Part of a series.
WARNING TO READERS: This article contains profanity and sexual references that some readers may find offensive. Ed.
I struggled to wipe the sleep from my eyes as I got dressed, grabbed my dinner bucket, and began my drive to the mine. The mornings were easier, the days were longer, and the nights seemed to pass by all too fast. I had been at Consol’s Beaver Creek mine for nearly six months. I had grown accustomed to the work I was doing, and I had started to feel at ease with my decision to be an underground coal miner, regardless of the pain.
It was late fall nearing the Thanksgiving holiday. The mornings were mostly dark and I’d often use my cap light to find my way from the parking lot down to the mine office. As I was walking down the hill with my cap light on, not noticing anyone following behind me I stopped to step into one of the port-a-potties at the bottom of the hill. I pulled the handle back on the door and heard from the background “Hey, What are you doing? Don’t go in there!” The sound was that of a woman’s voice. A woman who had been smoking since she was born and lived for 90 years.
“What do you mean? Why can’t I go in there?”
She stood in front of me, all 5 foot 4 inches of her. Overalls stretching at the seams, the stitches were stretched thin. Her mining belt was just as long as she was tall. Couldn’t see much of her hair or face but that’s the way it is with most miners. You don’t recognize anyone outside of work because they’re not wearing stripes, a hard hat, and most of all they’re clean.
“Well, that’s my port-a-potty. I ain’t changing in there with all you swingin’ d-cks so I told ’em to get me my own.”
I didn’t have the heart or the guts to tell her that this port-a-potty had been on the mine site since before I came to work here. I assumed she’d figure that out once she went inside. I just apologized and moved on to the next one.
As I entered the office walking back into the changing room/locker room/smoking quarters, I saw a lot of new faces. Everyone was sharing stories and laughing. I assumed everything was normal, but I didn’t know why we had so many new employees. Rio informed me they had shut down one of the working sections at the Mill Creek mine and moved some of the employees over to the slope mine and sent the rest over to work with us. Not long after our discussion, Terry walked in the doorway. “Hey guys, I know you Millcreek boys were used to having all the goodies and getting treated well. Don’t plan on that happening here. We’ve only got about a month or two left, and we’ll all be sent on our way to a new mine. We’re pulling out of this little dog hole and saving every damn dime we can while getting every block of coal there is in this sum-bitch.” Most of the men sat quietly and listened. A couple of men made jokes and mouthed off some one liners as Terry finished.
“I got your goodies right here, old man.”
I heard the door open and as my eyes turned to the door. It was the woman from the port-a-potties.
“Hey Suze, come over here and let me see them big ol’ titties.”
“Ah, f— you, Mitch. You ain’t got nothin’ that’d please me no how.”
There were a few chuckles from the surrounding group of miners, but I was in shock. You don’t talk to women this way, even if those were the thoughts running through your mind. You don’t come out and say it. What is this? What kind of world is this?
“Hey, Jerm, won’t you show me that big d-ck you got. I didn’t get no breakfast, and I know ain’t no one else gonna fill me up.”
“Geez Suze, don’t say that sh– to me. Lord have mercy, you know I ain’t into that.”
“Aww baby, ain’t you ever had any good fat-girl lovin’?”
“No Suze! I don’t want none either!”
I had all I could handle of this conversation and started to make way out the door to the mantrip. I’d rather sit in the cold drinking a soda than listen to that. Marty walked out. “Bentley, you’re going with us. We need some help on the scoop and Terry said he ain’t worried about the belt line anymore. You can run scoop on the right side and Jerm can run the left. Suze and Mitch will be on the pigs today.”
So I ask “Where’s Porkchop and his boy?”
“They got sent over to the slope mine on 80.”
I climbed into my usual position on the far back of the mantrip. Apparently it had been my day to choose the wrong seat. I saw Suze staring at me, but until she spoke I was going to ignore it.
“Hey, I ride in the back. I don’t wanna set with Mitch, I’m afraid his color might rub off and get on my pretty red hair.”
Before I could speak or react, Mitch had something to say.
“If that’s the case, ol’ Suze, you woulda turnt black years ago.”
I didn’t answer her. I just got up and moved up to the front of the trip and sat beside Mitch.
“Kid, just so ya know. I ain’t all that bad. … It took me a long time to learn how to treat all these sum-bitches, and good thing I did learn or I’d never made it.”
“I’m Mitch, don’t mind Suze. She just likes to run her mouth. What you do?”
“Marty said I was gonna run scoop on the right side. I’ve been on the belts for a while though. Just started running a scoop last week.”
I continued small talk with Mitch for the hour ride up to the end of the track. He actually seemed like a good guy and offered to help me with anything I needed.
We arrived on the section and within minutes we were running coal. I had changed the batteries on my scoop, loaded the timbers, and started traveling to the working face. As I made my way down the #5 entry, I could see a light next to the beltline. I had been trained that it was common knowledge or courtesy to stop and ask if the person needed help.
“Hey, who’s over there?”
“None of your damn business.”
It was Suze. I would recognize her voice any time I heard her speak. Sandpaper, cigarettes, and hard living.“I was just checking to see if you needed any help.”
“I’m trying to take a sh–. So, Unless you wanna come wipe my ass, I suggest you just keep on movin.”
It was common knowledge you always travel down the return entry to use the bathroom. It kept anyone from having to work around your bodily waste, and it would give you a little bit of privacy. I didn’t say anything to Suze. She was an experienced miner and was definitely not eager to receive any criticism or advice. I only had to travel three cross cuts to the section just over the length of a football field. When I arrived, production had stopped. All of the equipment was shut down and everyone was doing maintenance.
“Did you see Sue down there?”
“Yea. Marty, she’s just a couple crosscuts down the beltline.”
That’s when I heard Mitch yelling. “That bitch said she was taking a sh–. Why’s she on the beltline? I swear if she sh–s in the belt entry and we pull back there tomorrow, I’m going to roll her fat ass in it and make her wear it home.”
I moved on over the next entry to start setting timbers. This was the type of confrontation I had learned to stay away from. The day moved quick. Setting timbers and pulling pillars was fast work, and there was not a lot of time to sit still. I was the last person to the mantrip and the only seat left was next to Suze.
“Care if I sit back here? There aren’t any more seats open.”
“Why yea, I ain’t gonna bite.”
“Kid, just so ya know. I ain’t all that bad. I just can’t take no sh– or these bastards will run me over and I won’t keep no respect. My ol’ man got hurt real bad about 10 years ago and I’ve been working in the mines ever since. It took me a long time to learn how to treat all these sum-bitches, and good thing I did learn or I’d never made it.”
“It’s OK. Sorry to hear about your husband. Seems like too many people get put outta work like that.”
“Ahh, that’s why we get paid so good. If this was safe and easy, we’d all be making minimum wage”
“Yea, I hear ya. This is the only thing that’ll pay for my college. I ain’t got much of a choice either.”
“Well, I tell you what kid. You keep in college, get you a good education, and get outta these coal mines. They ain’t gonna last forever, and even if they did our bodies don’t hold up for very long no how.”
I worked three shifts with Suze and Mitch. During those 36 hours learned that Suze and Mitch were really good friends outside of work. Mitch had worked with Suze’s husband before he was disabled. Mitch would often go to their home on weekends and do home repairs, mow their lawn, or just spend some time talking to them. They had a dark and sick sense of humor with one another. Maybe it was their way of coping with the reality that at any moment they could lose their best friend to a falling rock, a dust explosion, or the crushing blow that many miners suffer: a body that gives way after years of mining.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.