What makes us who we are as adults? What is it, that defining moment that shapes who and what we will become? Was there a moment in Hitler’s life, albeit small and remote, that shaped his essence into becoming the monster that he became? I don’t believe that there is a moment. I believe that there are a multitude of moments, placed together in a sequence that we don’t understand, that shapes us into what and who, we are, as adults. Then there are a multitude of moments and decisions after we become adults, as defined as those of us over eighteen, which shape us towards the other sixty or so years of our lives.
One of mine was shortly after my eighteenth birthday. I had been enrolled in a private school shortly after my graduation from high school at the age of sixteen. I lasted exactly seven hours after my parents left before I fled to other pastures, namely those that were occupied by my girlfriend at the time. I was expelled from that worthless institution with a GPA of zero. This was a fact that haunted me for years, and ultimately culminated in my not being granted a seat in the military academy. I was psychologically evaluated and the report was, “Mr. Matney, when under duress, will not obey commands from his higher officers, but will instead do what he thinks is necessary.” Huh. I could have told them that without two days of standardized tests and fill in the blank bubble sheets.
My moment was when I donned a mining hat, given to me by a man I simply knew as Grizzard. He was a great mentor, and shielded me from the hazing that was common in coal mining. Without my mother’s knowledge, I accepted a job in a punch mouth coal mine in deep southwestern Virginia, near the Kentucky border. The mine height was 42 inches. The hat was referred to as a low vein hat, common with workers who toiled in the relatively shallow mines that expelled into the side of a mountain, – hence the term, punch mouth mine. I had three choices when Grizzard gave me my hat. Leave it black. Paint it red, to signify that I was an apprentice, or what is called a “Mater Head” (Tomato head – in reference to the color), or, in an ultimate act of defiance, I could paint it white. White hats were what all of the company men wore. Bosses, Vice Presidents, visiting engineers, surveyors…they all wore white.
I was not one of those men. I had been thrown out of college and was toiling to bring my GPA back up enough to get into Virginia Tech at a local community college while I was working. I left my hat black.
I was accepted into Virginia Tech in 1994. I had no money, no place to live and I was terrified. My uncle fronted me the cost of my first year of tuition. I don’t think I would have gone otherwise. I had tried for years to get a job with a large coal operation in a longwall position, but I had no inside positions, no connections, no way to get in. So, one day, at Virginia Tech, I discovered that Consol, the company with which I had tried so hard to get a job with, was on campus interviewing for interns. I sprinted to the mining department.
Since I was a geology major, I was not accepted into the interview process. I begged. I explained my mining experience – all to no avail. A simple minded big haired stupid sexist administrative assistant smugly reminded me that I was not qualified to be interviewed as I was not an engineering major. I reminded her – I am a coal miner. The son of a coal miner. A grandson of a coal miner. A great-grandson of a coal miner. We have been miners since the dawn of time. She smiled the smile of the opportunist for oppression, with lipstick on her teeth, and reminded me that I was not an engineering major, and therefore, could not be considered for an internship. I withdrew.
But I did not quit. In my best, and only, suit, I waited. Just outside the doors to the mining engineering department. Just down the hall from the only bathroom on the floor. All day.
Around three p.m., a man exited the double door to the room that housed the troll with the lipstick on her teeth, patted his tie, adjusted his belt, and fled to the men’s room. Without a thought in my brain, I followed.
He was at the urinal when I spoke. I’ve never been known for timely deliveries. I proposed to my wife outside a construction site after a carefully planned proposal was disrupted due to my nerves and outright stubbornness. – Are you with Consol? He glared at me, probably disturbed by my intrusion into his space. He zipped. Washed his hands, and stared at me in the mirror. “Yes. I am.” We both waited, poker faced. He dried his hands, still watching me carefully. I was anguished over my suit. I stepped forward. “My name is Ron, I am a coal miner, and I would like to work for you.”
So it was like that I came to work for a major energy conglomerate 2,000 feet underground. I was hired that day, in the bathroom, without an interview. Maybe that was my interview. All I know is that, the evening after, in the light of a new moon as the cicadas sang and the peach blossoms floated off my mother’s trees – I painted my hat white. That was the moment that changed my life. Forever.