First of two parts
Dust and gravel bounced off of my windshield as the 18-wheeled coal trucks passed by with what felt like just inches between us on the one lane road cut around the cliff line of the mountain. If you were too close to the edge of the road you could end up in Carr Fork Lake, and you didn’t want to push your luck against a Peterbilt pulling a full load of coal on this dirt and gravel path they called a road.
We had just finished our last box lunch of our orientation. Country fried steak, instant mashed potatoes, French fries, and box-made brownies. The fine dining paid for by Old King Coal. We were finishing up our three-day orientation and being sent to Enterprise Mine #8 to meet our foreman and get our assignments. Our paid days of relaxation were over. We all knew there would be no easy days ahead of us on the coal company’s clock.
Pulling into the company parking lot, I was in awe. The scene of the mine was no comparison to my time at the Consol Energy slope mine. There were two small construction trailers and a small gravel parking lot. With only 20 or 30 automobiles in the parking lot, I was curious if there were even enough men to run coal. As I walked over to the trailers with the rest of the new hires, T.J., the young man with the tribal tattoo covering his left arm, spoke up.
“My cousin is the section boss here. He don’t even know I’m coming. Gonna surprise the sh*t out of him.”
Most of the men ignored T.J. He was the guy in his 30s who had never grown up. Still living at home with his mother and wasting all of his paycheck on sport bikes, partying, and buying things he couldn’t afford for the girls at the local community college in hopes that they would fall for him one day.
David, the mine manager from orientation, stepped out when we got to the concrete pad in front of the first trailer. We did as he said and followed him into the next trailer. Inside, you could see this was a rough effort of combining two trailers to create enough space for lockers and a dressing room.
“This is Rat. He is the afternoon shift mine foreman. He’s been at this mine longer than he wants to share, but he knows everything there is to know about it. He’s got the power when I’m not here, and if he walks up on the section, do as he says. Aaron will be here soon. He’s marking up the mine maps right now. He’s going to be your afternoon shift section foreman.”
Before he could finish his thought, T.J. spoke up again
“Yea, he’s my cousin. Me and him go way back. He don’t know I’m gonna be working for him though. Can’t wait till he walks in and sees me sitting here.”
David rolled his eyes and smiled.
“You think the man is gonna be your section foreman and doesn’t know who’s gonna be working for him. Of course he knows who’s coming to work for him. We don’t run a f***ing circus here. This is a coal mine. Also, if you wanna say something while I’m up here, raise your hand. Show a little bit of respect.”
David continued introducing Rat. A young man walked in the door. He was short, stocky, athletic, and couldn’t have been any older than me. Some of the older men were shrugging their shoulders and whispering amongst themselves. I knew they were questioning the appearance of the man and wary of such a young person being in charge.
“All right, this is Aaron. He’s your section foreman. He came to work for me quite a few years ago and is the hardest working and most dedicated employee I’ve ever met. He’s a smart miner with enough experience and hard work that I wouldn’t take 10 men for one of him. He’ll assign you your new jobs and then send you over to the mine office to get your light and brass tag from Rat. I’ll see y’all at 2:30 for the shift meeting and prayer.”
Aaron pulled out a clipboard and began to look down as T.J. walked up, put his arm around him, and smiled real big.
“Hey cuz, long time no see. Man, I bet you’re excited to see me here. You know I’m the best pinner man in Perry County. You gonna give me the operator side job, right?”
“T.J,. I ain’t giving you anything. Lord, go over there and sit down before I have to show everyone what a big girl you are.” Aaron winked at the rest of us. He ran through the list of names telling us each our new job and sending us out to get our lights and brass tags for the check in board.
“Lonny Helton and Richard Collins, you will be shoveling belt. Larry Adams will be your foreman. He won’t be here until closer to 2 p.m. but I’ll introduce you to him when he arrives. Gary Bentley, scoop operator. I’m going to let you work with Thor. He’s our scoop operator right now and he can show you around before we just throw ya to the wolves. T.J., you’re gonna be bolting top. You can fight it out with the current operator to see who get’s operator side.”
“Well by-god, I’ll just have to whoop his ass if that’s what it takes,” T.J. replied. “You know I ain’t got no reason to be scared of no one. I’m a full-blooded American bad ass.”
“I don’t know about that, maybe I’ll ask your mom when I come down to visit her after church on Sunday.”
We all got our new lights, hung our brass tags on the “out” side of the board, showing that we were headed underground. We loaded our gear into the lockers and stood outside waiting on the regular crew to arrive. The fall air was crisp and cool, but the sun that shined through the branches of the trees caused sweat to bead up on your neck and roll down your shirt. It was festival time in the mountains. Every small community had their own.
“Hey Lonnie, you ever been to Black Gold Festival?”
“Nah T.J., I sure ain’t. Anything special?”
“Just the biggest party in Perry County. Got everything from funnel cakes, to carousels, and all the pretty girls you can handle if you’re a young stud like me.”
With every word that came out of his mouth, I thought about K.J. from back at the old mine, and then it clicked. K.J. and T.J., I cursed under my breath, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? Are there one of these at every f***ing mine in Eastern Kentucky?”
Lonnie interrupted my thoughts.
“T.J., I heard David and Rat talking about working this weekend and how we’d all have to come in for at least eight hours on Saturday evening to get a new section ready. I don’t guess any of us will be going to Black Gold this year.”
“That’s what you think, by God, I ain’t never missed a Black Gold Festival, and I ain’t gonna f***ing miss one this year either. I’ll be sure of that.”
“Just remember it’s Wednesday,” Lonnie said. “They may change their mind. Ya never know, maybe your cousin Aaron will be able to work something out so that you can go. Don’t get all tore up just yet.”
To be continued next week.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.