"Coal is all we’ve got"


My father told me and my brother on more than one occasion, “I wish I had’ve got you boys more when you were growing up. A lot of the guys at the mine were buying their kids new four wheelers and things. They’d buy bass boats, and campers and take their families to the lake every weekend, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go into debt like that.” Naturally our response has always been, “We didn’t need that stuff anyway.” And we didn’t.

A lot of my parent’s thriftiness came from common sense and being raised in hard times. Even during the best years of coal mining it wasn’t uncommon for the mine to shut down for a few months. Mom and dad knew it was better to put a little money back in case times got tough rather than spread themselves to thin. It also gave them the advantage of standing up to the company when miner safety became a problem or the company was trying to cut benefits without reason. Without a massive amount of debt, my dad could go on strike and stand up for what’s right—not just for himself, but everyone that worked at the mine.

Today it’s a bit different. I’ve seen way to many diesel pickup trucks with Friends of Coal tags that tell me all I need to know about the newest generation of coal miners. You could always tell many of the older coal miners from the younger just by looking at the parking lot of the coal mine I worked at. The older coal miners drove beat-to-hell pickup trucks and cars, while many of the younger miners rolled up with $30,000+ pickups. And the spending didn’t end there. I’d hear about their houses, sports cars, vacations, motorcycles, expensive toys for their kids. I’d just shake my head.

I’d sometimes ask some of them if it wouldn’t be smarter to buy cheaper vehicles, smaller homes, and put a lot of the $50,000+ a year back into savings? I’d often hear excuses such as, “You only live once.” Further argument was futile.

I could never understand why so many of today’s coal miners failed to look beyond the immediate future—why they didn’t realize that being dependent upon one skill set and one industry was setting themselves up for failure.

I hate it when I hear people back home say, “Coal is all we’ve got!”  Whose fault is it?

There’s an old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Somehow, that saying has been lost among many people. Every coal miner would have been serving themselves and their families well if they put more effort into putting themselves through training in a different skill set while the times were good (not to mention voting for politicians who would have worked to bring job alternatives to the mountains). Of course I have to admit that because coal companies often work miners on rotating shifts it sure made it hard for anyone to get any kind of training. I wondered if they didn’t do it on purpose just to keep coal miners from taking advantage of going to college or being trained so they weren’t so dependent on coal mining.

From day one in the mine, I began paying double payments on the only debt I had, a 10 year old used pickup truck I purchased for half the price of a new one. We inherited the old home place and spent six years using tax returns to put a new roof on, install new plumbing, new doors and windows, remodel the kitchen and bathroom. Our car was a 10 year old Subaru and when we decided to get a new car (a mistake I know), we at least got a small Corolla and kept the payments low. Not only that, we already had the money in the bank saved up to buy it outright, but with 0.0% interest, it didn’t make sense to  deplete our savings in one purchase.

I did these things because I had remembered the times my dad had been laid off. I wanted first and foremost for my family to be prepared for the inevitable, to ensure my family would have what it needed if hard times came.

When the big “surprise” came that the coal market is taking a hit and mines are being shut down everywhere, who should really be blamed for the financial woes of coal miners across Appalachia? Should we blame the coal companies, the politicians, or the coal miners who overextended themselves? Personally, I think they’re all to blame.

Well, it’s happened and continues to happen. What’s worse is that no one seems to be the wiser. You can tell by how many Friends of Coal tags are out there on the roads and how many coal miners are quick to point fingers to a “War on Coal,” voting for the same politicians who’ve kept Appalachian people poor and coal companies rich.

It’s hard to get folks to realize what is going on. I’ve tried. It’s even harder to get people to change their way of thinking. Something major has to happen for someone to change.

How long will it take to turn things around? I have no idea, but in the mean time I have to wonder how much more damage will be done to Appalachia and how many more generations will have to leave before everyone realizes the need to bring in different jobs. I just know the first step will be to stop propping up the coal industry as being the almighty saviors of Appalachia.

There are a lot of people with some amazing ideas out there. I think it’s time folks started listening to them.

 

2 thoughts on “"Coal is all we’ve got"

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