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A Life 'Not Afraid' in a Hardscrabble Mining Town

The little village of Tallmansville, W. Va., sits alone now. The eye of America's pervasive media has moved on, leaving the families to bury their dead in hillside cemeteries, and the preachers to ask questions for which there are no answers, save perhaps in the Book of Job.

Watching the tragedy unfold, I kept being reminded of Coalwood, the mining town in West Virginia where I grew up. Back then, I thought life in Coalwood was pretty ordinary, even though men died or were horribly maimed in the mine all the time. My grandfather, run over by a careening shuttle car, lost both his legs and lived in pain until the day he died. My father lost an eye to a snapped cable while trying to rescue trapped miners, though he kept on working for fifteen years afterward. He would eventually die of black lung, which is a polite way of saying he suffocated to death, his lungs choked with coal dust.

When I began to write my books about Coalwood, I was surprised to discover, upon reflection, that it wasn't an ordinary place at all. It was a town filled with people who had learned to live in a harsh place by adopting four basic attitudes toward life: We are proud of who we are. We stand up for what we believe. We keep our families together. We trust in God but rely on ourselves. Put together, it allowed them to say and believe: We are not afraid.

My life in Coalwood and present-day Tallmansville is separated by nearly a half century. Yet, I recognized everything about the village I saw on television: the tiny but spotless church sitting proudly on the hill, the old wood-frame houses, and the vast mine. Just as in Coalwood, the people of Tallmansville are strong, resilient and self-effacing. Thank God they are, and that they continue to do the dirty work of coal mining, on which the prosperity of this country depends.

My father use to say if coal died, the country died. He was right. Our economy rests on the back of the coal miner. If we did not have the black diamonds of the mountains to burn, we would lose more than half of the nation's energy reserves. As the price of oil has increased, coal mining in West Virginia has become king once more. Coal miners these days are not pick and shovel types. They operate complex, heavy machinery. They know mine geology and understand intricate ventilation techniques. Their world underground is dynamic, challenging, and difficult. Death stalks them every day. During the television coverage of the Tallmansville mine disaster, the question kept being asked, in one form or another: Why do these men do it? Why do they go into these deep mines?

When I was a boy, one of my favorite places to go was a pine-filled hollow high on the mountain behind our house. It was a place where the industrial song of Coalwood subsided. I would sit on a dead log and listen to nothing except the beating of my own heart and the thoughts racing through my head. One of the things I used to think about was the cold war between my parents, a war that had been fought without cease all the days I had known them.

My mother hated the mine. She saw Dad leave the house every morning and disappear inside it. She argued with him constantly about it, begging him to quit. But he never did, not until he began to spit up blood and his miners refused to let him go inside any more. Sitting there, in my little copse of pine, I couldn't understand why my dad loved the mine so much. Eventually, I went underground and then I knew. He loved the challenge of coal mining. He loved the choreography of the miners at the face, a ballet of heavy machinery. He loved that mining coal defined who he was and it gave him an identity and a source of pride.

This was true for my father in Coalwood long ago. I believe it is true for the miners of Tallmansville today. Fortunately, in times of tragedy, they and their families are still sustained by the old values:

We are proud of who we are. We stand up for what we believe. We keep our families together. We trust in God but rely on ourselves. We are not afraid.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Homer Hickam