They were big, ugly, dangerous,
and ubiquitous to us. Black piles
of sandy slag, hundred foot high
hills of grief daring us
to climb to the top, for no reason,
sometimes at our own peril.
This stuff was soft like black, dry
quicksand. My foot would sink
and the slag would rise above my ankle,
sometimes to my knees,
allowing the scree into my shoes.
Each step was a challenge.
Maybe that’s why we climbed,
for the challenge, the thrill, the view,
perhaps the danger.
We’d been warned not to go.
Sometimes culm banks caught fire.
Children fell into their sink holes
and suffocated. Anthracite coal
was the black diamonds of the barons,
deadly job resources for citizens.
All overlooked, denied, or shrugged-off,
both human exploitation and environmental
degradation. They were witnesses
to the need and to the greed.
I didn’t know it then,
most of the world’s anthracite
coal supply was crushed by eons
of pressure beneath my feet. It was also
why we were there: the sons, daughters,
and grands of the men who built the banks.
Look both ways with two perspectives, theirs and ours.
Mind the gaps as you watch for the traps.
This poem is about underground coal miners – people who did, or do, very dangerous work. My father and grandfathers were three. This is also about life in our home when Dad still worked in the mines.
During my early teens, the mining business shut down in northeastern Pennsylvania. This was due to the Knox Mine Disaster in the late 1950s and the easy, cheaper, and cleaner use of oil to heat homes. Today, most coal mined in the USA is exported, but the industry continues to decline. Only 30% of electrical power in America is produced by coal.
Nearer My Hell to Thee By Bill Reynolds
Before leaving the daylight, and going into the pits,
They look deep into the ground, to the soul of the abyss.
The blackest of blacks, the darkest of darks, and danger,
The dank abyss peers back as men descend into nature.
Far below ground, the mine was there lurking, waiting;
That dangerous, disgusting damnation of sound,
For some small wages, they go into that hole far underground.
Deadly it was and deadly it is, they never know when…
Many wives cried at the loss of their men,
Who died in the gut of the deplorable depths.
It was frightening work miners chose, those jobs that killed.
Black hard hats on heads, mining lamps on to cut the dark,
But still never safe. In denial or not, it was dangerous work.
Father was, and so were both grandfathers, miners all.
Walking home through muddy fields and dark alleys,
Dangerous on pay days; all cash in their pockets,
With blackjacks and knuckles, maybe a gun.
He’d push open the gate, then let it slam with a thud.
Dad would stomp up the stairs and in the back door,
It was always the back way after a day’s work.
Covered with coal dust,
The sweat of the labor, and the stink of the mines;
Smoking his Camels, always coughing and coughing.
But he was my Dad, and it was always like this.
Everything filthy, his clothing all rotting,
Black on his skin, and in his gray hair,
He didn’t know about the black in his lungs,
the deadly back dust was glued on hard, but not to his soul.
White at his eyes and over his lips,
he’d set down his lunch pail. No hugs, no kisses,
just “hiya,” and not much of a welcome.
His coat and his cap, and his boots all come off.
Trounced upstairs to the bath, footsteps pounding the way,
Transformation, about to take place.
In cold water each day, he washed coal dirt away,
From his face and his hair, his neck and his chest,
From his waist to his feet, but not from the rest.
Nothing could wash the coal miner away.
Not the water, the union, the beer, or smokes.
Not on the inside, from his throat nor deep in his lungs.
Black dust in his body and in with his blood.
It was always the same, until the disaster.
Miners to work, to suffer and die.
Returning to homes, dirty but to homes they came.
Then one day, the depression set in.
The mines all shut down, proud miners, no work.
One day it all ended and everything changed.
Miners laid off, the mines were all closed.
Oil was king, and nobody noticed.
No more abyss, just a new kind of dark.
If you not yet sufficiently depressed, watch this.