“I worked for a long time paycheck to paycheck, and although I thought I was miserable, I realized life above ground with good health and time with my family was worth more than any amount of money. Since I left those darkened tunnels my wife says I actually smile now, something she said I had rarely done since I started working in the mines.” – Daniel Hawkins
Part III of III: Realization
On one particular day, near shift end I had my closest call with death when a rock weighing around one hundred pounds fell from the fifteen foot high top and landed beside me. I actually felt the displacement of air it caused as gravity pulled it toward the center of the earth. I had had close calls before, but this one was the closest. No one witnessed it. I went off by myself to collect my thoughts, still shaking profusely. When a co-worker approached me I acted as if nothing happened, not wanting to be ridiculed for the fear I felt. We finished the shift and went outside.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. I knew such a story would worry my wife so I chose not to tell her. The next day I simply couldn’t find the mental fortitude required to open the front door, climb into my truck, and go to the mine for my next shift. Instead I went to see a doctor hoping I could get FMLA (Family & Medical Leave) and take extended time off. All I was offered was medication and a doctor’s excuse for a few days. I denied the offer of medication but wholeheartedly accepted the excuse. During those days I struggled with the idea of quitting. In the end I felt I was being a wimp and couldn’t let my family suffer because of it.
I chose to continue working in the mines but I began to question everything about present day coal mining and coal miners. Why do people become coal miners and why do they continue to be coal miners? What I found was a mixture of reasons primarily involving money.
With an underfunded rural public education system the amount of high school graduates who fail to go to college is very high. Most graduates are only qualified for blue-collar work. Manufacturing is non-existent within the coalfields leaving few options for well-paying jobs. Of those are: coal mining, something within the natural gas industry, or becoming a correctional officer at a maximum-security prison. The natural gas industry rarely hires for the higher paying jobs and many people working in corrections cannot handle the stress, ultimately leading them to working for the coal industry.
If you happen to graduate high school with a decent academic score, or attend a local community college to receive an associate’s degree, you may find white-collar work in a local call center or some other office environment. Still yet, those jobs do not provide the comprehensive benefits package or high pay that a coal mining job provides.
Other high school graduates have hopes of moving away from the area but don’t have enough money to do so. They choose to work a few years in the mines so they can save enough money needed to pursue those dreams. In many cases a life-changing event, such as the birth of a child, requires them to buy a home or use most of their savings, binding them to a life in the coal mines. Others begin enjoying a lifestyle that they can only maintain with a coal mining wage.
Then there are those who simply want to become coal miners or love the job so much they stay. These select few are usually mine management. Aside from those select few, most coal miners dislike the job and only do it for the money. They would jump at the opportunity to work a different job if it paid the same.
One thing I always had a hard time understanding was if coal miners don’t like the job, why do they fight for the coal industry when confronted by environmentalist or “anti-coal” legislation? The answer, I believe, is twofold. One, they believe it threatens their job and thus their high income, an idea overly exaggerated by the coal industry to stir fear of layoffs, increase an individual’s production, and get miners to assist them in pushing their own political agenda. The other answer is pride and heritage. As long as you are doing the job, even if you despise it, you might as well take an immense amount of pride in what you do and your heritage as a coal miner. If nothing else, it helps you deal with the pure crap you have to put up with from all angles.
My problem was, I realized the first and lost the latter. Combined with a newly found fear of death within the mines I was destined to get the hell out at the first possible chance. I knew it would help relieve the personal conflicts I felt from having disregarded all of my previous ideals. The chance came in an unfortunate turn of events for my family. I would explain it in further detail but would like to protect my family’s privacy.
So, with the money I had saved I decided to take a few months off while I sorted out our potential future. The one lesson I did learn, which I should have already known, is that money isn’t happiness and in many ways working in the coal mines wasn’t necessary. I worked for a long time paycheck-to-paycheck, and although I thought I was miserable, I realized life above ground with good health and time with my family was worth more than any amount of money. Since I left those darkened tunnels my wife says I actually smile now, something she said I had rarely done since I started working in the mines.
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 Wednesday, October 13, 2010.