In high school, I liked to read. Anything I could get my hands on became a center of my sole interest. It’s not really important that anyone know that I like to read. It’s much less important that a lot of things. Like, for instance, I’m a coal miner. For another example, I have an adopted daughter named, Elissa. There are so many things in life more important that my reading habits. What I’m getting to is this: When I was younger, life was about growing and learning. I was supposed to go to college and leave the countryside. For some reason, people have this maxim that being a coalminer is a bad thing. The general opinions of coalminers are split into three sectors: it’s either a way of life and absolutely vital, it’s filthy and not good things at all and then there are the coalminers, themselves. I fall under the last quartile.
At first, coalmining was a summer thing I did for some quick cash. My uncle, Ray, had been doing it for years and extended the invitation to me. This was the summer after high school; this was the first summer of adulthood. Rain or shine, everyday that summer I trod up the road to the mine. On better days, I’d walk with a smile on face. I appreciated that job and the cash, but sometimes the slightest tinge of warm West Virginia air made me love my job even more. On the rainy days, I would hum along in an old blue pickup. Sometimes I would sing with the radio and sometimes I would crack my window to let the rain slip in. It wasn’t until mid-summer that my attitude changed.
On a hot and muggy Thursday, I had wondered into the local grocery store to pick up a few things for my mother. I had just finished my shift at the mine and looked like I had bathed in soot. It never occurred to me to be ashamed of my appearance, but I did notice all the glances I got from those around me. My overalls were laced with coal dust and my hands were almost completely shaded to match a raven’s feathers. As a pushed my cart through the dairy aisle, I noticed an older man standing in front of the milk, “How old are you, son? That coal dust covers age, you know. You could be my age and I wouldn’t be able to deal for all the lack of color.”
“I’m nineteen, sir,” I replied as though I were being punished. I didn’t know how to react to that question. I especially didn’t know that people paid attention to working men like me. And yet, here was this man doing just that…paying attention to me.
“I thank you, son. You keep the lights on. You keep the radio humming and my air conditioner flowing.”
He patted me on the back and seemed to have to regard for the fact that, he too, would now have dirty hands. When I walked to work the next day, I began to think about that old man. I had never met someone who was truly thankful for their power. By power, I of course mean electricity. I had met and listened to plenty of those folks who thought coal was bad. Remember the quartiles? Well until that day, I had only met two of the three. Now I started to think...