Our tour guide was a fifth-generation miner. He had mined coal underground for more than ten years of his life. His father and grandfather both died of black lung. I took the picture shown here when we were a quarter mile into a mountain, the top of which was many hundreds of feet above our heads. Drops of water kept dripping on us. The ground was wet and the air was damp and cold. Outside the mine, it was a sunny 97 degrees. In the mine it was about 50.
Hated enemy soldiers conquered by Rome were often sent to the mines as slaves. Few slaves had it worse. A slave miner’s lifespan was less than a year and a half. Early American miners’ lives were not much better. Mine owners valued their donkeys more than their men. Donkeys were expensive. If a miner died, there always was a new unsuspecting immigrant asking for a job as a miner. My wife’s great grandfather was one.
The mining company owned the towns that miners lived in. Salaries were in company scrip. The scrip could be used as cash in the mining town. Everywhere else it was worthless, so miners could not save money and move away. If a miner’s tools wore out or anything broke near him, his salary was docked. If that happened enough, he would become, increasingly, in debt to the company. Deaths in mines happened often. Dead bodies were left untouched until the end of the day. Because houses were owned by the mining company, if a miner died his wife had three days to move out of her home, unless she could replace her husband with another miner, perhaps a son. Boys as young as nine were tasked with removing dirt from coal. A taskmaster stood behind them with a whip if they did not remove enough dirt. If the boys complained at home for being whipped, their parents beat them again for making waves that could cost their fathers their jobs. The gasses in the mine could kill or explode. If the canary in the coal mine died, a miner knew he would be next unless he ran as fast as he could. Nearly all surviving miners died young of lung disease; black lung was just one of several.
Even today, miners' lives are not much better. The workday starts at five a.m. and ends at seven p.m. The first thing a miner does after taking a railway car into the mine is eat the lunch he brought with him. There is no time, place, or cleanliness for food later in the day. Our tour guide has vision problems and is unable to drive at night. Ten years in very minimal light, seeing sunlight only on Sundays causes incurable eye disease. Mining still is physically very dangerous. Our tour guide broke his back in a mining accident. He looks old, but he's actually rather young.
Much of coal mining today is done by mountaintop removal. This requires fewer men and more machines. The toll on the environment, especially for people living nearby, is enormous. But there still are many coal mines with men digging coal in the way our tour guide did. We asked him if he would go back if he was healthy enough and he said he would. Why? He said it was not because of the money. Even today mining does not pay especially well. He would go back because of the camaraderie. I told him the story of an old mentor I had when I was young. He was a Viet Nam veteran who was injured four times in that war. He went back three times; the fourth time they would not take him back because his injuries were too severe. I asked him why he kept returning, despite the injuries? He said it was because his fellow soldiers would gladly die for him and he would gladly die for them. It was the camaraderie. Our coal miner tour guide said the feeling in the coal mines was the same. Because of the dangers, the odds of dying were always there. But the people working with him would gladly die for him and he would gladly die for them. It was the camaraderie.
To me it is the camaraderie of being cannon fodder among friends. Soldiers who survived a war say it was the best time of their lives. There was excitement and there was fear. One’s personal capabilities were always being tested. Reflexes, peripheral vision, strength, and speed helped keep one alive. And there was always the camaraderie of living through Hell together. Building infrastructure for solar, wind, geothermal, or other sustainable power provides more jobs than coal mining. It might save millions of people from dying of climate change. But there is less camaraderie of being cannon fodder. Isn’t that a wonderful reason for continuing to mine coal and destroy life on Earth?
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