Right after Thanksgiving everyone at the mines would start getting into the Christmas spirit. Even though we knew it was a month away, we couldn’t wait for the days off to spend with our families. Some of us would bring in ornaments to hang on our equipment, and on some sections, someone would bring a cheap set of Christmas lights to hang around the power center. It seemed like all we’d ever talk about was giving our kids a good Christmas, and those who were lucky enough to still have a few vacation days, kept bragging on and on about how they were going to use them to extend their holiday.
A week before Christmas the company would put together a huge dinner for each shift coming out of the mines. While we ate, the mine foremen would hand out “gifts” smeared with the company logo. Every year we’d get the same things, a belt buckle, a baseball cap—some years a flashlight if we were lucky. They’d also give us a frozen turkey or ham to take home, until they figured it was cheaper to hand out $25 Wal-Mart gift cards. With all the catered food and cheap gifts we received, I still felt the best gift the company gave us was turning a blind eye to the underground dinners we’d have as a crew.
The days of coal crews shutting down to eat dinner together are long gone at most mines. Now each man takes lunch when he gets the chance. For the continuous miner operators and buggy men who kept the coal running, the boss or someone else would relieve them just long enough to get a quick bite and then they’d jump right back on their equipment. In today’s mines, production doesn’t stop unless something breaks down.
That’s what made the underground dinners so special. During the last week leading up to Christmas, most crews would have an underground potluck. Everyone would bring in their dishes from home, pile them in the back of the man trip, and haul them underground. Once on the section, someone would take all the food to the power center.
For those who aren’t familiar with mining terms, a power center is huge rectangular box about 10 feet across, 20 feet long, and 3 feet high. It houses the electrical transformers, power connections, and electrical breakers for all of the mining equipment on each working section. The metal lids over the transformers get scorching hot, making it the best place to heat food underground, especially when it’s an entire Christmas dinner.
Since the law states that all power centers must be located in the fresh air supply to the work area, the smell of hot food would spread all the way across to section. The wait for lunchtime was always unbearable. After working four or five hours into the shift, the boss would shut the section down and everyone would pile up on the man trip. Someone would say grace and then we’d dig in. Afterwards the boss would hand out gifts to each of us and then we’d shoot the breeze or sleep for half an hour. When it came time to go back to work, it was everything we could do to roust ourselves out of our food commas. Fortunately the boss felt the same way we did and would cut us a bit of slack over the rest of the shift.
In the final days leading up to our holiday vacation, it seemed like all of us had a lot more love in our hearts. Even the people we couldn’t stand were wished a Merry Christmas.
There was just something special about that time—that spirit that seemed to bring us all together, even in the worst conditions.
Merry Christmas everyone.
I wrote this post because it symbolizes one of the few good things to come out of the mines….that sense of family and community we once held among ourselves.
I was deeply saddened to find out from someone who commented below, that some companies have gotten rid of this tradition.
Over the years companies have taken away weekends where miners could get their families together. They started rotating shifts, added mandatory overtime, run 10 hour shifts so no one could get enough sleep, let alone feel like leaving the house during the work week to spend time with friends and family.
It seems like all the companies know how to do is keep taking and taking. They want us to be a “Friend of Coal” but a real friend wouldn’t take things like this from us.
If you care to know anything about me, you’ll know that I care a lot about people. Sometimes it comes out in the wrong way, but I really do. I was raised to “Love thy Neighbor” which we always took to be everyone, not just those living near us. Growing up I saw what happened when Pittston Coal Company ended the healthcare benefits to all their retirees, miner’s widows, and disabled miners. I saw everyone in my county come together to fight to get them back. People from all over the coalfields came together to do what was right and just—because they cared about each other. I can’t help but notice how far apart we’ve been driven, how much people are only able to focus on their own families, to worry about their own job, or as my uncle put it, “Look out for #1.”
This isn’t the Appalachia I was raised in and it hurts me to no end to see what’s become of us as we fight for the last remaining coal jobs. We need to fight for something better for our kids, something I don’t think any coal company will ever give them.