Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Deep Dark Secrets (a story)

I wrote this story a couple years ago...I post it today because I've been just too busy working on my AWARE project to devote time to writing. When I started this blog, Paul Epstein Muse, I thought I'd be posting more of my "creative" writing, stories, or chapters of a book I was working on, than essays or posts that are more reflective, such as the 2 day Diet reports (this week's is posted at the end). I was told by my writing group when I wrote this that it was a bit too heavy handed....what do you think?

Deep Dark Secrets
(c) Paul Epstein 2011

Let’s see, I guess this thing is recording.

Umm, this is Anthony Wallace Casto, Jr., they call me Junior Casto, and I’m down in the Omega #3 under Kenner Mountain on, ummh, November the 17th, two thousand and ten. There’s been an accident down here and there’s men dead. Two right here in this area didn’t make it to the emergency refuge….uhhn, shoot, I, I r-really do want to live…  I’m recording on this SmartPhone hopin’ the truth will come out someday and them that’s responsible gets what they deserve.

After the explosion, I thought I was already dead. I come to and there wasn’t no sound. It was so quiet, the ringin’ in my ears sounded like wind screamin’ down the holler. I don’t think I was out no more than a few minutes. I didn’t think to look at my watch. It was probably about two hours into the middle shift. I got my breathin’ unit on, took a look around, saw I couldn’t get out and the others in this room was already dead, and come to the refuge shelter. I’m good here for at least a couple days if everything keeps working. Enough food and water for a week or more since it’s made for six men. I figure I got a fifty-fifty chance.

I been down in the mines twenty-six years, and I’ve done about every job there is to do. But I ain’t exactly a coal miner now. I work in the mines, so I’m a miner, but I don’t actually dig the coal, I just work on the machines. I keep things runnin’. What is a miner these days, anyway? An equipment operator.

The explosion didn’t start here. It was probably in one of the other rooms in this section. The continuous miner in this room was down, that’s why I was here. I was inside the fifty-ton monster, workin’ on it. Reckon that’s what saved my life. Anybody that might hear this and not have no idea what a continuous miner is, it’s like a squashed down bulldozer ‘bout twenty feet wide with an arm in the front holdin’ a cutter that looks like a big paint roller with teeth. It cuts into  the coal seam.

If a mountain was a layer cake, the coal’d be the icing ‘tween the layers. The continuous miner crawls through the seam, cuttin’ the coal and shovin’ it back behind at five tons a minute. It’s remote controlled. Like them drones in Afghanistan. They sit in a comfey ole’ chair underground somewhere out west. Like video game players. Nobody shootin’ at ‘em. The continuous miner operator, he’s in the mine twenty or so feet behind his machine, and if he brings the roof down, it’s comin’ down on top of him, too.

A crew comes in behind the continuous miner puttin’ bolts up into the ceiling to keep it from cavin’ in. Another guy dusts with limestone to keep the coal dust from buildin’ up, and another crew has to work on ventilation so’s the methane can’t build up. They was short a couple coal dusters lately, and that’s probably why we had this explosion anyway. Otherwise a little methane might o’ burned off and not gone nowhere. When there’s a lot of coal dust, it blows up big.

It’s the roof bolters who are layin’ back there dead. Willie Ray Tomkins and Punk Wallace. Punk was my second cousin. I told him he ought to find another operation. I told him it wasn’t safe here. But you know how these kids is these days. They don’t believe in nothin’ nobody tells ‘em. They sure as heck don’t listen to experience. Think they know everything. Wonder if it’s got somethin’ to do with them video games they play. They think they can fight and kill anything and everything. Real life ain’t that easy.

Kids ain’t like they was when great-great-grandpappaw Castigliari first come here from Italy to Mingo County, WV when he was sixteen.  He’d already been a miner for three years back in the old country, as the old folks called it. They mined coal by hand back then. They laid on their side in a thirty-inch seam, dug the coal out of the wall with a pick-axe, shoveled it into a cart and pushed it out of the mine theirselves. Nowadays if they ain’t usin’ continuous miner rigs, you’re operating one of them long-wall miners. They’re as big as a few football fields. Roll through the inside of a mountain eatin’ coal and let it cave in behind it. Do the work of a couple thousand miners workin’ by hand.

Course, a lot of guys work on strip mine sites these days. They ain’t coal miners if ya’ ask me. Mountain top removal is just movin’ dirt and rock. They work in daylight. Not much danger there compared to being under a thousand feet of rock.

But still, we wouldn’t have to be dyin’ down here if it wasn’t for them greedy devils upstairs. It’s all about production. You got to get so much coal outta here every hour and if there’s a breakdown then the next shift has to try and make up for lost time. The foreman, he’s like, “Boys, we got to bust ass this shift and we got no time for the b.s. if you know what I mean.” Well the b.s. he’s talkin’ about is all them safety procedures we don’t do half the time. That’s why this is the most dangerous operation in the southern coal fields, and that’s no lie.

It didn’t used to be like this. Not when the union had a lock on things. Oh, there’s still a few union mines workin’ underground operations, but you can’t get on ‘less you got family already inside. Them jobs is like gold. Not that we don’t make good money, too. We do, but money ain’t everything. My daddy and my granddaddy was both union all the way, and they’ve probably done worn out their coffins rollin’ around these last fifteen years since these non-union outfits has taken over and run out the unions.

The union used to keep scabs and non-union outfits out any way they had to. They’d flatten the tires of any miner took a non-union job. If that didn’t run ‘em off, they’d shoot at their radiators. Next time, it’d be the windshield. Not no more. Ben Jenkins, he’s the guy that runs Omega, he’d got around the union by settin’ up little non-union operations that contracted out the work on the cheap. Pretty soon, he just told the union to go to hell, ran his union company outta’ business and opened up a new, non-union company. The State Police went after anybody that tried to stop the scabs, and nobody stood up for the union. Jenkins got the law in his pocket, from the deputy sheriff on up through the state police and into the governor’s office. Then the governor’s people leans on MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Them’s the ones supposed to check up on the mine and make sure we’re following all the safety regs. Make sure the emergency shelters is stocked up and the belts is clean, the air’s flowin’ like it should, the equipment is kept up.

It don’t take much to set off an explosion, what with methane seepin’ up out of cracks in the floor and fine coal dust everywhere. If the methane builds up, one little spark can set off a chain reaction when conditions is right. Well, conditions was right today. Two good men dead between me and a cave-in. Don’t know if there’s any more cause I’m totally cut off back here. Just me and two dead men. DEAD! I’m sorry, I can’t…hnnn, hem.

There’s got to be at least six or seven more over in the room where the explosion started. Probably started with a spark from a cutter so the operator, roof bolters, ventilation crew that was workin’ that room, I figure they must be gone just from the blast. How many more depends on how much more roof come down on guys or trapped ‘em somewhere and whether they can get rescue crews down here.

Thing I’m gonna miss worst is my kids, Dreama and Troy. She’s six, and he’s nine. Well, I guess that ain’t right. It’s them’s gonna miss me. Like I missed my dad after that big rock dropped off the ceiling of the Monagan mine and put his lights out. He was only forty-nine. I was nineteen, drivin’ a delivery truck because I’d done vowed and declared I wasn’t never goin’ to work in a mine, but after he died and mom didn’t know how she was going to keep making the mortgage on the house he built out there at the head of the holler, Mama needed me to make enough to make the payments, at the very least. They put me in workin’ right away, the guys in UMWA. They took care of me. They’d say, “look at that Junior Casto—now there’s a miner just like his daddy. You don’t need to hold his hand in the dark, no sirree Bob.” They kept me outta trouble and taught me what I needed to know. Mostly they worked things by the book—they made sure things was safe and everything worked right. And they took care of them that was havin’ trouble. When Jake’s wife got cancer and his mother was too messed up from her meds to take care of his kids, they found ways to cover for him so he’d show up on the books for a whole day even if he only clocked in and dusted one little section. Some of these older guys who were maybe too feeble or gimped up, they’d work it out for them to get a job they could do in a section that wasn’t hardly producing, dustin’ a little bit here and there, do a little maintenance.

It ain’t like that in the non-union mines. They find out you’re sick or you get old and can’t keep up, you’re gone. All about efficiency and production, you see. And if they got a few men out, they put the dusters and ventilators into doin’ somethin’s gonna move the coal out faster. You wouldn’t have that in the union mines. No sir. You had a job to do and they didn’t tell you to do somebody else’s job. If there wasn’t enough workers to mine coal safe in a section, then you’d go over to another section and help them out or you’d just do some maintenance you been puttin’ off for a rainy day, but you didn’t work with no short crews. Sure, your production might be down some, but we was prouder of the number that said how many days we worked without a work accident than how many tons of coal we drug outta here.

Now it’s going back to the way it was. Oh these non-union mines know how to make it look good. They’ll have all kinds of slogans like, “Safety is our First Job!” Or “No Chunk of Coal Worth a Miner’s Life!” They have mandatory safety sessions where we get trained on the new safety equipment and the latest rules and regs. They tell us if you don’t think somethin’s right, just say so and they’ll shut her down. No coal mined until it gets fixed. I dare you to try it though. Tell a foreman it ain’t safe and you ain’t goin’ down and you’ll be lookin’ for a new job next week. 

They tell us MSHA inspectors are our friends, just lookin’ out for us. And then they turn around the next day and give us a heads up when they find out an inspector’s on the way and tell us to go to a different room that day. Or shut down a few rooms and send out a dozen extra dusters before they get here. Because it’s the same ones who’s cookin’ the books. One set of inspection reports for MSHA inspectors and one set for the company managers so they know what the real picture is.

Yeah, that’s supposed to be a big secret, and it is. I’ve asked a few friends here and there if they heard of that and they look at me like I’m crazy. Of course, maybe they’re lookin’ at me like that because they know the truth but know better than to say it out loud. Some of ‘em needs a job that bad. Dexter Mullins said he’s hopin’ to die down here. Really. Because he knows if he dies on the job, the company’s gonna make a big payout to his family. Million bucks, maybe more. Enough to pay off the mortgage, which he got way behind on last time he was laid off, enough for their kids to go to college. Fact is, we all know we got a way better chance of getting’ hurt or sick with black lung than winnin’ the lottery.

Well I reckon I’m gonna shut up. You might be wonderin’ why I ain’t said good-bye to my wife. I’ll tell you why. It’s cause we say goodbye to each other every day before I come to work. We done made all the arrangements a long time ago. We both know it’s just a matter of time. That’s the way it is for the miner. You know there’s a chance you ain’t comin’ home. So I know she loves me she knows I love her and there ain’t nothin’ gonna come between us long as I’m alive. She’ll stay strong for the kids, cause that’s what a miner’s wife does. And everything I’m sayin’ here, she knows it, and she knows that if I don’t come back it’s gonna be up to her to tell what I know. Cause it’s been getting worse every year I been in the mines, and it can’t keep getting’ worse.

More miners been dyin’ it seems every year. They have their investigations and they make new laws about safety equipment that’s needed, but that ain’t the problem. It’s them greedy devils at the top runnin’ these companies and treatin’ us like dogs. No, not dogs, like machines, only they treat machines right ‘cause they know if they don’t get the maintenance they need, the coal’s gonna just sit where it is in this here mountain. No, they treat us like the preacher says they treated the slaves in Egypt. They just worked ‘em to death, and if one fell, another one picked up where he left off. Cause the Pharoah didn’t care nothing about the Jews, they was just work animals to them. And one was just as good as another.

Only they was buildin’ something. They was buildin’ them Pyramids that lasted for thousands of years. And the Egyptians, they was celebrating their leader and sending him off to heaven. That’s what they thought. I guess it ain’t too much different here. Everybody down here loves coal and loves the company. It’s our way of life. In school, you couldn’t say nothin’ against the company or against coal. If someone started talkin’ environment they just got drowned out or beat up. I did it myself, took up for coal. But when you been inside the mines awhile, you start to see things a little different.

You see some of these companies don’t really care nothing about the people who live here. They talk a good game, but they’re just makin’ more and more money so’s their owners can buy another Lexus or another plane and jet off to the other side of the world and have dinner with a politician or a Supreme Court judge who’s going to rule their way in a case to let them screw another worker or a thousand of them, take pensions away from retired miners or their health care, or steal somebody else’s land or pollute the air more or fill our streams with poison or cut down our mountains. They spend more on billboards and TV ads about Clean Coal Keepin’ the Lights On than they spend in Mingo. As far they’re concerned, it’d be better if these little towns died out and we moved so they could mine every square inch of West Virginia. All in the name of jobs while at the same time, every year they buy bigger machines and lay off more miners.

Yeah, I’m probably gonna die…uhnn, ahem, shoot…Preacher…he says I’ll go to heaven. I ain’t been perfect, but I been saved. I’ve got drunk plenty and done things I ain’t proud of. I ain’t always been a great husband, but I’ve done what a man needs to do for his family. Anyhow, I’ve spent most of my life down here in hell, so the preacher says I got a right to spend eternity in heaven. Hope he’s right.

My 2-Day Diet Progress Week 31, June 9, 2014 
Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 62
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in.
Current waist size: 37.5 in.
Weight end of this week:  175 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week:  -2 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -34 lbs.

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