It is with sadness that I read today of the death of numerous coal miners across the border in West Virginia. They died in an explosion during a shift change, which increased the casualities.
Such tragedy hits close to home in many ways. For one, I live fairly close to the state in southwest Virginia. More significantly, my grandfather was a coal miner.
I recall mygrandfather’s job in coal in vague terms. It was on the periphery of his role as my mother’s Dad and my grandmother’s husband. Still, there are a few memories.
The recollection that sticks closest in my mind is an image of my grandfather coming home decked out in work clothes and a helmet, covered in coal dust. He was a white guy in blackface, a la Al Jolson. I have a picture in my mind of his smiling face peering out from under all that coal dust.
I know my grandfather got up early, something like 4:30 in the morning, to go to work. I slept on the living room couch during our visits there, so when my grandparents arose during the wee hours I heard the rustling and saw their misty figures moving around. My grandmother got up to fix him breakfast at that hour.
It was during visits to West Virginia that I learned of terms as “black lung” and “United Mine Workers”. Trains laden with coal were a regular sight, as were mountains laid bare by strip mining. Coal was the symbol and economic livelehood of the people of the state.
I thought in today’s green environment that coal was either on its way out or had already made its exit as a main power source. Surprisingly, it is still the main source of electricity in the United States.
However, industrial notes aside, the accident in Montcoal, West Virginia is personal. A look at the town on the map also brings up Madison and Danville, the two towns closest to my grandparents’ home in a little settlement called Sea Coal. I traveled through that area numerous times as a child.
Mainly though, it is personal because coal mining was part of my grandfather’s identity. I have fond memories of him and the people around him over there in West Virginia. Today, I feel for those over there affected by this calamity.