My grandfather was a coal miner. I have always been fascinated by that profession. This is a story I wrote a few years ago on what I thought a day in the mines would look like. Enjoy!
Western Pennsylvania – Everything is bluish-gray; all the rocks, a mountain side of rocks. There is a row of kerosene lamps flickering. I stop and look for a moment. Just blue-gray and the soft yellow lights mixed with the shadow of men going to the elevator. The smaller rocks shift under the weight of my soot-covered boots. My axe is resting over my shoulder and my calloused hands slide up and down, up and down the varnished handle.
I take my name plate from my chest pocket and hang it on the board. I kiss it once and think of Ma and Kitty’s eyes and then kiss it again just before I slip it on the hook. My lips taste metallic. The pulleys groan over the great weight and we just stand there thinking of ball games beside the church and the ice cream stand at the top of the hill in summer. We think of crawfishin’ with our hands in the crick and jumpin’ off that big rock up ‘ere by the lake.
The doors open up and we step inside. One by one we turn on our head lamps and I start prayin’. Prayin’ my kids made it safe to school and little Lia remembered her math and Kenny took a jacket. And Ma’ wasn’t too worried lookin’ out her window in that plastic covered arm chair and that Kitty would forgive me.
Our lamps reflect off the back of the door and temporarily blind the guys in the front; so all they see now when they close their eyes is the green and red and blue half circle burned on the back of their eyelids. I know, that’s how’s come I stand in the back.
The elevator hits the bottoms and dust kicks up and stings our eyes, ‘cause nobody wears the glasses, not nobody. It’s not so much some misguided brave thing. It’s more that you can’t see your hands in front of you while your glasses fog up, ‘Cause no matter how bitter cold it is outside, it’s always hot in these mines. And the accidents that happen because you can’t see in front of ya are far worse than some rock spec gettin’ in your eye.
We file out and go to our respected areas. Mine is the back left in a little pocket next to the main vain. It’s just me and Lange back here. Lange don’t talk an awful lot, which is fine by me cause I can work on my scripture memory. “When I look at all my hands had made, everything I had toiled to achieve. I consider it all meaningless a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun.” Boy, for being the wisest man, Solomon tried a whole lot of things out. I could have told him that wealth and wisdom are meaningless without God. Even love and friendship are meaningless without God.
But when Lange does talk, he talks about his sweetheart and how he gunna leave his pop’s house after this next month and buy her something special. I respect Lange and his few words, so much that I consider him my friend. I have a great many people close to me, but only a few I consider friends. One of them sure ain’t that new Pastor up at the Church of God. Basically wants to build an extension just to say he’s done it. So they can put his name on a plaque and in the paper. He can build a shrine on someone else’s dollar.
It’s noon and Lange and me haven’t said nothin’. So I say finally ‘I’m gunna grab lunch you wanna come with me?’ and he says all polite ‘thanks Red but Ima keep pluggin’ away,’ and he turns and smiles at me with the ‘you go on ahead smile.’ So I make for the doors and ride the elevator up the shaft. It is like nothing else coming out of the mines. It’s resurrection. It’s like bein’ born. It’s like layin’ with your girl in a big rolling field and counting the soft yellow glitters of fireflies against that blue-gray sky.
I put my lunch pail up on the table and don’t even get to take one bite.
All of a sudden, the mine shouts and grumbles angrily and smoke explodes through the metal mesh at the top of the elevator. It’s loud like you are throwing a firecracker and it went off too soon by your ear. My hearing’s all distorted. I make out that the back lefts’ collapsed.
Then I think of how I gotta be the one. The one to tell some honey-eyed baby doll that dinner ain’t gunna be the same for a while. And what knocking on that big oak door is gunna feel like. And how the words are gunna sound when I look Lange’s pop in the face and say, ‘your boy’s moving out after all, just like he said.’