The first miner from the collapsed mine in Chile is up, and the capsule is headed down to get the next miner. I made a snide remark on Twitter, but I’m happy that he’s up. Watching news of mine disasters is something of a family preoccupation.
My mother’s family comes from the coal mining region along the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Grandpa left the mines when she was a small child, but she returned in the summer and visited the multitude of cousins. (Grandpa was one of 14 kids that lived. If I remember right Grandma had 6 brothers and sisters. There were a LOT of cousins.) I learned some about the mines from Mom, but the most I learned when I spent time with my Grandmother, who was born in a mining town and didn’t leave until she was an adult who was married and had two children. Her father had started working at age 12 sorting coal until he was big enough to go down into the mines three years later. As far as she knew her people had been miners since they settled in that part of the country.
One night when Granny was babysitting us, the TV program I was watching was interrupted by a news alert about a mine cave in. I started to complain, only to be shushed. Something in her voice caught my attention and I looked. Her face was white, her eyes wide, staring at the screen but not really seeing it. She was absorbing the story with her ears, but her mind was seeing something else. After a while she told me about it. I didn’t hear all of the stories that night; it emerged a bit at a time over years.
A cave in is.. a cave in. If it isn’t your husband, brother, or father down in the mine it’s just because he was off shift. If it’s not immediate family it’s your neighbor, your cousin, or an in-law. And if it isn’t you, or your loved one this time it may be next time. EVERYTHING stops, including the usual rivalries, hatreds, and social divisions. The guy on the next pick is management. If the guy on the other side of him isn’t the mine engineer, it’s because the mine engineer is part of the crew putting in temporary bracing in the part already cleared.
Outside the mine women who would cut each other dead on the street worked side by side to fill tables with food for the rescue workers, while taking turns watching each others’ kids. Basically the whole town moved down to the mine entrance and pretty much lived there till the last miner was rescued or confirmed dead, and a truce existed for the duration. It didn’t matter if your worst enemy was the only one still missing. You kept going till he was safe or you knew his fate- And you KNEW that he would do the same if the roles were reversed. If either of you failed it would be impossible to live in the town after things were over.
The folks in the next hollow over might well work for a different mine, be members of a rival union, or even be scabs. In some areas there might have been actual violence between the people in your town and theirs in the past. It was set aside. There were miners to be rescued. The able bodied men would arrive first, followed by the old men bringing the women. food, and more tools. The owners of the mines might hate each other, but nobody was fired for going to try to rescue trapped miners. It might be his mine next time.
In a way, Granny never left the mines. Each time there was a mine disaster in the news, I saw her anxiously scanning the news. If we were out somewhere she noticed the top of the hour was coming and turned on the car radio for news. The story might be buried deep in the California newspaper where she lived, but she would find it. In her late 70′s she learned to use a web browser so she could read more news online. I had moved away by then but each time I talked with her on the phone she still knew all about any current mine disaster.
When mine disaster news came on the TV, Granny’s eyes saw the TV picture, and her ears heard the story. But her mind was at the gate to a mine half a continent away, waiting anxiously for word of the fate of friends and family. Watching the rescue of the miners in Chile my mind is at the other end of the continent, once again watching my grandmother hang on every detail.