Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Central Appalachian coal miner turned columnist details firsthand life in the coal mines

Tired of the way coal miners are portrayed in the media, Gary Bentley (right) an underground Eastern Kentucky coal miner from 2001 to 2013, has decided to share his own thoughts about the profession in a series for the Daily Yonder called, "In the Black."

"Bentley said he would like readers to learn more about miners and get beyond the two mining stereotypes he sees most often," Tim Marema reports for Yonder. "First, there’s the 'Evil King Coal' story. In this frame, coal strips 'the land and people of everything they love,' leaving only destruction and poverty in its wake, Bentley says. Then there’s the romantic view of the miner—most easily conjured while looking at Depression era black-and-white photos of men posing with pick and shovel in hand." While Bentley said each of these stories gets some of it right, they also get some of it wrong. He told Marema, “These men and women are straight-laced, hard-working, God-fearing Appalachian people who work so hard for so little."

In his first column, "First Day Jitters," Bentley details his first day on the job. Here is an excerpt from the column:
"Nervously I tried to lace up my new matterhorns, get my cap light adjusted and look like I knew what I was doing, failing miserably. My knee pads were still in the plastic. My belt was so stiff it would have served more purpose as a walking stick. All I could do was push back the fear and walk back into the mine office.

"I walked a fast pace out to the rail car, 20 burly men lying side to side somewhat spooning, just like my girlfriend and I would do at night. I was intimidated and scared. I wasn’t scared just because we were riding a rail car seven miles back into the mountain to work in a 36 inch seam of coal. I was scared because these were 'real' men, fathers of the kids I went to school with, men who had enough strength to bend a one inch steel bar with their bare hands. I was just a skinny teenage boy with glasses, bad skin and not enough ass to pick up a loaded number four coal shovel.

"So I just laid down in the first opening I saw, turned on my headlamp and closed my eyes as the wheels of the car barked against the rails and the diesel engine roared into my ears.

"A few minutes after we entered the mine, a voice cut through the noise like nothing I had ever heard before.

"'WHOA! Stop g–damn you!'

"Sparks flew up past my face, and the wheels of the car screamed as the operator brought us to an abrupt halt.

“'All right now, it’s Sunday night after pay day. Everybody chip in so we can get this night started right. Don’t any of you sons-a-bitches hold out neither.'

"All the men were bearded, haggard, eyes sunken back into their skulls. The darkness and glow of the head lamps made everyone look like death. Pulling plastic bags, pill bottles and emptied Skoal cans out of their pockets and dinner buckets, they dumped the contents onto the top of the rail car. Lortab, Xanax, Valium and whatever other prescription drugs they had.

"'New kid, you got any medicine or candy to put in on this?'

"I simply shook my head right to left, right to left, right to left. When I could finally stop, I watched the men use their mining certification cards to cut lines of a multi-colored rainbow assortment of powders they had crushed from the pills. It disappeared as quick as we did when we entered the drift mouth. So did my romanticism about miners."

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