By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Photographer Jon Bolt and myself drove to Richlands, Va., last Monday evening to cover a prayer vigil for coal miners who were recently laid off. Words of comfort and prayers were offered to help bolster morale during an anxious, difficult time for many people. One miner told me that he hoped to get back to work soon so his children will have a nice Christmas. A retired miner told me that he knew what it was like to go without a paycheck; living days, weeks or even months at a time without a paycheck were all part of his career.
I focused on getting the story and writing it as Jon drove us back to Bluefield. Believe me, typing on a little laptop computer balanced on your lap is pretty challenging. I didn’t think about the coal mining tradition in my family until much later.
You can hardly find a family in West Virginia that doesn’t have relatives who worked for the coal industry in one form or another. My mom grew up in a coal camp operated by the mining companies, and my Pawpaw, my maternal grandfather, worked in the underground mines and managed to raise a large family with his earnings.
He worked in an era when mine safety was a matter of luck and prayers. Mom can recall ambulances rushing past her school almost every day as another accident occurred at the mine, and not knowing whether that ambulance was hurrying to help her father.
In those day, there was nothing automated about coal mining. It was all hard labor with manually-operated drills and other tools. Air quality was measured with caged birds, and I understand the miners left rats alone because the rodents had a way of sensing trouble.
At home, a radio provided entertainment and neighbors helped each other. Sometimes the entertainment took an odd turn. My maternal grandparents met each other at a Ku Klux Klan rally of all things. Neither of them were members or held to that organization’s racist beliefs, but a rally was always a show.
Pawpaw eventually retired, but his last years were touched by black lung and all the problems that come with it. Several of his sons, my uncles, followed him into the mines, and I can still remember hearing about back injuries and other problems they had to endure.
All these observations taught me that coal mining is an honorable profession that offers a good living, but it’s not easy and never completely safe. The Upper Big Branch mine tragedy reminds us all of that fact.
During the prayer vigil, I looked at the Coal Miner’s Memorial next to Richlands Town Hall and was reminded of the war memorials in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a tribute to the people who lost their lives supplying a commodity the nation must have in order to keep the economy going.
I remember one fact I learned years ago while putting together stories for one of the Daily Telegraph’s Pride editions. During World War I, a lot of miners were exempted from military service because they were needed in the mines that supplied coal to the steel mills and the Navy. The coal mined in this region was the Navy’s official fuel because it didn’t put out as much smoke as coal from other areas. In the days before radar, this gave the Navy’s ships an important tactical advantage.
Unfortunately, being kept off the battlefields didn’t make the coal miners any safer; in fact, some of them may have been safer if they had gone to war. I found one story in which a coal industry official told leaders in Washington, D.C. that more miners were dying on the job than soldiers being killed in combat.
Coal mining was hard work almost a century ago, and it’s still hard work today. It’s a safer profession now, but not completely safe.
With hope, the miners who recently lost their jobs will go back to work soon so their families can rest easy and have a nice Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m sure the prayer vigil offered comfort and reminded them that they are not alone during this difficult time.
Coal will not be replaced as a fuel source and an ingredient in making steel anytime soon. Yes, there are environmental concerns, but work on technology to address these concerns is underway. If everyone — the industry, environmentalists, government — are willing to work together, then coal mining can continue. It’s an important part of the national economy and cannot be replaced easily. Coal is still important, so it is important for us to remember the people who take on the hard, dangerous task of getting the coal out of the ground and help them earn a living.
Greg Jordan is senior reporter for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.