Right after Thanksgiving everyone at the mines would start getting into the Christmas spirit. Even though we knew it was a month away we couldn’t wait for the days off to spend with our families. Some of us would bring in ornaments to hang on our equipment and on some sections a cheap set of Christmas lights would be hung around the power center. It seemed like all we’d ever talk about was giving our kids a good Christmas and those who were lucky enough to still have a few vacation days bragged about how they were going to use them to extend their vacation.
During the week just before Christmas the company would put together a huge dinner for each shift coming out of the mines. While we ate the mine foreman would hand out “gifts” smeared with the company logo. Every year we’d get the same things, a belt buckle, a baseball cap, and some years, a flashlight if we were lucky. They also would give us a frozen turkey or ham to take home until they figured it would be cheaper and easier to hand out $25 Wal-Mart gift cards. With all the catered food and cheap gifts we received, I felt the best gift they gave us was turning a blind eye to the underground dinners we’d have as a crew.
The days of coal crews shutting down to eat dinner together are long gone at most mines. Now each man takes lunch when he gets the chance. For the continuous miner operators and buggy men who kept the coal running, the boss or someone else would relieve them just long enough for them to get a quick bite. In today’s mines production doesn’t stop unless something breaks down.
That’s what made the underground dinners so special. During the last week leading up to Christmas most crews, including the one I was on, would have an underground potluck separate from the company dinners outside. Everyone would bring in their dishes from home, pile them in the back of the man trip, and haul them underground. Once we arrived on section someone would take all the food to the power center.
A power center is huge rectangular box about 10 feet across and 20 feet long and 3 feet high. It houses the electrical transformers and the connections for all of the section equipment. The metal lids overtop the transformers get scorching hot making it the best place to heat food underground, especially an entire Christmas dinner.
Since the power center is always located in the intake (fresh air entry) the smell of hot food would spread all the way across the section. The wait for lunchtime was always unbearable. Finally, four or five hours later, the boss would shut the section down and everyone would pile up on the man trip. Someone would say grace and then we’d dig in. Afterwards the boss would hand out gifts to each of us and then we’d shoot the breeze or sleep for a half hour. When it came time to go back to work it was everything we could do to get back up. Fortunately the boss felt the same way and would give us a bit of slack.
Some of the best times I had working in the mines was during the holiday season. If there is anything I could ever miss about being a coal miner it would be working the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Daniel Hawkins is a former coal miner from Virginia. Having finally gotten fed up with current labor practices and environmental destruction within today’s Appalachian coal mines, he has left the mines in search of a better future for his family. In this series, he looks into Appalachia’s past and possibilities for the future. You can find his full series on his own blog, http://thoughtfulcoalminer.blogspot.com/. This post originally appeared on Daniel’s blog on December 24, 2010.