I’m three thousand feet underground. A fact that I am made seriously aware of every time that I look up. I can see a moment of sky, just a hint of blue as I shovel coal out of the bottom of a mine shaft. For the seventh straight day, the belt feeding the skips, a series of counterweighted vertical dump trunks, each holding 100 tons has broken. Whenever the belt breaks, 1,000 tons per minute spill into the bottom of the mine, known as the sump. There is no way to get the coal out except to shovel it. Man power. There are very few men in this world who are willing to go to the bottom of a 3,000 foot deep shaft, descend down a series of rickety, rusted cobbled-up stairs bolted to the side of a hole that has been sunk into a layer of bedrock that is millions of years old and barely holding up under the sheer weight of its own self. I was one of those men. Not that long ago, I was willing to descend into the depths of our country to mine coal to feed the power plants that fuel our dependence on our fossil fuels.
This day, it is worse than ever. Coal is cascading down from the broken belts, and everyone else has been sent home. I shovel relentlessly, with the stab of blue from nearly a half mile overhead occasionally enlightening my work. The sting of a corrupt corporation, that would risk a man’s life in the light of such a narrow window of hope, ranks within my humid breath. I wonder what has happened in my life to direct me to where I am? Then I remember: I am my Father’s son. My Dad risked his every moment, as did his Father before him, to tear sustenance from the depths of the earth, a place where not many care to venture. Not many realize the penance that so many pay so that the rest of us can have what most of us take for granted: The flip of a switch – the twist of a hot water faucet.
Me? I know. My Dad slid down thousands of feet in an open faced bucket to place mining equipment in a hell of a hole, dodging the rain of debris as a drunken crane operator placed tons of steel equipment for him to assemble. I followed in his footsteps, dragging pumps under water as an intern in geology – much to the amusement of my fellow students. I would work Thursday nights, Friday evenings, double on Saturday, work early shift on Sundays, then return to Virginia Tech for class on Monday. I’m still remembered by some of my professors from all those years ago for my raccoon eyes and wandering attention, but I am remembered.
But not remembered as my grandfather should be: A United Mine Workers Association member and activist, a fighter for workers rights in a stinking mess of political maneuvering. He, and my Dad, fought for the workers ability to earn a fair wage and support their families. This is something that is lost today, in our descent into outsourcing and all that is wrong with our country. With this, I am done. For today. Hopefully, I’ll be in a better mood tomorrow.