because they’re interested in Gary.”
Gary’s debut column in the Daily Yonder in January 2016 was the first time his writing was published.
We wanted to hear from Gary about what has happened since he started writing for the Daily Yonder. An interview appears below.
(If you’ll indulge me for just a moment, I’d like to add a personal note. One of Gary’s avid readers is my dad, Jack Marema. When I told Dad that Gary is working on a book, he asked me to pass on a message: “Tell Gary he better hurry up and get that book finished, because I want to read it,” he said. “And I’m 89.” Dad is a big kidder. He’s joking, of course. He won’t be 89 for a few weeks yet.)
Tim Marema: Your stories have been frank about your experience in the mine. Has there been much push back, like maybe you’ve been telling tales out of school and should have kept it to yourself?
Gary Bentley: So far most everybody, at least from the mining community, has been really positive and cool about reading it and enjoyed it. There’s a guy here in Lexington that worked in the mines in Western Kentucky and he often has run into me or me and my wife. He’s said, “The stories you tell are the exact same experiences I lived except different people at a different mine.” He just loves how accurate they are about the stuff that happens underground.
And I’ve had a lot of people from outside of the industry, not even from the region, that have sent messages or run into me in person and just talked about how much they enjoy reading them each week.
Tim: What do you think that they’ve enjoyed about it?
Gary: Essentially, that it’s the truth and it’s raw. I put it out in front of the readers and kind of let them have their own opinions. … I give the people the information and the details of the story but I don’t try to dress it up. [A reader] said that I don’t go overboard with trying to go to make it seem different than it is or to make it flowery and pretty. He said that’s what he enjoys.
Tim: One thing you dealt with right away was the incidence of drug use in the mines. Did the regulations on drug use change during your time in the mines?
Gary: Yes. I started in 2001. At that point, you did take a drug test to get the job. I’m sorry — you took a drug test to get the job if you worked for the company. Now if you were one of the contract or temp workers, you didn’t even take a drug test. But once you took that initial drug test and kind of got your foot in the door and you were in with the company, it was kind of a free-for-all after that. You knew unless you were in a serious accident there was no drug testing.
I’m going to say it would have been around 2005 maybe when the state started cracking down on the drug testing for miners. They started enforcing that if you failed a drug test and you were working in the mining industry, you would lose your certification and have to do a rehabilitation program and essentially be like on probation. Then you could get your license back and go to work. The second time it was an extended probationary period. Then the third time you would lose them for life and you could never work in the industry again.
Tim: Did the changes help?
Gary: Somewhat, in different ways. It helped as far as it did make things safer, or I felt safer underground because I wasn’t working with guys who were passing out in equipment. We weren’t traveling down the tracks in a car and guys hanging of the edges of mantrip puking, because they’d done too much dope that morning. But at the same time, we lost a lot of our best employees, because a lot of those guys, and I would say the majority started using due to like an injury or something, and just continuing to come to work and trying to get through that. That’s how they ended up, and so they were not only really experienced, they were reliable people for work …
A lot of the guys that would get busted, they weren’t coming into work and getting high, but their pain threshold had kind of got out of control due to the prescription pain medication. They’d use more and more, and when they would get tested they would be above their legal limit, so to speak. I saw that.
Yeah, I mean it did make it safer but it also knocked a lot of really good people out of coming to work each day, because they kind of became conditioned to work. That was their way of getting through the day.
Tim: What happened when the Daily Yonder started publishing your columns?
Gary: It’s honestly been overwhelming in a way, because I never expected it to turn into what it has. Shortly after, actually I think we’d only published one or two, Crystal Wilkinson and Ron Davis, who own Wild Fig Books in Lexington, … went through the Carnegie Center here in Lexington and set up sort of a reading type event. We had Nick Stump, he came and played music, and then I read a few stories, and hung out and kind of talked to people and stuff. Then Erica Peterson from WFPL in Louisville, she contacted me and wanted to interview me about stories, and also just talk to me about the industry. From there I ended up at WMMT [in Whitesburg] with Kelli Haywood and did an interview there.
Then it started to kind of snowball because I would get asked to talk to NPR [and PRI] for different shows, whether it be Morning Edition or Marketplace. I’ve had numerous people from those shows call and talk to me. “Inside Appalachia,” I’ve probably done six episodes with them at this point. In print it’s been everything from New York Times to National Geographic. I did a piece with HBO Vice not too long ago. Al Jazeera, I did some work with them.
Then in August the Kentucky Historical Society, they setup an event. It was kind of a live oral history, so their oral historian archival person, we were up on stage and there were clips of mining and stuff played behind us. Then I had some of my mining equipment kind of laid out for people to look at, but went through essentially the oral history process of my career in mining and what it was like. Shortly after that I was asked to speak at EKU [Eastern Kentucky University] for their Appalachian studies program. It would take me a long time to go through everything, but yes it’s been overwhelming. I never expected any of this.
Tim: What do you think people have responded to? What is it that makes them say, “Hey, I want to talk to him?”
Gary: Well, I think the biggest thing is I accidentally began writing this at a time where the politics almost seemed like they revolved around the industry. I know because I’ve been told by numerous people. [Journalists] search Google, whatever, to find stories about coal, central Appalachia or Eastern Kentucky and these stories (“In the Black”) pop up. All they see are links to these stories. Then too, I’ve been told I’m one of the first, if not the first coal miner to tell these stories from an honest viewpoint. Like this is how I lived. You know I’m telling a story about how I lived. I’m not just talking about the industry or talking about coal mining in Central Appalachia. I’m telling the story so the person can see it from my point of view. Most people say they’ve not had a chance to experience that.
Tim: There’s tons of songs about coal mining and you’re a musician. Do you have some that are your favorites?
Gary: You know, honestly there’s not a whole lot of them that I like. I mean of course I love Merle Travis, but “Sixteen Tons” got so worn out that now I’m kind of like “Ah, I don’t want to hear that song.” There’s just so many people have done it. I do love “Working in a Coal Mine,” but the Devo version. Of course, I love, “Which Side Are You On.” I mean, just kind of the classics. But it seems like all the coal mining songs that have come out recently have all been ridiculous. The Kentucky Headhunters had a song come out called “Big Boss Man,” and there’s a bunch of women in bikinis working underground. I was like, “Yep, that’s real. That happens every day.”