My friend Ken Ball and I have a something very special in common: Separately and continents apart, our fathers kept us out of deep mines.
My father was a mechanic, who worked in mine maintenance, mostly gold mines known as hard-rock mines, all over southern central Africa. Ken is the scion of a long line of coal miners in Pennsylvania.
Whenever there is a mine disaster, like the tragedy this week at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, Ken and I think of our fathers and thank them.
I dropped out of high school. Soon, I got a job in journalism, but journalism, then as now, can be a fickle business and the pay lousy.
After 18 glorious months of cub reporting, I found myself in Zambia getting by in construction work because my gig as a very junior foreign correspondent had gone south.
I was offered a job at fabulous money as a trainee miner in the Zambian copper mines. They paid what was called the “copper bonus” and it had, from the mine owners’ point of view, gotten out of hand.
The defense buildup in the United States had pushed the price of copper beyond all expectations. Copper capitalism was all the rage.
I was already spending the money in my head, bonding in that machismo way that miners have. The typewriter would be traded for a jack hammer. I’d be a man’s man with a pocket full of “copper bonus” money to prove it.
I wrote my father and told him that job insecurity and money woes would soon be over, I was “going down the mines.”
My father had a faltering grip on spelling and grammar, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t express himself elegantly. I believe that writing, like musicality, is innate.
If hard-mining is about the judicious use of dynamite, my father’s response letter was as explosive.
Its gist was: I’ve never stopped you in your folly, especially in leaving school. But for God’s sake, don’t go down a mine. Those places aren’t for human beings. I’ve been forced to work on them most of my life, and I can tell you that mines are no places for human beings. Please don’t do it.
Just about the same time, in the late 1950s, in faraway Pennsylvania, Ken Ball was getting about the same advice from his father. Ken finished his schooling and went on to a distinguished career in science and engineering. I went back to the newspaper trade.
The basic dynamic of mining is at odds with safety: It is to extract as much ore or coal as possible with as little cost. Safety is the usual casualty. Owners skirt the rules for profit. And miners skirt them for much the same reason: bonuses.
Because mines are almost always company towns, it’s hard for individual miners to blow the whistle on dangerous practices if everyone is winking at the regulations.
More government regulations are simply more rules to ignore. The most positive safety enhancement is an old one: an active union.
Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine and the worst accidents tend to be in non-union mines.
Unions are good at enforcing irksome work rules. Arguably, there may be no reason for teachers to unionize. There’s a good reason for having a third party in the mine: safety. Miners have no loyalty to government inspectors, but they do to their own union.
A safe mine is an oxymoron. The earth is as lethal as the sea. When you start moving it around, there is treachery down below.
Things are much better than they were years ago; better equipment and rules, which if implemented, help. But the history of King Coal is not pretty. In America alone, more than 100,000 men — until recently, it was men only — have died in the unforgiving earth to keep us warm and their families fed.
For the miners in Appalachia, it’s a special way of life: church, a mobile home, television, tattoos and close relations within small communities. It’s also a way of life, a culture and work that, in the age of keystrokes, makes a man feel, well, like a man.
As for my father, about three months after he cautioned me off the life below ground, he fell down a goldmine shaft and broke his back. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate