One night when I was working the 3rd shift with John on 3 section, we had to change a wheel unit on a shuttle car. John (whose name I’ve changed to protect him) was one of the more experienced men I worked with, having more than twenty years in the coal mines as a maintenance man. Although he was a tad windy and could probably blow up an onion sack, he had a good heart. As we worked together wrestling the wheel unit off of the buggy, we somehow got on the subject of working in the coal mines.
“I wanted to get away from here when I was younger,” John said. “I figured I’d just work a few years in the mines, save up my money and move to Knoxville where I have some family.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Life. My wife got pregnant and we needed a bigger home. We started needing a lot of things and I was making good money. Several times I thought about quitting and leaving but I was scared I wouldn’t be able to make it as good as I was here. I’ll tell you what though. If I were thirty years old again, I’d grab my damn work bucket and walk the fuck out of this mines—right here, right now—and never look back. I realize now that when I was thirty, I was old enough to have experience in life and still young enough to start over.”
I couldn’t help but think he was giving me advice. It’s a story I heard many times from the older miners I worked with—a story my Dad told as well. It seems all of them had plans to work a few years in the mines, just enough to save money so they could get out of the coalfields. For one reason or another, they became dependent on the high wages of coal mining. As years passed the thought of uprooting and changing everything in their lives made less sense. The idea of risking their family’s well-being to move away and find alternative employment became distant and impossible. The comforts of living in their mountain home with family nearby were simply to great.
“Everything’s better when you go 100 miles in any direction out of the coalfields,” John continued. “Schools, roads, doctors…. Damn near everything.”
“Yea. I’ve noticed if you go to the Food City or Wal-Mart in the Tri-Cities their produce always looks a hell of a lot better than what they send up to our stores.” I said.
“It damn sure does, doesn’t it?”
Every time I’d travel with my family outside of the coal producing regions of Appalachia I’d notice how new the schools were, how much better kept the roads were, and just how much better everything was overall. It caused me to wonder why the coalfields always seemed to be …well… a big shit hole for the lack of a better description. The coalfields have the highest poverty and unemployment rates, the most outdated schools and underpaid teachers, and a terrible infrastructure. Why wasn’t more tax revenue being spent in our region? Millions of dollars from coal severance taxes werebeing sent to the state capitols. Where was it being spent?
Perhaps it was simply our topography. It’s tough to build roads in the mountains and make other industry thrive. That’s at least what we were taught in school, but then again, if you look to the mountains of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee where there is no coal, they still survive.
So why are the coalfields still so poor? Why do we still have the worst of everything as compared to the rest of the United States? Is it prejudice? Are we still thought of as worthless uneducated inbred hillbillies? Please, no one from the National Mining Association answer that… True, statistically we do lag behind in most things, including education. We have higher rates of drug abuse and more welfare recipients per capita as compared to the rest of the nation, but in the end whose fault is it? Ours?
Sometimes I believe the overwhelming answer is “Yes”. After all, this is the United States and we can stand up and make a change for the better. We have the right to protest, we have the ability to vote. We can tell our lawmakers we want more to be spent on our schools, on our roadways, etc. Why haven’t we? Why do we simply accept the status quo?
I don’t think we are entirely to blame. There is an old saying, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” When there are literally billions of dollars flowing out of our area in the form of coal, men are getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Money equals power, especially in economically depressed areas. Why fight it?
In order for there to be billions of dollars in coal profits and coal severance tax revenues, men still have to work in the coal mines. The cheaper the labor costs, the more the profit. Is it not possible to think that a system has been developed between the coal industry and our lawmakers to ensure nothing changes in the coalfields, changes that would upset their cash flow? What would happen if things were to become better for the people living within the coalfields? What if more money was spent on education and roads? What if other industries came in providing more job alternatives than coal mining?
I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard my friends say, “I’d quit working in the coal mines if I could find another job making close to the same money.” Perhaps this is what the coal industry and local lawmakers fear the most; that or people catching onto how they’ve been bending and breaking environmental laws…but that is a different story.
By the end of our shift John and I had managed to fix the shuttle car and get it ready to run coal. As usual he drove the man trip since I had a bad habit of nodding off during the half hour trip out of the mine. My routine stayed pretty much the same. I lit up a cigarette, put my belt and tools in my locker, and threw my cap light on charge. I changed into some clean work clothes and drove home as the sun rose on yet another cool morning.
When I got home I looked at myself in the mirror before taking a shower. I saw someone different looking back at me. I wasn’t Nick the former technical support supervisor and trainer, the computer literate fellow who enjoyed writing, the one with potential to go further and be the generation to break a family tradition of coal mining. I wasn’t Nick the man who was trying to save money to move his family out of the coalfields. The coal blackened face that stared back at me was Nick the coal miner.
I realized then I had fallen into the same trap John, my father, and countless others had fallen into. The idea of leaving good wages and risking my family’s financial welfare began to seem just as ludicrous as it did to them back in their day. There were evenings I would sit and stare at the door, dressed in my work clothes with my lunch bucket packed, contemplating whether or not I should just say “Fuck it” and quit. Every time I did I thought about one of the kids getting sick or hurt without us having company provided health insurance. I thought of how there are no other jobs in the region, how I had chosen to be a coal miner because I’d exhausted all other resources, or at least I thought I had. I thought of how selfish I would be to make my kids go without, simply because I hated my job and decided to quit. I was just being a wussy. A selfish, whiny-ass, wuss. It was time to accept life as a coal miner, not because I liked it, not because I was proud of it, but because I believed it was my only choice—our only choice. My brother said he was once told in the Air Force, “You can dig a ditch happy, or you can dig a ditch pissed off, but no matter what you have to dig the ditch.” And so I kept digging, trying to find what semblance of dignity could be found in performing a dangerous profession. I had joined the ranks of countless other miners, facing the same struggles, the same realizations, locked into the same choices.