Volume 21, Number 2

The Colliery

Robert David Stetten

Editor’s Note: As they say, sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes, life imitates art. Tragically, the latter is the case with the following piece of fiction, which was written long before the Massey mine explosion, which killed 29 miners on April 5 of this year, the worst mining disaster since 1970. What’s particularly eerie about this story is the fact that it takes place roughly 140 years ago, yet the cause of the explosion is remarkable similar to the Massey tragedy. Apparently, very little has changed in terms of mining safety. Mining companies continue to flout government regulations in order to maximize profits. The Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is charged with enforcing federal mining safety regulations. All throughout the Bush Administration, MSHA was run by mining industry insiders. Current MSHA Director Joe Main has a long, distinguished record of mine safety work, but his hands are tied by current federal law. Last year, Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine was issued $900,000 in fines for safety violations, but the way the law is currently written, those fines cannot be collected until all appeals have been exhausted. Massey has contested 80 percent of those fines, thus stonewalling MSHA’s enforcement process.

The publication of this story is dedicated to the 29 miners who lost their lives this spring at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Four hundred and seventy feet underground and Thomas Hasting was very happy. No one he knew would possibly say such a thing and mean it, but he could. To others it was a very nasty and dangerous place. Probably one of the nastiest and most dangerous places on this god’s earth which they could imagine. But it was here that he felt the happiest and the safest. And Mother was right … this time. Eight years after Mister Lincoln’s War, and the colliery still booming.

He loved the dark. He loved the beams of light crisscrossing and catching the sparkling coal dust. He loved the gentle air currents in the gangways, chambers, and manways of the mine. He loved the faint whiffs of sulfur and of rotting or fresh-cut timber supports. He loved the cold dampness. He loved the muffled thudding of powder charges and the ring of picks, shovels, hand-drills. He loved the braying mules, the squeaking mine cars on their snaking iron rails.

Most of all, of course, he loved his boys and men. To him, they were family. Maybe even more so than those he was related to. Definitely more than some of those he was related to.

He could listen to their talking—well, usually shouting—for hours on end. The barked orders with their highly inventive curses. The replies, in broken English or in some Slavic tongue. Of course he could usually only pick out a few choice words of that, but it was enough so that he was able to imagine the rest.

God, but he loved these people. Below ground, the miners and their laborers, the carpenters, mule-drivers, doorboys and all of the other moles. Above ground, the boys who worked in the huge breaker, the men who shoveled coal into the giant steam boilers which kept all of the machinery going, the hoist operators and on and on. The colliery was a beehive. And he, the Master Beekeeper.

He caught himself, swallowed hard, shook his head sadly. Master Beekeeper indeed. Who in hell’s name was he fooling? Everyone in the mine knew better. He knew better. And he felt his face get red. Well, no more. But how many times had he said that to himself?

Thomas watched a boy whose face was so blackened with coal dust the whites of his eyes glistened. The lad bit off a big chunk of chewing tobacco. He patted his mule’s wide flank, adjusted its harness, then offered the beast what was left of the wad of tobacco. The animal greedily seized it in his teeth. Thomas chuckled to himself. Forget boys and their dogs. Down here, in the real world, it’s boys and their mules.

It was near the end of the long, long shift, and the boy must be completely exhausted. Who wouldn’t be after twelve hours of this? Yet the lad put on a grand show of being jaunty. After all, he was a cock o’ the walk, a mule-driver, the most prized job for someone his age.

The wooden mine car was loaded with large jagged pieces of coal mixed with slate and rock. You’d think a sensible mule would certainly balk at pulling such a heavy load. But no. The lad nonchalantly hopped back onto the car’s crude seat, cracked his whip for effect and damned if the critter didn’t do his job. Unbelievable. Thomas watched them clatter down the tracks in the gloomy tunnel.

Thomas was proud that he could handle himself as well as any of his people in the clumsy high rubber boots. He carefully stepped over rubble, around puddles of water, across the mine car rails to the other side of the gangway tunnel.

He sniffed the air. There was always the slight hint of methane down here, along with all of the other familiar smells, of course. But now it seemed a little too strong. Must be his silly imagination. After all, the inside foreman always tested for that gas before the start of a shift. And he knew Feininger was a very cautious fellow. Still.

Shrugging his shoulders, he peered into one of the chambers now being worked. The lanky First-class miner seemed to be in his early thirties, about the same age as himself. Hard to tell, with all the grime coating the man.

The fellow finished boring in the rock face with his hand-drill, then used a tamping iron to shove in a charge of black powder. His Slavic laborer, a very solidly built older man, sat on a pile of rubble, glaring at the miner’s back.

Setting and lighting a fuse, the miner yelled, “Fire in the hole.” He ran like hell back from the facing. Well, at least as fast as he could without tripping over the litter.

The muffled thud of the charge. Luckily. Once in a while, a charge didn’t go off. Of course, it was the laborer’s job to check things out if that happened. And then the charge might decide to let loose just to be ornery. God help the helper if it did. But this time the man scurried to break up the larger pieces of freshly blasted wall with his pickaxe. Jesus. Thomas could watch his men at work all day.

Suddenly Rick hurried out of one of the chambers and bustled toward him. Rick always bustled. Thomas could see why the workers called his mine superintendent simply “The Bear.” Behind Rick’s back, of course. But by golly they were right. He was a bear. Barrel-shaped, but with solid muscle. In middle-age quite a bit stronger, Thomas bet, than anyone else in the entire colliery. And a way of putting fear in you that was outright uncanny, that raised the hairs on your arms. Why, even the most high-falutin' miners just wilted when he glared at them. And if The Bear actually growled, people jumped. Right then and there.

The Bear put his paw on Thomas’s shoulder. “Jesus, Mister Hasting. You spook my damn workers, sneaking around down here. You’re damn well going to be the death of me yet. And your poor mother, Mistress Hasting. Why can’t you just stay in your snug little office near the breaker like she wants you to?”

“They’re my workers too, Rick.” Thomas heard himself almost whine. Why did he act that way around this fellow?

Thomas was sure The Bear actually snorted. “Yeah, yeah. But it’s damn-fool dangerous, when you don’t need to be underground like us. You worry Mistress Hasting sick. Know that?”

Thomas made believe he didn’t hear this. He looked down the tunnel. The young mule- driver had reached a rotting ventilator door. Just a few more paces and his mule would ram the thing. The boy shouted, “Coming through!” Damned if the door didn’t swing open on its rusted hinges, like magic. Of course, the magic was really an even smaller lad, the doorboy.

“I wish they wouldn’t cut it so close like that, Rick. Someone’s going to get himself crushed sooner or later. It’s no game. No game at all.”

The Bear grumbled. “Worse yet, the mule’ll get killed. And one of them’s worth at least seven grown-up workers.”

The man must be joking. Or was he?

Thomas sniffed at the air, over and over. “You notice the gas smells pretty strong here? I do. What did Feininger say?”

Rick snorted. “That asshole pees in his pants all the time. If I just didn’t plain ignore half of what that scaredy-cat crabs about, we’d never get a damn thing done.”

“He’s a good man, Rick. Someone I can really trust.”

With a shrug, The Bear turned and loped away. Thomas smiled as he listened to the man fuming and muttering to no one. Some distance down the gangway, Rick stopped a carpenter and let loose his anger on that poor fellow, yelling as he stabbed his finger up at the roof cross supports.

Thomas shuffled along in his boots toward the next chamber. He hummed a mine ditty to himself. How he loved to tweak Rick’s nose every chance he got. At least he could do that.

The odor hit him strongly. Damn. No question about it. There was methane build-up. He’ll talk to Feininger when he hits the man’s shed in Section B. Can’t take chances. Another thing. Did Rick ever get that bearing on the ventilator fan replaced like he said he would? God Almighty.

He was certain that almost every worker noticed the strong odor as well. But who could dare utter a word? It would be the last day down here for any poor soul so foolish. And given fear of The Bear, for all one knew, it might even be the worker’s last day on earth. Or, in any case, a blackball passed around to all coal companies in the entire region, which kept him, locked out forever. Hah. Martyrs are for churches, not mines, it seems.

Thomas reached the chamber. He stared in at a miner, way back in the breast at the coal face. The man inched upwards, rung by rung, on a makeshift, swaying ladder. How could he climb while still holding onto that long, heavy hand-drill?

The miner’s helper, boots crunching in the loose rubble, was next to the ladder. He was ready to take the hand-drill when its work was done, and then pass up the tamping iron. The miner was at the seam. It pitched so high in this wall facing that the man’s helmet, with its carbide lamp glowing, almost touched the ceiling. Thomas became very worried. The smell of methane was very, very strong here. He didn’t like this at all. That stuff always hung at ceiling level. Dammit to hell.

The explosion bowled him over. He was now on his back at the chamber’s entrance, looking up at the flames racing along the roof line toward the gangway.

He was dazed for a moment. When he finally lifted his head, he couldn’t even tell what became of the two men in the chamber. Where they had been was now crackling fire and a thick, choking cloud of smoke. But he could pretty well guess what happened to them.

He watched the sheets of flame roar like a whirlwind down the roof of the gangway, setting fire to timber supports, coal, whatever else was in its path. Goddamn firedamp.

All along the gangway, boys and men flung away their tools. They fell to their knees, then sprawled flat. Thomas did the same, nuzzling his face into the damp grit. Must try to keep your eyes, nose, and mouth from being scorched. If only the burning gas would stay at roof level. Like all of the others, he prayed for that.

After the blaze passed them by, workers jumped to their feet and began running like wild men. A few shouted the warnings, “Afterdamp! Whitedamp!” Good god! Those gases better not be around. They’d get you before you knew what was happening!

Most of the workers headed in the direction of the elevator shaft. Fine. As long as the flames didn’t reach there. Otherwise you’d get a chimney for the fire to leap up. Well, the nearest safety access hole was way too far in another direction, so there really wasn’t much choice. Thomas ran after the others. Jesus, but wasn’t mining jolly?

The mule-driver Thomas had watched earlier streaked past him, running for all he was worth. Suddenly the boy tripped over a mine car track. He tried so hard to catch himself, windmilling with his arms. No use. He fell, hitting his forehead against one of the iron rails.

Thomas heard the dull, sickening thud, even over all of the noise around him. He rushed over and lifted the stunned lad to his feet.

Luckily the boy was able to stagger down the tunnel, as long as he leaned heavily on Thomas’s shoulder. Luckily, because Thomas knew he couldn’t possibly carry him. Now certainly The Bear could have done so. But of course even as he was stooping over the boy, Thomas saw Rick already at the far end of the tunnel, shoving and jabbing his way past many of the terrified workers. Good old reliable Rick!

So Thomas shuffled slowly down the gangway, his arms firmly around the mule-driver’s waist. The boy’s legs kept buckling, and it was hard, hard going. There was an eerie silence in this section now, as the others were long gone. Thomas heard only a faint echo of voices, coming from the area around the elevator shaft. He could imagine the large mob of frightened workers, waiting to be taken in batches up to the surface. Up to safety.

The mule-driver groaned in pain, even though he bit hard into his lower lip all the while. Oh yes, the lad had to prove he’s not a child; no, he’s a man. And men don’t cry, don’t scream. The boy’s forehead dripped blood. Little bright drops splattered along the floor of the tunnel. The drops quickly left only darkened little blobs when they hit coal dust, but they made a clear trail as they dried on the slate and rock litter.

The heavy smoke made Thomas gasp for breath. His eyes stung. He smelled sulfur and burning wood. Jesus.

The lad looked up at Thomas. His eyes glistened now with tears he had tried so hard to hold back. “I let Mama down. I promised I’d take care of Jimmy. I promised!”

The words echoed in the empty gangway. Thomas was puzzled. “Jimmy?”

“My brother. The youngest. So proud he left the breaker. So proud he’s a doorboy down here. With us men. He loves to sing in the dark, waiting for the mine cars to come to his door. Feels so important. Showed me a pet rat he calls Sam. Gives him bread from his lunchpail and everything.”

Thomas glanced at the boy’s forehead. The bleeding seemed to be slowing down, thank goodness.

“Mama won’t forgive me if Jimmy isn’t all right. I won’t forgive me.” He blubbered. “Do you think he’s all right, Mister Hasting?”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Just fine.” Thomas tried to smile. Yes, try was the best he could do. He suddenly felt so weak, his mouth so dry. His heart pounded. A familiar nasty acid taste worked its way up his throat. He trembled.

Things can’t keep going this way. They just can’t, dammit! Thomas tried to breath as little as possible. The strong smell of sweat was almost dizzying. He wished he could move slightly or at least turn his aching shoulders. But that was impossible. All of the stragglers were wedged together. He didn’t think this many workers could pile into the elevator cage. My god!

At least the jammed bodies kept the mule-driver propped up on his feet, safely against Thomas’s side. Otherwise, Thomas feared, the boy would simply collapse in a heap on the floor of the cage.

Everyone seemed so quiet. Just an occasional cough. Thomas thought they’d be chattering with each other, even laughing, so relieved at still being alive. But no. The creaking, shuttering and groaning of the elevator cage was about all that he heard.

Most of the workers still wore their helmets, and the dim light from their carbide lamps reflected off faces, which were grim. Thomas tried to avoid their stares by looking out of the open sides of the cage. In the inky blackness, he could just barely see the walls of the shaft flash by in the weak beams of those lamps.

Finally there was faint light seeping down from the top of the shaft. The walls became somewhat more visible. Thomas could see fuzzy moss clinging to the damp rock.

He now heard the wailing of the warning steam whistle, attached to one of the outbuildings of the colliery. At first so, so faint. As the cage neared the surface, the noise became a shriek. Thomas wished he could put his hands over his ears, but he still was wedged too tightly among all of the others to even raise his arms.

As soon as the cage reached the surface and became level with the worn wooden platform, the men and boys spilled out.

Women, many carrying babies, most surrounded by young children, hovered nearby. And of course they separated themselves into two clusters. Rank was everything, even with disaster. Wives of the first class miners and other highly skilled workers on one side, those of the laborers and helpers on the other.

All of the women, as far as Thomas could tell, appeared bone-weary, haggard, old for their ages. They all cried and screamed with joy as they spotted their men and boys and dashed forward to meet them.

Thomas, with the mule-driver still leaning against him, stepped carefully out of the cage. He glanced up at the hoisting room, perched on long stilts above the platform. There the hoisting operator ran the huge drum which uncoiled the steel cable to lower the cage, then coiled it back to bring the cage up again. Thomas waved at the man for a job well done. The fellow smiled and nodded in return.

The Black Maria parted the small crowd as it worked its way to the platform. The name fit well, Thomas thought. The large wooden wagon was painted in black, with black shades on the side windows. It was drawn by two mangy horses. One day an ambulance, maybe the next a hearse.

The young driver, who also doubled as attendant, jumped lightly down from the front seat. He combed a finger through his thin mustache as he glanced at the boy’s forehead, then turned to Thomas. “The infirmary, of course,” the young man pronounced with grave authority.

Thomas imagined the small, dingy room in one of the colliery’s outbuildings. Its tiny assortment of salves, dusty bottles of old tincture and alcohol, dulled needles and yellowed suture thread. He shook his head. How many times did he fight with Mother about that sorry place and how many times did he lose the fight? He looked at the trembling, groaning boy. “No, no. The Miners’ Hospital in Rockdale.”

The driver-attendant glanced again at the injury. “In my opinion, the infirmary’s good enough for this … sir.”

Thomas yelled, “The hospital, dammit! Do as you’re told for once!” He rarely raised his voice, and it shocked him as much as the driver-attendant.

So Thomas then smiled. See, just a misunderstanding. Don’t get upset or angry with me about it. The young man twitched his mustache, but reached to help Thomas with his burden anyway. Fine. Together they held the lad upright and really half-carried, half-dragged him into the wagon.

The driver jumped into the front seat and flicked his whip. Not much happened though. The two tired, worn-out horses strained at their load, barely able to pull the Black Maria as they plodded along the rutted path to the rusted colliery gate.

Thomas wondered if he should have used his own buggy to take the boy to the hospital. Much, much faster. But no. The injured lad had to be lying down. Damn. This is ridiculous though. Completely ridiculous.

He looked all about the grounds. Rick must be around somewhere. There. By the airshaft, alongside of the outside foreman. Groggins. Both staring up at the ventilator fan.

God, this Groggins fellow was old. No, more than old. Ancient actually. He must’ve been here ever since Father created the Devil’s Den in the first place. From nothing.

The fan looked for all the world like a side-paddle wheel from a large Mississippi riverboat. Its thick shaft squealed and groaned as it rotated slowly in its cradle.

Dammit, a ventilator fan in good working order was a must for a mine like the Devil’s Den. Rick knew this, Groggins knew this, Feininger knew this, hell, every worker in the colliery knew this. My god, look what just happened! All kinds of gases build up down there. And coal dust. By the ton!

Striding up to where Rick and Groggins were chatting, Thomas pointed to the slowly revolving fan.

Groggins nodded, as if to say, “Yes, that’s the problem all right.” The Bear glared at his traitor. Groggins pointed a bony finger up at the fan as he spoke in his phlegm-choked voice. “Wish we would’ve changed that bad bearing a couple of weeks ago, Mister Hasting. I remember telling you about it. The left one. Don’t you hear it squealing?”

Thomas glared at The Bear. The man dared to stare back with a look of complete innocence. “Rick, you said you’d take care of it right away.”

“Your mother thought we better wait til the money from the J and R steamship line comes in. I only do what I’m told, so don’t go off half-cocked blaming me … sir.” Rick smiled with that mock patience you use with a little boy who doesn’t understand what’s really going on.

Thomas imagined putting his hands around the man’s throat and choking until Rick’s face turned blue. But The Bear would’ve just picked Thomas up like a ten-pound bag of sugar and thrown him halfway across the colliery yard. Besides, Thomas knew it wasn’t in him to act like that. Father, yes; not him.

He stared down to where a very thick layer of coal dust had accumulated on the ground near the ventilator fan base. My, how it glittered in the sun, sparkling in its many, many colors. Fascinating. Another reason coal could be called black diamond, on top of its worth. But why was he thinking about this now, of all times?

Thomas walked away from the two men. Turning his head, he saw Rick glaring at Groggins. The older man just melted away. For a moment Thomas felt a little better. Everyone else is also afraid of The Bear.

Then he stopped himself. Hardly a good excuse. Dammit, he was Rick’s boss. At least he was supposed to be.

Now that Father’s gone, it’s true enough that Mother owns the Devil’s Den in all of its glory. Let her play Queen Bee all she wants around the mine patch and even in town. But, hell, he was promised to be in charge. He was promised.

He’ll have to talk to her again about this in the very strongest terms just as soon as he walks into the parlor of her large Victorian house. The house Father had workmen build on the very edge of the patch, as far away from the monstrous, impossibly noisy, earth-shaking coal breaker as possible. Yes, the very house where Thomas himself still lives. Just what is the matter with him, doing that? Well, that will have to change too.

He could see himself in that parlor. He’ll talk and talk and talk and Mother will just poke at the canary in its cage and make believe she doesn’t hear a word of what he’s saying. My god. Does she really think he’s another pet canary of hers, only in a somewhat larger cage? Dammit, she does. He’s sure of it. Well, he’ll just have to show her he’s not. No, he’s not, he’s not, he’s not.