“They call me Powerhouse, after my Daddy. I’m a third generation coal miner. I’m here to bend your ears with some stories that you wouldn’t believe. And we don’t have to make up nothing, being in this place. If you continue halfway with us, you won’t fall asleep.”
Fred M. “Powerhouse” Powers, Retired Coal Miner/Teacher, Current Author & Storyteller; Bluefield, West Virginia:
“I was born and raised in McDowell County. Grew up in a coal camp in a small, rambunctious mining town. I started working in the mines at age twenty. I was a third generation coal miner on my Daddy’s side, and probably a fifth generation miner on my Mother’s side from the Matewan, Mingo County area.
We lived in a coal camp right above the mines, about halfway up on the mountain. [There were] hundred families; dad rented one side of a double house they called them. We would go barefoot all summer, and watch the miners come in from work and going to work. They worked all three shifts, and they would be coming home from work with their faces all black. [You] could only see their eyeballs. [They’d be] swinging their buckets, and just laughing and joking and carrying on like they normally do.
On my Mother’s side, down in Mingo County, my Grandfather died seven years before I was born, but my Grandmother lived in the coal camp of Merrimac, which is between Matewan and Williamson. [It was a] very poor coal camp, but we would come down about once a month, my brother and I with my Dad. We lived up in McDowell County, about a ninety-mile journey, a very difficult journey across the mountains. I’d get carsick a lot, but when we got down there, I really enjoyed summertime.
We would sit out on the porch, and Grandmother would tell so many good stories, ghost stories, and haints, and creatures in the mountains. [Mostly] about living next to an Indian graveyard, and every night at midnight, you’d hear chains starting to be drug around in the loft, and you could look out in the early morning around the well and you’d see a couple of ghostly spirits…and some [other] weird things.
My grandfathers were from Ashe County, North Carolina and Pike County, Kentucky. I never knew these guys. My grandmothers were both out of Buchanan County, Virginia. They worked down there, [and had a] hardscrabble type of living. That’s when the mines were working pretty good up in West Virginia. You could make more money. My grandfather got wind of that, and he came up and stayed with a uncle, an old family friend, or something, for a while, and after a year or so, he made arrangements to bring his family up.
My dad was five years old at the time, and he remembers coming across Tazewell Mountain from Marion into the coalfields of West Virginia. They were in an old Model T truck and they kept having flats, and this is where they call the Back of The Dragon now. They have motorcycles that go down there and do this big rally, and it’s very beautiful country. They go up to Mercer County and they spend the night in a fellow’s barn, and it’s just a farmer and his wife, and he wants to adopt one of dad’s sisters. (Laughs) But Big Mommy, Grandma, won’t give in to her. The next day, they go on down to Mercer County, in McComis, outside of Monongah, Bluefield, and they live in a coal camp for a couple of years. Dad’s seven years old now, two years later, and he goes up to the mines in the evenings after school, and walks home with his daddy from the drift mine. One evening, they carried his daddy out of the mines, and he follows them to the old, coal shanty house, and they put him in the little bedroom. Dad stands outside the door, and they come out and tell him, ‘Your Daddy’s dead.’ He was trying to work with double pneumonia in a water hole, and there wasn’t no Welfare, and there wasn’t no sick days, and you got seven young’uns, and Big Mommy, Grandma. What are you supposed to do?
It was getting ready to go in Hoover times, the Great Depression. And within those coal companies, within two halves or two paydays, they don’t usually go that long, if there’s not a working man in the mines, you got to go. They could just put you out. I’ve heard them putting them out the next day after a man got killed! And I also heard if a man got killed with a kettle bottom, petrified wood comes down, they will, the fellows that works on a section, will take part of the kettle bottom and put it out front of this woman’s house. It’s either on the porch or in the yard, so when the men walk by, the single men, they know this woman is looking for a husband. Big Mommy had seven young’uns, and what she did, he had a co-worker, a hand loader, a Mexican fellow. She married him, and they was able to stay there, and then within a year they moved over into McDowell County, way up in the head of this holler, and that’s kind of where Dad grew up.
But they didn’t talk anything about the mine wars or mine accidents. Just last May, I went to the Coal Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, West Virginia, and a fellow from Wisconsin put up a display about the Battle of Merrimac. I said, ‘what are you talking about? I never even heard of that. That’s where my Mother lived.’ I got to reading what it said, and it was after the Battle of Blair Mountain August 28th to September the 2nd, 1921. Fast-forward to May the 17th, 1922, Battle of Merrimac, twenty men were killed. I never heard of that, so I, I’m very much interested in researching that, and in finding out some of these other tidbits of what actually happened in these mine wars, and how my mother’s family’s people were involved, because they were there.
I went to Marshall University. I didn’t really care anything about it, because I knew we couldn’t afford it. Dad had been off four years from work with third stage Black Lung, and we were just scratching by. My buddy was a year older than me, and wanted me to go to Marshall with him, so I worked the summer that I graduated at a filling station in Keystone. I made a little dab of money, minimum wage, and I went to Marshall University that fall. I got up there, and I thought I was in New York City, you know. (Laughs) I went up there for orientation a couple of days in the summer, and you had to walk maybe three quarters of a mile to the University. I was walking up through there, and all these hippie guys were there, long hair and you know, bare-footed or sandals, wanting to bum money off of me. And I said, ‘what? I don’t have any money to give you jokers.’
Then I went there in the fall. Dad was so proud of me. He took me up there, and he wanted me to wear his brother’s old suit on the first day of class. I had it, but I was so embarrassed to do anything like that. I’d write letters, I got a little bit homesick. I worked ten, twelve hours a week on that work study, minimum wage, and I got a little tiny bit of assistance. For evenings on end, I walked all over Huntington trying to get a job to support and pay my tuition. I could not get one, just local people only. Halfway through the semester I decided, ‘Hey, I can’t pay it. I got to go.’ Dad come up there, and [we] caught the bus and went on home.
I got home and I think it was that weekend or the next weekend when they had the plane crash at Marshall that killed seventy-five people. And I was in their dorm! We’d play outside you know, sand lot football. I should have been on the Marshall football team, but I guess life threw me a curve. I went back home and worked in a little grocery store for a while, any kind of job, for fifty dollars a week, six days a week.
I came real close to going into the service a couple of times. The draft missed me. I tried to join the military, and I passed everything. And the recruiter in Bluefield said, ‘You do all your stuff, and come back to Bluefield and I’ll swear you in.’ They were swearing in over there at Beckley at the thing, and I said, ‘I need to go to Bluefield.’ This little Sergeant, about 5’ 3” come over, and started cussing my Mother, said, ‘You will get over there and swear in.’ And I said, ‘No, I won’t either.’ He started calling me an SOB, and I said, ‘Well you can have it.’ They wouldn’t give me a bus ticket back. I had to thumb back home, eighty miles in the middle of the night. (Laughs)
Right after that, I got a job as an orderly in a hospital. I took four classes, twelve hours, full-time, and got the Dean’s List. I was planning to go on, either in the service or go further in college, and I met my first wife. I think she wanted to get away from home. Anyway, I was age twenty, had a child coming, and [I started] working in the mines. I knew I wanted a middle class income for my family, and basically that’s where I went. [After] a semester of college, I got in the mines; the same mines my Dad worked in. [It was] very scary.
I passed the physical, and they sent me down to the company store to get my mining boots with the hard toes on them, and my mining hat, which was red. A miner has to wear every hat red for six months, and take a little test. And [I got] my bucket, an old, round bucket that I still carry and it’s kind of crumpled up where I’ve had it in little accidents, and this big, old leather belt to hang your light and your other stuff on. I was trying it on and the guy got it and was putting a little tag on the back of it, and I said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ He said, ‘give me your Social Security Number.’ I said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ He said, ‘Why, that’s to identify your body in case you get covered up or something, or in an explosion.’
A year before, a buddy of mine that got on with the mines didn’t make it six months to get his black hat. He was crushed by a roof fall. ‘Oh, God,’ I said, ‘Am I doing the right thing? But dadburnit I’m going to go!’ I went up the next day or two up to the mines, and rode the man trip, rode ten miles underground. It’s a very large mine, and they said, ‘Don’t stick your hands or feet out.’ [We were] going about thirty mile an hour on this track, and all you see are these timbers beside the sides just whizzing by you like fence posts, you know. ‘Hotrod Lincoln’ stuff. (Laughs) But I got up there and everybody got out and the boss, they always say a prayer and they do a little safety meeting first day of the week.
This old man, Hobe, they called him, couldn’t read or write, [but] the coal would come off the beltline into the cars, and he’d put a little mark every time it come by. He would say, ‘Please sweet Jesus, take care of these men.’ He would say a couple of other items, then, ‘And let them return home at the end of the work week unharmed to their loved ones.’ I always thought that was very, very moral and right to the point.
It was less than four foot high, and we walked about two-thirds of a mile up there to the section. The top is the pillar section, and everything’s kind of mashed down a little bit. And the top right, it’s about twenty-two feet wide, and some of the top, the timbers are kind of bowed down a little bit like a belly down. Like you’d be under a bed and somebody lays on it, how it bellies down. They say the top’s ‘bellied down.’ The ribs are on the side, and the face is where you work at. They got all the names, human parts, for all these different things in there.
I worked with another guy, and they put me up on a section right at the left side of the continuous miners, setting all these timbers, sawing them in this dust, and he’s getting push-offs and stuff, and the mountain’s working and popping, and I said, ‘Man, oh man, oh man! What have I got myself into to?’ But I didn’t quit. I just persevered. Every day. I learned the job a little bit better. A month or so later, I started running some equipment on that section. Filling in for somebody at lunchtime, is how you normally do it. Six months, and I made my miner’s black hat and then I switched to the ‘hoot owl’ shift.
I was still on hoot owl, we went on miner’s vacation the last week of June, first week of July, which is always the 4th of July holiday, and when we go back to work, we’re the first shift back, because we’re the hoot owl. We go in Sunday night, 12:01 Monday morning. Me and the other fellows, we go to work a little bit early, change clothes, and get on over to the lamp house, and get our lights, and get ready to go underground on the man trip at 12:01. The mines and been shut down two weeks. We go on up to our section about ten miles underground, and do our jobs, the continuous miner section. I don’t remember what I was doing. I was probably roof bolting or running a buggy or miner’s helper or something. But anyway, the whole crew at 4:00 in the morning, come down to the dinner hole. It was about 5 ½, 6 foot high.
We get down to the dinner hole, and that hoot owl is so dangerous because you tend to fall asleep. And the fellows that fall asleep, they run equipment. We come down to the dinner hole, and I was kind of set away from the fellows. You sit on a little stump you cut up from a timber, about ten inches high. Then you put a little, flat board on it called a cap board, then you lean back up against the timber like a fencepost, that’s got weight down on it. You sort of lean back and eat your sandwich, and lean back and rest a minute.
One by one, these fellows started turning their lights off. And Old Railhead yells at me, ‘Powerhouse, turn that dad-burn light off!’ I said, ‘Railhead, we can’t have our light off.’ ‘No, turn that dad-burn light off!’ ‘Alright.’ I hear them snoring over there, and I just said, ‘Well, I’m going to keep myself awake,’ but quite naturally, I fell asleep, too. Just a minute or two, and I started just snoring away, and my eyes popped open. There was something sitting on my chest breathing in my face, and I didn’t know what it was! It was totally pitch dark. Then, other things started crawling all over my legs and chest.
I remember taking my hand, and right in front of my eyeballs, going up to my hat to turn my light on. I couldn’t see nothing, and I got up there and put my hand on the knob to turn my light on, and I stood up real quick, and I shook and I turned my light on, and I looked over at the men! ‘Ahhhhhh! Wake up Railhead, Briar Patch, Pork Belly, Crapshoot! Get up! Get up!’ They all jumped up and they looked at me, and Old Railhead jumped up, and he slipped and fell down in that old, muddy, rock bottom. ‘What the heck’s wrong with you, Powerhouse? Are you crazy?’
‘Why, I may have lost a few marbles in my days, but you fellows had rats all over you! They was after them crumbs under the coveralls where they’d been starving for two weeks, and they might even like the way you look, Railhead.’ (Laughs) From then on, we always kept a light on in the dinner hole. Miners and rats are friends because miners will watch the rats, and if they go off the section that means the top’s getting ready to fall. Miners would feed them, and then we’d feed them during our lunch. Oh yeah, miners have been watching rats for hundreds of years.
Overseas, in England especially, mining was developed, and that’s what basically they brought over to here to Pennsylvania to mine coal, from the Welsh area, Wales and Southwestern England. They brought their skills over here and their expertise in how to do this stuff, and they developed some mining lights, called these ‘bug lights.’ We call them ‘possum lights,’ because of the crook of the tilt handle to hold them up. But for hundreds of years, miners have been watching rats. That was the only indication that the mountain was getting ready to fall in, because they’ve got an uncanny sense about them. They can feel when that rock is getting ready to fall.
Even eight, ten years ago, that tsunami over there around Indonesia, when they hit that big island and killed all them people, the natives of that area and their elders noticed the animals that were not tied up were coming up to high ground, and they immediately got all their village people. In came that massive, tsunami tidal wave, and killed hundreds of people, and the only animals it killed were the ones that were tied up. So, they have a beneficial aspect of the relationship with humans.
[When I got in the mines] they were saying, ‘Oh man, in another ten years this mine is going to be worked out.’ So I said, ] I think I’ll go back to school, and get me a college degree because I felt like it was possible, and I knew I could do it. I was on the evening shift, because I wanted to to take classes at Bluefield State. I wanted to take day or evening classes, so I got on the ‘hoot owl.’ Plus, I liked to watch Friday night football. (Laughs) You can’t do that on the evening shift. So that’s about what I did for years, until the mines shut down. I was at Eastern Gas and Fuel for eleven years, then they shut down.
I went [to school] three years, twelve, fourteen hours, made the Dean’s List all the time, and then I did my student teaching while I worked in the mines on the evening shift. A year later, the mines shut down, and right after that my second wife and I both got on as teachers in McDowell County.
I had a history undergraduate, Social Studies, teaching, and she had elementary. We had to get on in Special Education, because during the 1980’s all the people were leaving. You had to have a unique specialization to get on, so we took Special Ed, and they got this program where they pay for your Master’s. So after about three years, my wife and I took night classes and got our Master’s, which was a pretty good pay increase. It’s a very good job as far as keeping your job.
Then, they started closing schools, and closing schools, and it was a thirty minute ride for us, and then after twenty years they was going to send us way down in McDowell County. We put in at Mercer County, and got a job at a school ten minutes from our house, Bluefield Middle. I used to coach Special Olympics for twenty years, and do all that stuff. Took kids on field trips, coaching girls’ basketball in Middle School, got to Bluefield and coached some girls’ softball.
When my second wife and I got married, I had custody of my son. In the mid-seventies, that was unheard of. She got custody of her daughter, and they were a month apart in age. We got married in ’79. They were both six. Fourteen months later, our son, Troy, comes along, and it was just a yours, mine, and ours situation. We built a house way in the holler, Slaughterhouse Hollow, outside of Bluefield. (Laughs) Things went good. My son is now a doctor at CAMC. My older son is a Social Worker. He and his wife own a little business in Huntington. And my daughter, with two grandchildren beside of us who are just about grown, drives a school bus. We’re very proud of all of them. None of us had any real trouble with anybody, just good people. I had two good moral parents, a good upbringing, and a good work ethic. Dad was a veteran, all his brothers were veterans, my older brother was a veteran, and my son, who was a Social Worker, he was eight years in the National Guard. I’m proud to death of all of those people, and I just regret I wasn’t made to go, I guess.
Oh gosh. Let me tell you about my eighth year underground…
I finally got off the hoot owl, and I had to sign on day shift with the track gang when I got custody of that boy. It was working with mostly a bunch of African-Americans out of Cinder Bottom, in this red light district down in Keystone. [They were] big men, like John Henry, great big. We had a big boss, light-skinned, big old muscles, chest, shoulders, and real, tiny waist. He was the boss of this crew and I worked with them a while.
I managed to work on the bolt machine, because I knew how to run a lot of equipment on the face. They put me on a bolting machine running bolting-top, two men on a bolting machine, and I was working on this section called Top of 7 Rock Cliff. After three years I’d made my mining fire boss papers. I could work underground by myself. Dad kind of wanted me to do it, so I did it. I was working on this section, and I’d been up there bolting for several weeks, and the boss, Moe, came up to me and said, ‘I need two men to work over, but I can’t stay with you. I got something to do. I know you got your mining papers, so I want you to stay. And if I can get somebody else, will you stay and work a couple, three or four hours, bolt up the place and do some rock dusting, things that need to be done?’
I said, ‘Sure.’ I had three kids, and a little overtime would have been good. He got the only one he could to help me, Old Slim Wilson. He was a continuous miner operator, and he was tall, about 6’4”. It was forty-two inch coal. He was a real quiet man, but a very brave man. He’d run that continuous miner, and he’d be mining this pillar coal. We’d be doing retreat mining, and some of the timbers was half as big as telephone posts, and they’d be snapping and cracking right beside of him as he was up there doing this. The top would be falling out in the front of that miner, and he’d just leave the ripper heads on, cut it up, and back up. He agreed to work with me, so we go down to the dinner hole, and we sit there and have a sandwich, and drink a little bit of coffee while the other men are getting on that portable man trip.
It held about eight men and the boss, and they’d throw up their hand and take off, and the operator sits in the middle. They had a trolley wire, kind of like the San Francisco street cars, for power, and he turns the thing real quick and it flashes, and I put my hands up over my face. Old Slim says, ‘Why’d you do that for?’ And I said, ‘Well Slim, it could have been an explosion.’ But we didn’t have any gas there because it was quite a bit of air on the main line.
The last time I was on hoot owl, I was running a shuttle car like a truck on this section, forty-two inches high. The hallways were tight, and the two buggies, one had to get out of the way while the other one got a load of coal and got out of the way. Then I’d go up and get a load of coal and take it to the beltline, and we’d do this all night. This other buggy had just come through and went through the other buggy to the beltline. And as soon as he did, I stomped down on the electric accelerator and was getting ready to swing out to the place to go up to get it, and ‘Boom!’ this great, big methane explosion, just a ball of fire, went right by me. And I said, ‘Goodness gracious. Two more seconds and I would have been right in that. Thank you, sweet Jesus.’ I heard if a miner gets caught in that, it burns the skin off the body, and the eyeballs out of the sockets, and most likely you’re going to be body parts. And Slim said, ‘Yeah, I know. I’ve seen a methane explosion before and lived through it.’
I said, ‘Slim, why don’t go on the other side of that section, and get us some supplies and rock dust on that scoop or whatever, and I’ll go on down there about eight hundred feet, and take my bolting machine down there, and I’ll bolt the top. I can do it by myself.’ And he said, ‘Will you check the air and the top and make sure nothing’s too drummy, and do a methane reading?’ I said, ‘I’ll do all that Slim. Don’t worry about it. I got a canopy over my head. That will protect me.’ He said, ‘You be careful, Powerhouse. A bunch of rats got killed today where the ribs fell over on them. This section’s taking weight.’ ‘I’m all right, Slim. I’ll see you a little later.’
So we depart. He goes one way, and I go the other and I tram my machine down to the face and turn it off, and then I take my wood stick, and I feel the top, and everything feels pretty good. It’s not real drummy, and I do a methane reading and everything’s fine. I put a couple of safety jacks, metal jacks like floor jacks out in front of me about six foot, and then I measure a piece of wood four foot long. I go from the rib four foot out, and I mark a white X. Then, I keep going across and mark me another row. I come back to turn my machine on, and I use my drill steel and I drill a big hole up, and then I put a big stick of glue in it, and then I bolt and go around and spin it till it tightens up. I just go from left to right with five bolts across, and I do this for about a hour and a half. I’m up to the last row, and took all my jacks down, and I’m up to the very, last bolt on the right hand side. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Well now, this is the one my Dad said he always liked. Once I get this one done, my work’s over with. I can get to go home to my loved ones.’
I was bolting in to about halfway up, then “Boom!” a big, old mountain fall. The coal flies out from the front. It flies out from the sides, and it throws me back into the machine like I was a wet dishrag, and I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything. It threw me back in there, and in just a couple of seconds I felt myself caught. I took my free hand, the one that had been operating the controls and I reached up and pulled the coal dust away from my face so I could breathe, and calmed myself down a little bit. I wiggled my fingers, I wiggled my toes. Nothing broken. I thought, ‘Man, I been in worse fixes than this. I can get out of this.’
And then I heard it. My butt was against the hydraulic down lever on this machine, and this old, big eight hundred pound canopy was coming down on my head. My head had got jammed in under the bottom metal that goes up and in the head of the bolt machine. I knew I needed to get out of there. Immediately! I yelled up at Slim, but Slim can’t hear a lick. It kept slowly coming down getting ready to bust my head wide open. I said, ‘Lord, give me all your strength.’ I took two or three big breaths, and I pulled back with everything I had. Nothing moved an inch. I said, ‘Oh boy. This is not good. Slim! Slim!’ My voice started getting a little bit weaker and I could feel a little bit of liquid stuff on my face. Not a good situation. Then, my senses got real keen. My head was caught tighter than a tick in a dog’s ear. I could smell the old, pungent smell of the still mine air, and I could hear the water dripping off the roof. I could hear the rats, a few, what rats were left up through there. An old burlap curtain, a line curtain which we used to direct the air, was flopping up against the side there, and I realized I was getting ready to die in this old West Virginia coal mine, and there ain’t nothing I can do about it.
I just closed my eyes, ‘Please sweet Jesus; take care of my pregnant wife and her two small children. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. My cup runneth over. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.’ I opened my eyes a little bit, and I could hear it coming back down on my head, and I looked way up the straight about eight hundred feet, and I saw a flicker of light. I reached up with my free hand, and I hooked my cord on the back of my hat, turned my light back on, got the light out of the cap, and I started shining it up there about eight hundred feet.
In just a few seconds, Slim came from one tunnel and looked, and he looked down at me. And I started doing this circle, which means ‘come here,’ in underground light signals, and then I did it real quickly, indicating a miner was in trouble. So here he come, 6’ 4”, forty-two inch coal, muddy, old slope. ‘Hurry Slim, but don’t fall. Hurry Slim!’ He started coming down through there, and I noticed that the top was popping and dripping again, getting ready to fall again. ‘Slim! Slim! Hold up man. This place is getting ready to fall in.’
He didn’t pay any attention to me. He came down there and seen what happened, reached over and got a fence post timber off the rib, and jammed it right in there where this thing was coming down on my head and stopped it. I said, ‘Slim! Get out of here. This place is getting ready to fall in!’ He just looked at me and grinned, spit some tobacco, ‘You wouldn’t leave me, would you?’
He went to the back of the machine, got a pick and a shovel off, come around there, and dug me out, and helped me get out with the whole place dripping, and popping, and raising Cain. We got up through there a bit, about three hundred feet and we looked back, and the whole place was dripping like crazy. ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ I stuck out my hand to thank him for saving my life, and he just looked at me and grinned and spit out some chewing tobacco, and said, ‘You sure are one lucky fellow.’ We both pointed up to the good Lord above. (Laughs) True story.
I started working with these fellows recovering underground mine equipment from massive roof falls for an insurance company. We’d go the five state area, and down in Kentucky a lot, Wise and Grundy, Virginia. Once I got on with teaching, I’d still help them summers and long weekends. I did that for about seven or eight years. We went down to the other end of Wyoming County, right on the Kentucky border. They had a mine shut down for about five years, and all the water had come back to the first break-through as you go underground. About a hundred foot, all the water had come back to there, and it was roofed, about thirty foot wide. It was five and a half foot high, and we went down there to poke the water.
I told some buddies of mine, ‘Man, this is an easy job. We don’t have to unload rocks and none of that mess.’ We just go in there and pump the water down, because they had good top in there. Put power to it, about five miles underground, bring it outside, and the job’s done. We were doing that, and put in our suction lines, and our discharge lines, and that sort of thing. I started staying with a buddy of mine at night so we could watch the pipes. We’d been using electric pumps earlier that day. One of the fellows brought down a couple of gasoline pumps from the rental place, but you can’t put them underground so we put them about two hundred foot up the hillside away from it and ran some real long suction lines to help get the water down, so we can get this job done.
We go in there every half hour or so. We go in at midnight, and I pass out and fall down in the mud. My buddy passes out falls down in the water, revives himself, and runs outside, gets a couple of deep breaths of air, and comes back, and he can’t get me to do anything. He drags me up this slope. He said it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, because here I am, three hundred pounds. He got me outside, and I had done quit breathing. I was a dead man. He gave me mouth-to-mouth and CPR, and brought me back. Thank God he was a Vietnam veteran. I wake up the next morning with the sunshine beating on my face, ‘cause this is in July, and I can hear the birds singing. I didn’t know that I had died and got brought back. They said, ‘Go on and drive home. You’re too messed up in the head to work here.’ Here I go driving home, totally messed up, but I made it. I had my blood checked a little bit, two days later. The doctor said, ‘You were driving on pure instinct. If anything had happened, you would have crashed and maybe killed somebody.’
As teachers, my wife and I took a month-long class at Concord University during the summer. It was offered through Senator Robert Byrd. At the beginning of the class, we saw a lady come in and do a re-enactment of Mother Jones, and it impressed me. At the end of the class they said, ‘We’ve got to do a project.’ I wasn’t very tech savvy, but I said, ‘I think I can do what she did.’ I got a lot of experiences, crazy experiences. If they happened to me, a third of my life was in the mines, just think of somebody that’s worked forty, forty-five years in there. Man!
There’s about eighty seats in the auditorium. I got my old mining belt out, and boots, and light, and hat, and blackened my face. When my turn came, they turned the lights off. I turned my mining light on and I crawled into the room. I stood up and said, “Aww, thank God, glory hole. Man, this is where the top fell.’ I’d get me a drink of water, and I’d feed the rats a little bit. When I ate a piece of sandwich, I’d start talking to my dead buddy up in the corner, who got killed with some black damp. It’s a total absence of oxygen, and if you get in that, in two or three breaths you’re a dead man.
‘J.D. you out there? You out there, J.D.?’ And then I got to telling him some stories, like the rats on me that night. ‘Let me tell you some of these stories, J.D., and see what you think.’ After I talked a little bit, and I said, ‘Well J.D., it’s time to go. I’ve got to go back to work. I’ll see you, man.’ I got me a big, old drink, got my stuff, turned my light back off, and I got back down on my knees, and I crawled out, and I got just a thunderous ovation. (Pauses, overcome with emotion.)
People liked it, and one woman had a big technical presentation after me, and she said, ‘Well, how in the world do I follow that?” she said. (Laughs) I got into that, then I got a little bit into ‘Terror of the Tug,’ Jean Battlo’s story of ‘The Mining Wars’ out towards Welch. They came down there and did a documentary of that thing in ’07; Hillbilly: The Real Story,’ four segments narrated by Billy Ray Cyrus. For the coal-mining segment, I got my two grandchildren, they were eleven and thirteen, to come down for the summer. I’m the fellow holding the double-barreled shotgun. When that segment comes on, we’re getting ready to march up Blair Mountain, my Grandson and me, to do battle with the Logan County Defenders and the Baldwin-Felts thugs.
[Appalachians] are very strong, absolutely real, resilient people. It’s a little different now than when I grew up; everybody was working, and they looked after each other. I like Appalachian people. I like the music. I like the culture. I like everything about it. When I go to other places and I tell these stories, I’m trying to get rid of some of these negative stereotypes. I say, ‘You’re talking about the bravest people in the world.’ A lot of the miners were veterans, and they left the wars, and they come back to the mines.
I just hate to see the whole area disintegrating because of the economy built on coal. There’s a lot of different ways to look at coal. I grew up in the coal camps, and I thought it was the greatest place in the world, myself; everybody working and happy, going to church. Nowadays, it’s just devastated being in the coalfields, and I know they’re trying to come back with different ways of managing the coal, to still get it out. It’s getting to be less and less of an energy source for electricity and our steel mills. Round through this area it’s metallurgical coal, and the best coal in the world to make steel, but the steel mills are overseas now. (Laughs) So that’s a dilemma we’re facing.
[In ten to twenty years] You’re still going to have you a small town, but if you go out into the boonies a little bit, up into these hollers and stuff, they’re going to sort of go back to nature. The houses are going to crumble and dissolve, because I’ve seen it all over the place. People will leave, and after twenty years you better stay away from it, because it’s very much a danger.
There will be a lot of service jobs, maybe a few shop jobs for welding, and mechanic jobs. The schools the medical profession are doing the hiring now, and a few convenience stores. I think a lot of these people will be doing service jobs, and the ones that can will go on into training in the medical field or education field.
It’s so important to recognize, commemorate our ancestors for the many sacrifices, good and bad that happened to them, and learn from their experiences. And it’s such an important part of training for these young folks to be able to see what their ancestors did, and the struggles they went through, and we try to do that here at our little festival [Mercer County West Virginia Heritage Festival]. We’ve got twenty different types of history here, from pioneers, Native Americans, African Americans, railroaders, coal miners, Coal Mining Wars, people that’s doing different blacksmithing, and spinning wheels. We’ve got Civil War re-enactments. We had cavalrymen with horses. There were five hundred schoolkids Friday, and they had a wonderful time. It’s hands on, interactive, and I was one of the co-founders and co-organizers. This is our fourth year, and it’s grown tremendously ever year. I write grants, and we manage to have free admission and free parking. And I’m just so tickled with doing this. I want to tell the story of the miners, from the very beginning. I’m still doing it, and I feel blessed to be able to do that. That’s my story, I guess. “