Three years ago, I sat at my desk, at a job that I hated. Sure, it was a state job, with decent benefits and a 401k, but I. Was. Miserable.
There, I said it. I despised my new boss, my changed responsibility, and definitely the rules of the food stamp program that I had to abide by. My husband was working a sixty hour week, we had any and everything our little hearts desired… nice vehicles, vacations, name brand toilet paper, and we hadn’t cashed in our change jar in years.
It took the death of my father to wake my ass up. Life is soooo very short. Our kids are both in school, our family members are aging, and here we are spending all of our time chasing a buck for two free weeks a year.
That’s not what led me to write today….sorry if I’m ADD…Coal is my inspiration of the day. I just finished an article about Obama mentioning Pikeville, KY specifically when discussing rural areas progressing economically….and if you don’t have a minute, you may wanna stop here. I’ve got a lot to say, and it’s likely gonna be a big run-on sentence…with commas & dot-dot-dots. (I love me some dot-dot-dots…😂)
I was born and raised right here in Coal Country. Lived here until I went to college, I know more coal miners than you could even imagine. I suppose though, I never truly thought about their job until someone I loved spent his days inside a mountain.
I headed downstate to college right out of high school, and it was the best call I could’ve made. I don’t care where you’re from, when it’s time for you to go to college-y’all need to get the hell outta wherever you are and learn about life, yourself, the world. I had big plans to leave Pike County in my past- until I had kids. There was nowhere I would rather be. It’s wonderful to have family and friends (that are just like family) to help you raise them. I can send them to school and not have to worry, I know their teachers, their friends parents, their coaches. It’s amazing. Really.
Back to the point. The hubs and I move “home”. I get a decent job with the state, but it takes him a minute to find a good job. He tried the cookie factory and hated it (although the pay ain’t bad), and eventually landed a job as a mechanic for a coal-prep plant. He started as a contractor, got hired on permanent, and received plenty of on the job training. Pay was about $5/hr more than he was used to when we lived in the city, and it was union. The job was sometimes tough, but he got to put his handyman skills to work, and he loved it.
Everyone knows that companies don’t like unions, so they were one of the first to get laid off… fortunately, he was transferred to another nearby plant and was able to retain a job, but as an equipment operator… about a day into this and he was bored out of his mind- he made the hardest decision I think he will ever make: he chose to go underground. I hated the idea, but I’m all for making your own choices, so here we go. Vacation days given up to get his card, he gets the job, and a $10/hr raise. Yep. A twenty something with little college is making $30ish bucks an hour. That’s insane.
Keep in mind that this same job is ready and available to a fresh outta high school kid.. I mean with overtime you’re looking at a $100k job with two weeks of training. That’s damn good money. That my friends, is what the majority of men are used to here in the coalfields.
Let’s talk about what it’s like. Great pay, great benefits, paid vacay and bonuses…but here’s the best part- you work at least 10 hours a day, sometimes more, and usually 6 days a week.
Your day starts, if you’re lucky, with your wife packing your dinner bucket-literally a hard plastic tacklebox or toolbox so their food wouldn’t get smashed. I packed a many. Double bag the sandwich so the coal dust doesn’t get in, extra drinks, snack cakes, chips, paper towels (for “shitter” paper, except there’s no shitter), various medicine, inhaler for breathing, always some extras-because you know you’re working extra, and an “I love you” note just in case. It doesn’t stop there. My miner (like most) kept a picture of his family inside his hat, double layered his socks, taped up his boots, strapped on his 30 pound belt with his rescuer (in case they aren’t getting air), light (because that’s literally their only source), and I can’t even remember what else. I hated it, and I’m sure he did too.
This was the job he chose. He laid down on a man-trip twice a day everyday with his brothers, to ride 45 minutes one way INTO the earth to earn a payday. He worked for hours every day bent over because be wouldn’t fit in his workspace. No contact with the outside world, nothing but his crew, his bucket, and the middle of a mountain. You know what else he had? Uncertainty. Never knowing if someone would make a mistake, never knowing if the air quality was actually up to par, never knowing if his family was okay, never knowing if he would wake up to a job tomorrow.
As much as I hated my job, I hated his ten thousand times more.
I constantly searched for other work, contemplated moving, talked going back to college- the keyword here is me. Not him. You know what he did in his free time? Ate dinner and slept, occasionally played with the kids or washed his truck.
In the meantime, changes came for me. I decided to open a business. Somehow, against the odds, it worked. Fast forward a year into the endeavor, we had our bills straight, and we are considering kicking the mines to the curb. But, not before they pulled it out from under our feet. That’s the thing about a non-union mine, you’re expendable.
While I’m on this big-ass soapbox…Yes, I agree that the EPA has ruined a many a mine, but coal is and always will be a variable market. This is not the first time it’s been driven to the ground, and it certainly won’t be the last. In addition, there’s plenty of blame to place on mis-managed companies. Yet, we hang onto promises and hopes. For years we have been given a coal severance tax. What is that? It’s literally a royalty on a non-renewable resource. Wanna know what it should’ve been used for? Expanding industry and infrastructure in our area. Wanna know why it wasn’t? Because the politicians were paid off by the coal companies to not bring in any workforce competition (instead it lined pockets). Draw your own conclusions. One more soapbox item….Coal miners (mine included) have a very hard time accepting a job after coal, it’s hard to change that 100k mindset, and local options at even half of this salary are few and far between.
I suppose what I’m getting at, is inspiration, and broadening horizons. I don’t just want a better life for me and my family. I want it for everyone.
I can’t say that I love coal, I’ve seen first hand what it does to men, our land, and our community. Sure, it’s made a good living for a lot of people, but where has it really left us? Can we all just stop with the blame game and the wait for someone to wave a magic wand over us? We are the only ones who can truly change our lives.
Pikeville, KY has done a great job of turning a coal town around. It’s an amazing small town. I wish, instead of beating a dead horse, the surrounding people would wake up. Wake up and realize that by relying on coal for so many years, and never seeing a bigger picture, how crippled we truly are. I wish we could all look at how drugs, poverty, entitlement and laziness has taken over our little corner of the world. Most of all though, I wish that I could fix it, and stop waking up every day just wanting to run away…