Sitting here in my office in my starched shirt and shiny shoes, my head filled with decisions to make and copy to write and staff to manage, it’s pretty easy to forget that I am the grandson of a coal miner. Easy, that is, until I read that rescuers in Montcoal, West Virginia have once again been forced to return to the surface, leaving their colleagues somewhere far, far below.
More than five decades ago, back when he was a young man, my father joined a pilgrimage of his peers who left coal country and traveled up Route 23 as it snaked its way north out of the mountains through Pound, Jenkins, Pikeville and on. Many of them ended up in Gary, Indiana, where they traded in a miner’s life for a steel worker’s life. But they never stayed far from home. Not in their hearts anyway. As a kid, I remember making the trip back to Virginia at least three or four times a year, back to where the roads wound through narrow gaps and coal trains and trucks rumbled constantly.
I’ve never been to Montcoal, West Virginia, but that doesn’t mean I’d be a stranger. I’d recognize the tumbledown houses wedged together wherever there is enough room between the creek and the hillside. I’d recognize the coal tipples and rail yards that crowd the narrow two-lane highways. And I think I’d recognize the people — hardscrabble men in work clothes or camouflage, faces and hands creased and darkened by life underground; women on front porches or hanging clothes on a line, many of them heavier than they should be, the older ones in muted floral housedresses; kids everywhere, looking as though they could use a bath or a decent haircut or an outlet for their dreams.
I’m not trying to judge here, for I know firsthand that their lives are far more nuanced than we might imagine. I also know that their lives are inextricably bound to those coal seams miles underground or exposed at the top of decimated ridges above them. The danger, the dirt, the pollution — it is a part of their daily existence in the same way my starched shirts and shiny shoes are a part of mine. But they are not to be pitied. They are to be admired — for their grit, their determination, their bravery.
Of course, one can easily argue that their existence is not a noble one, that the industry that they serve and that supports them is as dark and foreboding as the tunnels they traverse. But it is their life. It is their way. And it is done not just for their own self-interest. It is done so that those of us with a seemingly insatiable appetite for all that coal produces can continue to live our lives as we choose.
So today, as anxious loved ones wait for confirmation of what they no doubt know to be the eventual outcome, I’m thinking of my grandfather, and my uncles, and of all the folks I’ve never met in Montcoal, West Virginia, and I’m offering up a prayer for solace.
I hope you’ll do the same.