Most of what I know about coal mining comes from a few old movies that each center around a classic scene. The emergency siren screams out and people from all over the town hurry to the entrance of the mine. Their faces are full of dread as they ask, frantically, what has gone wrong down below. Families and friends wait and pray, but their hope is repaid with devastating news. It turns out that sometimes those old movies aren’t far from the truth.
Last week’s tragic news reminded me, too, of something I overheard once in a restaurant. The six people at the next table might have been anybody’s gray-haired grandparents enjoying a weekend away from home. As they talked about the coal mining district in West Virginia where they lived, one woman, perhaps the youngest, said her father had worked in the mines for more than forty years. Instantly an older woman chimed in, quietly and firmly saying “God bless him.” One of the men hadn’t heard it quite right, so the first woman repeated, “My father worked in the mines more than forty years.” Again, instantly, without any other comment or gesture, the older woman gave her refrain, “God bless him.” As I drove home that day, she stayed on my mind.
I thought the woman’s three repeated words meant that she had gathered from personal experience a vivid understanding of the sacrifices miners make for their families and for the rest of us who benefit from their labor. And now she had become the miners’ witness. I guessed that there was a name she was not saying, some particular miner who taught her what risk and sacrifice mean. That unnamed minor embarrassed me as I thought of my own safety and ease, and the comfort that comes into our lives because of his labor.
But their sacrifices keep slipping our minds, somehow. Several years ago, my own brother died working on a power line back in my home town. On the day of his funeral, the line of cars going to the cemetery was more than a mile long. A federal investigator told my family about the safety regulations that are meant to protect electrical workers. “Each one of these regulations,” he said, “is written in blood.” How many of us have the skill and fortitude to insist upon new laws and safer working conditions in these dangerous industries? No matter how long the line of cars might be at the funeral, a few days later we start to forget.
I met a brave firefighter once who risked his life to rescue a small child who had fallen down a narrow well. This man, who grew up in Michiana, was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show after the rescue. But many public servants perform their dangerous work almost in private, and we acknowledge them only occasionally and often from a safe distance. I don’t know any of the miners who risk their lives to provide coal for our foundries and power plants. For that matter, I don’t know the name of anyone who digs foxholes or picks coffee beans or packs bunches of bananas into crates or sews leather uppers to the soles of shoes or picks up trash at the curb. Sometimes I wonder if this is, for many of us, the central luxury of American life – not having to know.
This 2006 essay by Ken Smith is republished by permission of the author from the Michiana Chronicles radio essay series broadcast on WVPE, the NPR affiliate station for the region around South Bend, Indiana.