Hollowed Ground

The longer I stayed in Rock Creek that first spring, the more I readied to leave. I blame my despondence, in part, on my computer—there’s nothing quite like it to steal you from the present, and as my campaign neared its end, I worked 16-hour days. But a few things happened that rattled me more than anything. The first was the crash.

On a sunny morning in March, as miners headed home from the night shift, two pickup trucks collided in front of the house. I was on the porch when it happened and looked up to see a cloud of sparks and shattered windows rain down the embankment into the river. I sat still for a moment as the cloud cleared. When I could see the two trucks smoldering, I grabbed a blanket from the couch and ran out to the road. Cars had already lined up on both sides of the crash, and a man in a jumpsuit was prying open the door to one of the trucks. I helped him guide the boy out—he had a deep gash in his arm and a broken ankle, but otherwise he appeared fine. The other truck was much harder to open, and so we pulled the young, gangly miner out through the window. Blood obscured most of his face, and his ribs had been crushed against the steering wheel. We spread the blanket on the road, and laid him down. The man in the jumpsuit asked for his mother’s phone number and ordered an onlooker to make the call. A helicopter arrived, and the young miner died on the stretcher.

An old-timer had once told me, “Every time you turn on the lights, there’s blood of a miner there somewhere.” The accident, though out of the mines, made his words suddenly, disturbingly true. It seemed such an undue death—to spend every day beneath cracking roof bolts and methane pockets, losing sleep with each ton of coal shipped east, thanking God when leaving the mine alive, and then to die on the way home. It was my first interaction with a working miner, apart from the stilted hellos I exchanged with sooty-faced men in Lloyds. The miners I had come to know were the ones who had survived, bent backs and black lungs proof of their service. They were of an entirely different generation than the young miner who died in the road—they remembered when Whitesville hummed, when there were more jobs than men to fill them, when the union kept wages up and the company stayed underground.

According to Chuck Nelson, most young miners never heard this history. Massey men learned to mine coal fast, by whatever means necessary. Some miners’ commitment to the company bordered on idolization—they wore Massey T-shirts like letterman jackets, fixed flags to the backs of their motorcycles, and chanted the company name at rallies and counter protests. As anti-mountaintop removal sentiment swelled in the Valley, so did their zeal. Locals like Wiley fielded daily threats, and at the Rock Creek house, we stayed up nights to watch the bridge after rumors of arson had circulated through Lloyd’s. Then on a July afternoon, a truck full of drunken miners stormed a music festival where the Valley’s activists had gathered to celebrate another year of work. That night, I moved south to Wise County, Virginia, and didn’t return until after the mine explosion.

Before I left the Valley this April, I took the road north from Whitesville to Sylvester, turned left at a sign that read, “Pray for our miners and their families,” and stopped at Carrie Lou’s. The house was yellow and small, with a neat yard and well-lived-in rooms. She and Virgil shared the place with their niece and her two children. When I came in, Virgil was washing dishes. Plastic Tonka trucks cluttered the thick red carpet, and a baby slept in the corner room. Carrie Lou poured me a glass of ice water and sat with me at the kitchen table. She asked a question, but the phone rang. Her niece came in, set a fussy newborn on the counter, and began changing her diaper.

“You have any kids?” she asked.

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” I said. She was 25.

“Good, you’re young. You should wait.”

Carrie Lou shook her head as she hung up the phone. Then she looked at me, trying to remember what she wanted to say.

“You’re going to come back soon, aren’t you?” she said, finally. “You’ve got to learn those dances.”

Sierra Crane-Murdoch ’10 has moved to Virginia, where she reports from the coal fields in the southwestern corner of the state.

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