August 03, 2004
a coal mining camp
The Lewellen mine opened sometime in the 1920s or '30s. It had been there on the side of that mountain for a long time before I was born. I still remember watching the man-trip run up and down the tracks on that hill and waiting by the fence to watch my daddy walk home with his entire body covered in coal dust. He was often the blackest man I ever saw.
I showered with him once at the Bathhouse next door to the Company Store. I was six years old and intimidated by all the hairy, nekkid men around me. These were all rough-cob coal miners with large muscles, calloused hands and dicks a lot bigger than mine, enveloped in the steam from the showers. My daddy told me not to worry. "These men are my friends," he said. "Nobody is going to mess with you."
Nobody did. In fact, one guy who worked for my dad scrubbed my back for me. I walked out of there feeling like a full-grown man at the age of six. I had been to the Bathhouse. I washed with the coal miners. I thought I was a Tall Dog.
I have a picture of the house we lived in back then and it's pretty much a shack. Hey! But it was a GOOD shack because my daddy was a supervisor and we lived on Front Row, right next to the highway, just across from the railroad tracks, where all the really good shacks were. We didn't have indoor plumbing and I know quite well what a winter wind feels like blowing up through the hole in an outhouse while your tender ass is perched on it, but we didn't live on Back Alley, on the bank of the Cumberland River, where the drunks and promiscuous wimmen lived. We had status, for what it was worth.
The mine ran out of coal and shut down in 1958. It had operated for more than 40 years on a good seam of Golden Ash coal, the finest coal in the world. $15 a ton back then. My daddy was without employment, without insurance and the father of a diabetic son, who required a lot of medical treatment. He had a decision to make. He was offered several other jobs in mines all over Kentucky, but he turned them all down. He KNEW that if he stayed there, my brother and I would grow up to be coal miners. That's all there was to do back then.
He and my mama loaded up all they could pack into a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air and moved to Savannah, with no prospects and no idea of what they would do next. We had a place to stay, at my grandmother's house, but that was it.
Do you realize the kind of courage that took? I didn't back then, but I do now. I admire my father more than any man I've ever known in my life. He was a hard-ass and we didn't always get along, but he had more balls than any other TWO men I've encountered in life. My dad was one hell of a man.
I think in a lot of ways I've always felt that I didn't measure up to his standards. I still wonder about that today, even though my father has been dead for 12 years.
The Lewellen coal mining camp is gone now. The company bulldozed all the houses and and sold the lumber for scrap. Somebody was growing corn there the last time I saw it in 1983. I doubt that I ever will go back.
But I'll never forget it, either.
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