Monday, June 15, 2009


For a large part of my working life, I was in places where, if God decided to kill me, my death would be considered a routine hazard of the job. Where I grew up there were many trains, and all I ever saw them carry was coal. If it were not for books and Lionel trains brochures, I would never have known that trains moved anything but coal. The Fathers of most of the children I went to school with worked in the coal mines and a few of those Fathers went to work one day and did not come home. Anyone in my part of the world who has been near a river has almost certainly seen powerful towboats churning the water as they pushed numerous barges piled high with coal. Where I grew up, the roads were slowly pounded into dust by the seemingly never-ending parade of large coal trucks. Coal is America’s real energy source and I was in the heart of coal country.

Comparatively few people have ever actually seen where that coal comes from, and I suppose that even fewer care. Geologically speaking, the coal was created when prehistoric swamps, filled with all manner of organic matter, were covered over by layers of sediments, and pushed down further and further as the land around them rose up. The final result of the tremendous pressure and ions of time was the conversion of black slimy swamp ooze into thousands of square miles of a hard, black, and shiny mineral that releases tremendous heat when burned. It is so valuable that men kill each other over its ownership and its recovery.

Most coal beds or ‘seams’ as they are more accurately called, lay very flat and are of relatively uniform thickness. The most famous seam of all, the Pittsburgh coal seam, is nine feet thick and, in general, ideal for mining. Imagine walking up to a remote and relatively steep hillside, and scraping away the earth and soft, weathered rock to expose a layer of shiny black coal higher than your arm extended over your head. So high that, after removal, you can walk upright and comfortably into the void. Now create eight openings into the coal seam, each sixteen feet wide by nine feet high, and space those openings about one hundred feet apart. Support each opening with a reinforced concrete arch. Then, continue to mine each opening back to a depth of about one hundred feet, being careful to support the roof of each tunnel using wooden posts and timber beams, or a system of six-foot to twelve-foot long steel bolts connected to expansion anchors set into drilled holes in the solid rock above the coal. Now, turn and start a tunnel at a right angle to the original tunnel, and do not stop mining until you have connected all eight of the tunnels together resulting in square blocks of coal roughly one hundred feet square. Now you have a coal mine.

Continue the process just described for thirty five years and, lo and behold, you have a network of tunnels that stretches for eight or ten miles and has honeycombed hundreds of thousands of acres while producing millions upon millions of tons of coal. For an operation this large, there will be multiple concrete-lined air shafts, eight to ten feet in diameter, and dug from the surface to the coal seam, a distance typically of six hundred to eight hundred feet. Huge mechanical fans, six to eight feet in diameter, are installed on some of the air shafts. These fans, by law, must run continuously to remove dust and toxic and explosive gases from the mine. There will also be an elaborate system of narrow gauge railroad tracks with an electrical trolley wire, similar to the old street cars. This is used to transport men and supplies into the mine and sometimes to bring the coal out. More commonly a system of conveyor belts runs continuously from the outside to the active mining area in order to transport out the mined coal. Finally, there is a network of high to medium voltage electrical cables and transformers to power everything; miles of telephone and signal wires; and, large pumps and discharge pipes to remove accumulated water. Welcome to my world; a place seen by a relative few, but whose existence contributes to the lives and economic benefit of innumerable people in some way or other.

From the first time I rode down the shaking and rattling elevator in my brand new coveralls and sporting my new miner’s cap, I knew that this was a special place. There were sights, sounds, and smells that were not duplicated anywhere on the surface. I was entranced by the steady swoosh of the conveyor belts and the click-clack of the large locomotives pulling their trains of supply cars. The smells of ‘sulfur air’, wintergreen snuff, and hot grease permeated the air. However, it was the darkness, the complete darkness broken only by the glow of a cap-mounted electric light that kept me attuned to the potentially hostile environment in which I found myself. The loss of that meager beam would render me helpless and completely blind.

In later years my accumulated certifications qualified me to make the mandated safety checks of old unused areas located miles from the active work areas and far distant from another human being. Most times I was closer to people who lived on the surface, six hundred feet above me and unknowing of my existence, than I was to another worker inside the tunnels. I don’t believe that many people have ever experience true solitude. Not just quiet house solitude or even, marooned on a deserted island solitude, but actual and complete sensory deprivation. While underground and alone, I could sit and shut off my light to experience the absolutely most complete silence and darkness that anyone can ever experience. Imagine being buried alive but knowing that you can get out. That unusual environment results in an extraordinary psychological situation in which your brain has no visual or auditory input, and it does not know how to react. Your mind screams, “Relax, this is only temporary”, but the brain does not listen. It goes into a kind of panic mode with fascinating results. Soon, in the complete darkness, clear but dim soft gray images begin to appear of what your mind thinks that you should see. Very faint, meaningless sounds soon start at a level where your mind is confused as to whether you actually hear the sounds or not. It is impossible to tell. The images are as clear but ghostly, as if they were projected in black and white onto a gray screen. I have on occasion stood up and walked, reaching out to touch the image of a post or a wooden cribbing. I could not see my hand, even though it was extended, but it was startling when my mind was expecting me to touch a solid object and yet none was there.

Imagine, as a writer, having regular access to a place such as this. Imagine the degree of freedom unleashed within your creative processes when your mind is unencumbered by the distractions of sight, sound, and movement. For me, it was a resurrection of the largely suppressed creative centers of my mind resulting in a flood of ideas and thoughts and the beginning of a writing career. Looking back, I probably should have bought a piece of that giant old mine before it closed and rented it out, by the hour, to writers and artists seeking to refresh their minds. Old Amish saying…”Too soon old, too late smart.”

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like the kind of solitude that will leave me needing therapy. Von