Me and Mines

I’ve got mines and miners on the brain this week.  There are three reasons for having caverns in my mind.

First, the media has of course been focused on 33 miners in Chile who were trapped for two months underground.  No one has ever been trapped that long below the surface and survived. The world, and especially the Chileans, are celebrating today because all of the men have been rescued.

Second, my reading and writing class has been reading October Sky. This is the autobiography of Homer Hickam, who grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia.

Hickam built rockets in the 50s as a high school kid and won  first prize in the National Science Fair.  The setting of his endeavors is the mine country in the hills of West Virginia. His daddy was the mine boss and the culture of the mining town of Coalwood figures prominently in the book.

Finally, I have coal dust on the brain because I took my class on a  field trip to an exhibition mine in Beckley, West Virginia yesterday. We went underground on a minetrip (a motorized vehicle like a small, open train) and had a tour guide tell us about mine life in his local dialect, pronouncing words like “fire” and “there” as “f”r” and “th’r”.

Some West Virginians drop the vowel when they pronounce words with a final “r”. My international students had a hard time figuring out what the heck he was saying, but it was a good experience for them.

 The mine trip made me think of my grandfather. He was a coal miner for most of his adult life.

I remember seeing him come home from work on visits to his home in Boone County, West Virginia. He was covered in coal dust, this white man looking like Al Jolson in blackface. My memories are of his smiling face peering out from the darkness on his demeanor.

What really made me think of my grandfather, however, was a statuette of a praying miner sold in the gift shop. The miner is carved from coal, and is on his knees, with his hands in the prayer formation.

My grandfather as I recall him was a godly man. He was the song leader at his church. His faith was important to him.

The figure was kind of pricey, so I didn’t buy it. Maybe one day I will, though. It will be a good reminder to my me and my kids of the role the mines played in the lives of one of our ancestors.

A miner on his knees seems like a good symbol of what those guys do.  A hundred years ago, these men spent 12 hours a day on their knees or on their sides with a pick, digging at the coal. They got paid 20 cents a ton. No wonder those guys needed a union!

Looking around that dank mine with its low ceiling and little light, I gained a lot of respect for what my grandfather did for a living.


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