In the Black: Asleep at the Wheel
Staying awake at orientation is the bare-minimum requirement to make a good impression on the first day of a new job. Not everyone is up to the task.
The whistle blew and the engine roared. The train had just been loaded with coal at the Enterprise Mining Yellow Creek prep plant and was headed somewhere outside the mountains in which it had been mined.
As I traveled north on Yellow Creek, the noise of the train muffled the stereo inside my recently purchased SUV. I looked from the corner of my eye watching the train roll past with the coal piled just above the top of the cars. I felt a sense of pride. I was helping power the world and make steel. I was doing something. I had made something of myself.
I felt good about my decision to go to work at a different mine. Enterprise had been buying out smaller mines and prep plants and seemed to be moving forward. Enterprise was a stable company in the community. My father had worked as a subcontractor for them for years hauling rock, coal, and even training me to operate heavy equipment before I had decided to work underground.
As I turned into the entrance for the mine office, the rail cars were still on the tracks. I sat there watching them one by one, trying to imagine the blood, sweat, and hard work that had been put into mining the coal that was now being hauled away. There was a small piece of every miner living in those rail cars, and the rest of the world was oblivious to us, the miners in Eastern Kentucky.
Past the silt pond that held water from the prep plant, I saw small yard signs placed throughout the gravel parking lot. “New Miner Orientation.” “New Miners Park Here.” “Welcome to Enterprise.” “Enterprise Mining – Running Right!’”
I parked my SUV between a nice dual-wheel-based Ford pickup and a jacked-up four-wheel-drive Jeep. I felt confident driving what was to me a new model SUV on large, all-terrain tires. I was able to walk in, confident and proud of what I had accomplished in just a few years. When I opened the doors to the training facility, J.R. King, the mine manager who had interviewed me for the job, greeted me.
“Hey son! Good to see you again! We have breakfast sandwiches and donuts over there and orange juice and coffee on the table. If you want a Coke they’re in the cooler under the table. Get something to eat and make yourself at home.”
Being the nervous kid that I still was, I poured some orange juice into a Styrofoam cup and sat down closest to the front of the room so I would not miss anything said. Across the room was a large wooden table, and sitting behind it were five men who all looked important. All but one appeared to be my father’s age, wearing mining uniform shirts, jeans, and pockets packed with pens and small note tablets. With the other new hires sitting around the tables, it felt much like my orientation at Consol, but in a much simpler atmosphere. The new hires were made up of men of all ages, looking to be of different social statures, and all appearing eager to work. As the clock struck 8 a.m., J.R. was not a second late stepping behind the podium.
“Welcome to Enterprise. You are all here because I have chosen each and every one of you for a different reason. Our goal is to run the most productive and safest mine in the world, and each of you present a piece of the puzzle to make this happen.”
He led us on a 20-minute pep talk about the company and what we were going to do. He wrapped it up by letting us know where he stood. With his arms outstretched holding an Enterprise Mining Employee handbook, he said:
“This is my bible. We will cover every word of this book in this orientation. If you disagree with what is in this handbook, you can either choose to change your opinion and follow this book, or you can let yourself out of the door the way you came in, and we will happily replace you within the hour. Now let me introduce you to the men who are going to select which crew you will work on and what specific job you will be doing.”
Never mind the fact that J.R. had told me I was being hired as a scoop operator, I guess that could all change.
When the man sitting at the right end of the table stood, J.R. spoke loudly:
“This is David Gerst. He has been with Enterprise for over a decade. He started as a general laborer and through his hard work and determination he is now the manager of Mine #8, which used to be Lakeview Mine before we bought it from the Knott County Coal Company. This is Arnold Lowe. He has worked with us from the day we started mining at Redstar down near Blackey. Arnold has worked with me since I started operating my very own personal mines and was part of the rescue team at Scotia.”
None of us had to be told that he was talking about the 1976 mining disaster that killed 26.
All of the new miners sat silently, except one. Near me sat a man well over 6’4” and pushing 300 pounds. His T-shirt could not contain his belly. He snored. J.R. was quick to notice the distraction and quickly put a stop to it. He calmly walked over to the man and slammed his fist onto the table in front of him.
“You either sit up like a real working man, keep your eyes open, and pay attention, or you can find your way out of here. We don’t put up with any kind of slacking or sleeping. And we definitely don’t put up with anyone who can be this disrespectful on the first day of orientation.”
As the guy opened his mouth, eyes not fully opened, he began to stutter with a slight slur:
“I…I….I worked all night last night and drove straight here. I’m really sorry.”
“Well, best thing you can do is go get a big cup of coffee and perk up. If you have to stand in the back of the room to keep from falling to sleep you best do it. Now, back to where I was.”
J.R. introduced the men behind the company table. We sat quietly as he told us about each of their backgrounds and their responsibilities with the company. After nearly two hours of introductions, we got a five-minute break to grab a snack, soda, and step outside for some fresh air. Outside, many of the men made phone calls to their wives, some lit up cigarettes, and the large man with the sleeping problem walked to his car, started up the engine, and shut the door. I waited in anticipation to see if he would drive away, but he didn’t.
I introduced myself to a shorter, older gentleman who seemed to be a cheerful guy with a good attitude.
“I’m Gary. I’m from Whitesburg but live over on Pine Top now.”
“Nice to meet ya. I’m Lonnie. I grew up over on Colson by the old tipple but moved to Florida for years. I just came back recently and decided to go back underground.”
“Wow, that’s interesting. I’d love to go down to Florida.”
“Ah, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but I’m sure a young single man like you would have a good time.”
Lonnie didn’t know I was single, but I figure by my age, appearance, and the lack of a wedding band, he just assumed. That’s what we do, right? As men began to walk back in, we all assumed our break was over and we followed suit. When we settled, there was one empty seat, the sleeper’s. J.R. stood at the podium again, looking over the room.
“We’re gonna have lunch at noon. Ramey’s Quick Stop will deliver boxed lunches for everyone. David’s going to tell you all about Enterprise Mine #8 and what new projects they’re focused on and discuss the new.. Any of you know where our nodding buddy is? Anyone know him?”
We all answered with “No, sir,” shook our heads, or sat in silence. Then a young man with tattoos on his arms spoke up.
“When I came in from break, he was sitting in his car. It’s a gold caprice backed up to the berm of the silt pond.”
“Thank you, Teddy. If you all would excuse me I’m going to see if I can wake him up. Listen to David. He knows more about this mine than any other man working there.”
David covered the history of the mine, the purchase from Knott County Coal, and the new initiatives to create a safer, more productive mine. J.R. walked back in.
“Can I interrupt for one minute? Let me be clear with everyone. If you have a drug problem, a drinking problem, or a problem with being honest, I need you to gather your things and leave right now. We are not going to waste our time with anyone who is not interested in being a good employee. As you see, our friend did not walk back into the room with me. So let this be an example of how we handle these issues here at Enterprise. We value each and every one of our employees, but we will not hesitate to send you on your way if you are not a good employee for the company and your fellow miners. That is all. Thank you David.”
The orientation continued another two days. Near the end, I learned what had happened to the “nodder.” J.R. had found him passed out in his car with some baggies on the dashboard and powder residue on his nose. It made me wonder if I was going to a stricter, better run mine, or if I would be worked into submission and failure. Only time would tell.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Letcher County, Kentucky.