In the Black: An Unlikely Band of Brothers
The misfits, outlaws, and greenhorns of the No. 4 Car Section are a lot of things: family men, ex-con, momma’s boy. Some may even be clean and sober.
Turk was a wild man. He ran the continuous miner on the No. 4 Car Section where I worked. As the mining bits roared into the coal seam, Turk sat atop the machine, spaced out on Xanax and who knows what other concoction of opiates.
That made him easy to get along with, even when my inexperience with driving a shuttle car caused him trouble.
I would pull behind the miner a bit too fast and misjudge the length of the shuttle car. “BOOM!” I rear-ended the miner, sending a jolt through the frame and knocking Turk over the side into the mud and water below. He would always jump up quickly to his feet.
“By god, Bentley, you ain’t shy! I like that about you. Don’t worry about ol’ Turk. A little mud and sh-t ain’t gonna hurt me.”
I had been on this new crew for over two weeks. We had worked together building the brattice line along the intake and return airways, installed the section conveyor belt and water line, preparing the area for mining. During those two weeks I heard a lot of stories from the crew members. They talked about themselves and one another.
K.J. and Squirrel were young men, closer to my age, who had worked underground for a few years. They were experienced roof bolters with enough balls to ignore the risk and continue working when others wouldn’t.
Whisenhunt was new to the mine and hired in with me, but he had his electrical certification. That alone bought him rights to being one of the top in command.
Jason was a shuttle-car operator like me. He was mid-30s and had over 10 years of mining experience.
Bart was in his late 30s. He hired in with me and operated a scoop. He had worked on the belt lines of every truck mine in Knott County for eight years before finally landing his first company job.
Then there was Ricky. I never learned his age, but he looked to be 60. After a few snorts in the morning, he would run around screaming orders and demanding that we “Get Sh-t Done!” like a 20-year-old track star. Ricky was our boss. He had been working underground for a long time and had a history with the company. He worked for them once before, left to get experience as a section boss at a local mom-and-pop truck mine and came back to the company during my orientation. I had been placed on a crew full of outcasts, outlaws, and the ones who wouldn’t know any better.
As days drew on, I learned more about each individual I worked with. Turk’s wildness was nothing new. He had dropped out of high school his freshman year at the age of 18 and joined his father and brothers as Kentucky coal miners. He was raised hard with three older brothers who loved to use him as a punching bag until Turk grew into his hand-me-downs and turned the tables on his brothers. He provided well for his wife and young daughter and wanted to be sure that they had everything he had never known as a child. Most importantly, he wanted his daughter to go to college and move away from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
K.J. lived with his parents. His father was a county judge and handed him everything he wanted but expected him to work for it in some fashion. Why he chose coal mining was beyond knowing for anyone who worked with him. Most assumed he knew his miner’s uniform would help him pick up women and hide the fact that he still lived at home.
Squirrel was much like his father. He dropped out of high school his junior year. He went to work with his father at a little truck mine in Floyd County. He would load supplies, clean the yard, and do other odd jobs until he turned 18 and was able to get his mining card. He lived alone in a single-wide trailer on his parents’ property. His only goal was to keep enough money to put gas in his pick-up and buy drinks for all the pretty ladies at Landmark Inn on Saturday night.
Whisenhunt was recently rehabilitated. He had spent some time for assaulting three police officers in what he referred to as his ‘”wilder days.” He had been married but wasn’t any more. He enjoyed riding his ATV back into the woods and drinking a case of beer all by himself.
Bart was born and raised in the Pentecostal church that his father helped build in Possum Trot, Kentucky. His wife was his high-school sweetheart and they had two children. They were good people and lived the best they could. Like the majority of us, Bart wanted to give his children a life that he didn’t have.
Jason was getting older but was still young and reckless at heart. He had never settled down. “I only work in the mines to keep up my dope bill, bar tab, and gas in my old truck,” he admitted. “I don’t give a sh-t about no woman.”
Ricky, our crew boss, had fallen on some hard times due to his addiction. It was just about this time, 2003, that the drug-abuse rules started to tighten in coal mining. The men worried they might be the next ones called for a drug test. But that didn’t stop them from using.
Ricky had a new wife and three kids ranging from the ages of 1 to 6. He was living in a small rental house about two miles from me on Pine Top in Knott County. It seemed that every morning I would drive by his house to see all of the lights out and his truck still in the driveway. He was always 10-15 minutes late regardless of the fact that all other section foreman arrived no less than a half hour before the start of shift.
Ricky always had an excellent excuse. His baby kept them up all night. His truck wouldn’t start because the fuel gauge was broken and he didn’t realize he had run out of gas. My favorite was the time he didn’t show up to work on Monday morning and on Tuesday he said: “Well, I got stopped at a road block on Caney Creek. They thought I was somebody else and without even looking at my I.D. they arrested me, right there on the spot. There wasn’t anyone around all weekend so my wife had to come over on Monday to bring paperwork and get me out.”
We all knew the truth. There was an ex-sheriff who worked the belt lines. Ricky was, in fact, stopped at a road block. But it was the pink powder around his nostrils that led to his arrest.
Soon after that Ricky said to me, “Hey, Bentley, you drive that Ford Ranger with the ‘I DIG COAL’ sticker on the back, right?”
“Yea, that’s mine. What’s up?”
“Well, I know you pass the house every day. I was wondering if I could get a lift home after work?”
I sat in the parking lot after the shift for over 45 minutes waiting on Ricky to walk out to the truck. I saw him stagger out of the office dropping his clipboard and dinner bucket four or five times before making it over to the truck. He tossed everything in the bed of the truck and opened the passenger door.
“Sorry it took so long. I had to make sure everyone’s time card was right. I appreciate the ride man. Damn cops suspended my license the other night and impounded my truck. My wife won’t let me have the van ’cause she’s worried she might have to take the kids to the doctor.”
I just mumbled a little and tried not to talk. I was irritated that Ricky had asked for a ride and caused me to spend another hour of my day waiting in a parking lot before I could go home. He was my boss and I wasn’t going to jeopardize my new company job. There was no way in hell I was letting a simple ride home take that away.
Before leaving the parking lot, Ricky had passed out. His head bounced off the passenger-side window with each sharp turn and pot hole. He never opened his eyes. I stopped at the Midee-Mart for a Coke and slice of pizza. I locked the doors and left him sleeping. When I returned, he was out cold, snoring.
When I pulled into his driveway, I had to wake him up. As he fumbled around the floor board because he thought he had dropped his medicine, his wife and son walked out onto the porch. Just like any family, they were awaiting the arrival of their loved one. They wanted to greet the man they called a husband and father. They were happy to see him get home after a day’s work. Perhaps they knew there could be a day when he wouldn’t make it back.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.