In the Black: A Family Affair
Gary tries his best to ignore his dad’s decision to leave the family behind. But the arrival of Jack, a flesh-and-blood reminder of his dad’s complicated home life, makes that impossible. It’s so upsetting, Gary can’t even take pleasure in plotting how to get even with the section boss.
To the coal company, miners are expendable.
During a coal boom, the companies are like pimps for miners. We changed our pimps and our locations anytime we got word that someone was paying better or there was a better benefit package. We ignored the working conditions and the reliability of the company. We were just flat-backing our way to another dollar.
“If you think sex workers ‘sell their bodies,’ but coal miners do not,” says a psychology professor, Eric Sprankle via Twitter, “your view of labor is clouded by your moralistic view of sexuality.”
We were working in a coal boom. There was a constant rotation of employees. Often miners would move from one section to another within the same mine or from mine to mine within the same company. Most miners would have a rough day at work, get pissed off at their foreman. Their cousin or brother or uncle would be working for another company a few miles down the road, and that’s where they would go to work. A good, experienced miner could leave his job at 5 p.m. on Monday and be back to work by 6 a.m. on Wednesday. If those damned drug tests didn’t slow down the hiring process, they would be back to work for a different pimp on Tuesday.
So as it goes. Mike and I were waiting at the back of the man trip when a couple of new guys walked up. I recognized one of the miners, his Coke-bottle glasses and his cheek bones that looked like they were about to tear out of the flesh. His name was Tim. We had gone went to high school together. He also dated my cousin for a short spell, and during my time at Consol I had run into him there – literally. He had been bent over a lock box snorting a pill, and I accidentally tripped over his boots.
The other guy was a new face. He was older, looked to be about my father’s age. The gray hair in his mullet and goatee added to the effect. He had a prominent set of gin blossoms, and his nose would have shamed Rudolph. “Hell, he must be related to me,” I thought. “If there’s ever been a working man that’s an alcoholic, it’s us Bentleys,” I thought to myself.
El-Rod, our section boss, was a prick, as I’ve said before. He didn’t introduce the new employees and seemed to ignore the fact that they had arrived late. All he had to say was, “Herman, let’s go; it’s past start time.”
I stared at the back of El-Rod’s head, plotting how I could really screw him over today. I often made plans in my head to block the road on the way home at night and leave him lying in a ditch to either die or be found by a meth head riding their ATV to the top of the mountain. I would always chicken out though. I had to settle for just making his life hell underground.
We arrived on the section and everything was good. We were caught up on roof bolting. The section looked clean and well dusted with rock. I saw my old pal Rick hanging out at the back of the drill and decided to see what the situation was.
“What the hell’s going on?” I asked, referring to the ship-shape appearance of the mine. “You all get a new boss or did a bunch of federal men come down here and scare you all to death?”
Rick’s 350-pound body began to jiggle, and when he finally spoke it was with a chuckle. “Well, we did get the sh** scared out of us last night, but we ain’t seen any federal men, and Wayne’s still our boss,” Rick said. “He found some real bad roof last night, and the heads started popping off the cable bolts. We cleaned up real good, bolted the face, and set a bunch of crib blocks in that intersection up from the power center.”
So, what Rick was telling me was, don’t go around that intersection because the place was taking weight and the mountain was trying to squeeze us out. When this mountain decides it wants to come down, there ain’t no roof bolt made strong enough to prevent it. So, what do we do? Ignored these facts like the plague and moved forward. We continued with hopes that the mountain will take pity on us for another day.
“Hey Mule,” said Mike, “go get us a load of bolts, glue, and a couple cans of hydraulic oil.”
Mike was already sending the scoop man to load our supplies. He hated El-Rod, too, but he was determined to work his ass off, even when we were trying to screw El-Rod out of his production.
By the time I got over to the roof bolter, Tim was standing there wearing his brand new uniform and eating a honey bun. His methadone had him craving sugar, I assumed.
“Hey, Gary, it’s been a long time,” he said. “How you feel about working with your brother?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Tim?”
“Your brother, Jack. He’s our new shuttle car man. We transferred over here together. He said he married your step-sister.”
“Tim, I don’t have a step-sister. You know better than that. If there’s a punchline to this joke, spit it out ’cause you’re not making any sense.”
Tim started to explain. Jack, the new shuttle car man with the salt and pepper mullet, was married to a woman who was technically my step-sister. I would have never claimed that, and I had never met Jack, his wife, or his mother in law. I had not spoken to my father in over a year. Not since the last time he had left my mother to marry a woman he had met on a C.B. radio. I had in my mind decided that he had died and moved on to another life.
“Go f*** yourself, Tim. I ain’t related to any of that bunch, and I don’t even have a father anymore. You start talking that sh** again, I’ll bust out what teeth you have left with a piece of pinner steel. It might be murder outside, but it’s just an accident when it happens under this mountain.”
Mike, Mule, and I loaded the supplies on the roof bolter as the shuttle cars hauled supplies. El-Rod made the first cut at the face, a double, on our side. That meant, once again, that we’d have trouble keeping up with bolting the top. We couldn’t expect anything less.
But this time, it wasn’t El-Rod’s behavior that bothered me. All I could think about was what Tim had told me about my dad’s new family. It ate at my insides to think that my father had abandoned my mother and sister for the school bus driver he had met over the C.B. radio. I couldn’t let it go. I had a child on the way, and I’d be damned if I’d let my dad be in her life and pull the same stunt with her.
I spent the rest of my shift watching Jack, my newfound step-brother-in-law, travel on his shuttle car transferring coal from the miner to the feeder. I completely forgot about my plan to make El-Rod’s shift a nightmare. Instead, I worked my hardest and drilled my fastest to erase the thoughts in my mind.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.