In the Black: Foreman — In Sickness and In Health
A mine foreman has to live up to his vows, or he won’t be married to the job for long.
I walked across the gravel parking lot wiping moisture from my glasses as the snow flurries touched my face and whipped across the frozen ground. My Carhartt work coat was zipped tight against my neck and the wind chilled my legs as it cut through the nylon-polyester blend of my work pants. The reflective striping on the legs smacked against my skin, stinging each time. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the mine office, but with a wind chill pushing close to negative temperatures it was far too long.
It was impossible to dress correctly with freezing temperatures above ground and a 90 degree environment underground. We all fought off sickness during these months, bundling up to travel underground, soaking ourselves with sweat while working, and attempting to avoid the chill of the night air when exiting the portal at the end of our shift. I could see that Aaron had lost his battle with a vicious virus. He was bent over a 55-gallon drum involuntarily emptying his stomach into the bottom. I turned a blind eye and continued across the parking lot, setting my dinner bucket on the porch and unzipping my coat before stepping into the changing rooms.
Our changing rooms, which were gutted construction trailers, somehow managed to keep a broiling temperature during the coldest months. As I stepped through the door I had already pulled one arm from its sleeve and was removing the other. I looked down the benches and saw Scott closest to me, sweat beads dripping off his forehead as he laid his bottle of Mountain Dew against the back of his neck. Thor was eating chili from his thermos, Dana was nowhere to be seen, and Thurman sat on the end of the bench ready to go with his Harley Davidson hoodie on, hood up.
“Where’s Dana? I know he changes in the other trailer, now but he always comes over here to shoot the sh** with everyone.”
As per usual, Scott was the one to speak up.
“You hadn’t heard? He’s pretty sick, man. Took medical leave or something. I’m gonna run the miner for a bit, but I reckon there’s some pretty big news coming up anyway.”
Aaron, finished with the 55-gallon drum for the time being, walked in with David and Rat King. We could feel some tension among the three. Aaron sulked in the corner, dark circles around his eyes, and his skin looking like a corpse that had been left out for viewing just a bit too long,
Then J.R., the superintendent, walked in.
“I know you all have been hearing rumors. Some of those may have been true, some of them completely false, but most of them were somewhere in the middle. It is true, Enterprise Mining is now a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. ANR will be the largest mining company in the United States in a short matter of time, and we will all be right here to watch it happen. I will still be managing all of the mines operating as Enterprise Mining. Our way of mining will not change. We will only progress and work toward a more productive and safer way of mining. Now, there will be some changes made…”
Aaron suddenly rose and made long strides toward the door, bumping into J.R. The quick breeze of cold air when J.R. opened the door felt good against my face, but the sounds of Aaron, doubled over, heaving until blood vessels burst in his face, were not soothing to the ears or the mind. J.R. finished explaining to us the changes that would be happening with this transition and announced there would be plans to expand the Defeated Creek location by opening a new slope mine that would hopefully lead to a majority of us to work long enough to be able to retire from Enterprise Mining.
We zipped up our coats. Some of the miners tied rags around their faces to block to cold air. In the barn where the man trips were located, Aaron was already on board and holding an empty bit bucket in his lap.
I sat down next to him and looked. I could see that he was not fit to go underground and be our foreman.
“Man, you look like you’re bad off. Why don’t you go home, get better, and then come back to work. There’s no sense in you doing this. You’re not gonna be any good to us in this condition.”
He mumbled through the stench of his breath.
“I’m the only foreman we got for evenings. I can’t leave it all on Rat. He’d have to take care of our section and all of the out by. I just can’t do that.”
I understood then the responsibility placed on the shoulders of mine foreman — the sacrifices required to do the job properly and to fulfill the expectations of mine operators. There were no sick days, there were no emergency days off. You were there or you weren’t the mine foreman. They needed someone qualified and reliable.
We arrived on the section after a fresh belt move. There was only one open crosscut ahead of the feeder and things were tight. Thurman and I installed new anchor bolts in the last open crosscut. As I trammed the roof bolter away from the feeder, I saw Aaron crawling very slowly across the belt entry and coveralls that looked much too large. This stuck me as odd as he always work denim bibbed overalls. I didn’t think much of it and continued doing my job. When we were parked in the heading Thor traveled by us on his car and stopped.
“You guys smell that? It’s disgusting. It smells like someone emptied a port-a-potty behind the power box.”
I laughed and Thurman answered.
“You sure Rick or one of them other big boys didn’t go drop a few pounds back there? Ha, ha, ha.”
In the middle of Thurman’s laughter, we could hear Lonnie laughing over the roar of the feeder chains and pick breaker.
“You all get down here. You ain’t gonna believe this:”
Thor went over to the miner while Thurman and I crawled down toward the feeder. As we got closer, the stench of human waste became stronger. When we arrived at the feeder we could see why Lonnie was laughing. There were denim bibbed overalls wrapped around the drum of the pick breaker and through the coal dust you could see a brown and black stain that worked its way from the top of the straps down into the seat of the pants.
Thurman couldn’t control himself, he spoke before looking back and laughing loudly.
“I think Aaron sh** himself and threw his bibs in the feeder. Unlucky guy, now they’re hung up and someone is gonna have to cut ‘em out.”
Aaron’s voice cut through Thurman’s.
“If that’s so funny, Thurman, you can crawl in there and cut ‘em out for me. I’m sick and not having a good day. You all find some roof bolts to replace or you can cut them out and then go wash them for me.”
We all apologized for laughing at Aaron’s unfortunate run of events. He must have found some humor in this as well, because he then explained what happened.
“Man, you know how it is when you’re sick. You got stuff coming out of both ends, you can’t control it. Well, I knew I needed to get to the return because even though I can’t eat anything, I still got stuff making it’s way out of both ends with no warning. On my way to the return I began to feel like I was about to throw up so I decided this was as good of place as any to do what I needed. In the heat of the moment as I dropped my bibs, I began to throw up. Well, as you can see I didn’t pay attention to where my bibs were so when I started to throw up things started happening on the other end and, needless to say, my bibs became my toilet. That’s why I’m wearing Jerry’s coveralls. Now you all go do some work before I have to do this all over again.”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.