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COMMENT Almost heaven? God made the coal and He hid it. Then some fool found it, and we’ve been in trouble ever since. -Coalminer adage . In the fall of 1879, a Protestant seminarian named Vincent Van Gogh quit his studies in Brussels and went off to preach the gospel to the miners of the Walloon coalfields. There, while sharing the hapless lives of the miners, the 26year-old missionary went through his first great spiritual crisis. So moved was he by the plight of men who dug their own graves every day that he gave away his worldly goods, only to be expelled from the ministry for too literal an interpretation of Christian teaching. Penniless and with his faith in shambles, Van Gogh fell into a deep despair. He cut himself off from his friends and began to draw in earnest, thereby finding his life’s true work. I spent most of 1975 in the coalfields of central Appalachia, first as an underground miner in southern West Virginia, then as a newspaperman and college instructor across the Cumberlands in eastern Kentucky. My sojourn in the mountains did not produce in me anything like a spiritual crisis, but it led to what has proved a permanent purchase on my consciousness, and I feel driven to tell something of that stretch of time, the more so now that miners have been much in the news. Down into the earth Why it was that I decided to become a coalminer is hard to say, but I suppose a good clinician could come up with a serviceable answer. The cockamamie story I gave to West Virginia mine superintendents does not bear repeating here, but it worked and I got on at Island Creek Coal Company’s no. 5 mine in the town of Blair, a head-of-the-hollow jerkwater in Logan County. After passing Island Creek’s physical exam at a hospital in Logan \(the county seat and a throbbing dynamo of company store to buy the implements and apparel of my new trade, getting nicely gouged in the process, as I was later to learn. Lodgings were found in the rear of Becky Burgess’s hep-ur-sef grocery on Route 119 in Blair for $10 a week, and installed there, I began a week of “training” down the road in Holden. Safety lectures, given desultorily by a string of half-asleep company time-servers, alternated with instructional film strips scored with the “Victory at Sea” overture and banjo tunes. These preliminaries seen to, I was deemed ready to go down into the earth and begin work as a fetch-and-carry laborer. The mine office at no. 5 put me on a moonlit Sunday night in early May I got in my car and traveled for the first time the frightful ribbon of mud holes that crept up Blair Mountain, without benefit of guard rails, to the mine portal. For the next four months, this ride to the mine, made with scarcely more confidence in daylight, would furnish me with my minimum adult daily requirement for adventure and self-actualization. By the time I was taken on, no. 5’s working face had reached five and a half miles inside Blair Mountain and 750 feet beneath its ridges of basswood and rhododendron. But of more consequence than shaft depth, distance from the good blue sky, and the unimaginable weight of the mountain above me were the dimensions of the mine’s tunnels. The seam of coal veining Blair Mountain was rarely thicker than 33 inches. In practical terms, this meant that miners worked entire shifts in spaces with ceilings rarely higher than three feet. Locomotion was a matter of crawling, sometimes on one’s belly. If you want to know what that’s like, spend a day on all fours beneath your kitchen table. It can be rough on your breakfast, and I cast out my vitals more than once after eating lunch in no. 5. I have little new to say about the legendary working conditions in the coal industry. The ambitious reader is directed to Zola Orwell \(The D. H. Lawrence, Mead Arble, and Clancy Sigal for trompe l’oeil descriptions of the dust, noise, fear and unspeakable darkness that have always been part of the miner’s life in Europe and America. The roster of my own spell underground includbd an elec trical fire, several very impressive roof falls, numerous wildcat strikes \(invaremergency trips to the hospital, andin mitigationhundreds of hours in the company of a miner worthy of any writer’s notice. Before my move to West Virginia, I was only stereotypically aware of Appalachia and the men who dug its soft coal. I expected to dwell among dull and defeated wage slaves, broken in health from years of stoop labor and hostile to overeducated outsiders after more than a decade of meddlesome migratory poverty warriors. As it turned out, I was not disappointed in much of thisI met with broad resignation to lives that promised mean and disabling labor, and it seemed that most of my union brothers \(and their food and a few months in the sun. In many respects, too, I found the mountaineers’ reputation as xenophobes richly deserved. But Christopher Columbus put the lie to most of my preconceptions. Columbusthat’s what everyone at no. 5 called the man. \(His last name was Coombs, and for a front name he had one of those epicene Scotch-Irish affairsArville or Purvis or Dale or AubreyI aloud in the bath house that every time the machinery cut open a new corner of the mountain, he felt as if he were Christopher Columbus, like a man who was about to go somewhere no mortal had been beforethus the nickname. Columbus was a roof bolter and I was his helper, obliged to hand him the steel rods he drilled into the strata to keep it from stoving in on the mine and the miners. Columbus took good care of me, the green hat, that new boy, my brother from up in Vermont. Though he was in his mid-50s, he could outcraW1 me in spades; at shift’s end, he’d bellow prehistorically at the sky when I could only make the sounds of a man who felt several hundred years old. Inside the mine, Columbus tried to pass on to me everything he knew about staying safe and alive; he urged on me, to no avail, his chewing tobacco \(he looked like every collie I’ve ever seen with a alimentary passions \(typical miner fare: his Free Will Baptist eschatology \(a politics \(the day the North Vietnamese captured Saigon, Columbus organized a miner caravan to Logan and the enlist 6 MARCH 31, 1978 ,9,104,411