Sunday, June 7, 2009


I grew up in a Kentucky coal mining community. Most people picture mountainous hollers of Appalachia, but my hometown was a world away, way out west in the Ohio River valley. There the land is largely rolling and transitioning to the plains. The people are not Hollywood's Hillbillies. They are crossroads people, crossbred people. I am part quiet southerner, part strong mid-westnerner, part rural northerner, and (probably) part Native American. Trace far enough back, and my people were the literal "brother against brother" in the Civil War mythos.

My family and my friends' families crawled into a cave at the break of dawn. They crawled back out again (hopefully) at dusk, their clothes as covered in black coal dust as their lungs. My classmates probably remember one particular morning in high school. The announcement said that a number of men had been killed in a mining accident. That explained some of the absent kids.

When I was young, though not a child, probably a pre-teen or teenager, my uncle and I went by his mines to pick up something he left at work. It was closed for the day. Before leaving he took me to the mouth of the cave to see inside. I'm a curious sort. I've always liked seeing new things. I've never been remotely claustrophobic, but I do hate heights. Standing on a bridge or roof, my palms drip and my knees quiver. I muster willpower and logic to prevent panic. I really hate heights. Confined, tight places have only one time caused any anxiety. Though the mouth of the tunnel was huge and I was barely ten feet inside, dread and terror seized me. My eyes and breathing must have alerted my uncle.

We turned back. Ten feet, that was the furthest I've ever been into a coal mine.

I won't pretend to understand any of what miners experience. Thankfully, I have no frame of reference. At work the closest thing I come to a coal mine is an air-conditioned edit bay. It's dimly lit; the shades remain drawn. But there's no fear of cave-in. The keyboard won't yank off a finger. The hard drives, spinning 5000 times per second, have no chance of chopping me in two. The air is fresh. Water in the refrigerator is filtered. The cleaner wipes away the traces of dust every Wednesday evening.

Like most of my friends, following footsteps into that dark career was never to be an option. Our families sacrificed themselves, sometimes quite literally, so that we would never have to. I do not recall it being a lesson explicitly taught, but I know that it was one well learned. Songwriter Pat Haney said it with more poetry than I could: "When I draw my dying breath, it won't be over no coal."


Troy Camplin said...

Beautiful thoughts. Our father, of course, lost his arm in the mines, trying to make sure we wouldn't have to be in one ourselves. I did get a tour of a mine, once, though. Very interesting. It's all white inside from the rock dust they use to keep down the coal dust to prevent an explosion. It was only black on the face, where they were actively mining the coal. Very unexpected, in a way.

TonyN said...

I had no idea there was a layer of white dust down inside. I've never heard that and, obviously, I didn't make it down that far!

Naturally, your father was one of the people on my mind when I typing my thoughts. Of course, that accident happened long before I met you guys–and it's not my story to tell–so I didn't feel I should directly include that. However, I'm sure that your parents were huge influences on our circle of friends. I really appreciate everything they did for us growing up. (Okay, so now I'm thinking about pizza and dirt cake; I probably should stop typin' since that's not smart eatin' at 9am…)

Todd Camplin said...

The closest to a mine I have gotten to was the Chicago Musuem of Science and Industry coal mine recreation. Dad was snikering through most of it and telling the tour guild a few tid bits along the way. Dad did, however, let me tour the steel mill he use to work for in Indiana. Seeing hot steel pour out of a gaint bucket was amazing.

Troy Camplin said...

Yeah, I never knew that until I went in, and I haven't heard anybody talk about that, so I don't know who, other than coal miners, even know.

Feel free to use any story that conveys the truth of what you write.