"Black as coal? Yeah, maybe. So what?"



Before I begin, I, the writer, must tell you, the reader, a few things about this story. First, it's a story about mining coal in Kentucky. I'm not a miner, and I'm not from Kentucky, originally, so I don't know much about either, but I'm going to do my best to get it straight. I don't know all the right words, but I know the simple words, so that's what I'm going to use here. Second, since this is a story about mining coal in Kentucky in the middle of the twentieth century, and since it involves black and white within the context of the southern United States, it's a story about hate. I can't get around that, since I didn't make it happen, and I can't get around certain words that denote the hate. Again, I don't know all the right words, but I have to use the words I was given when this story was first told to me. I know you'll forgive me, once you finish it to the end, since it's not just about hate. Which brings me to the third item, that this is a story about men and women and a bad thing that happened to them, and you would think this would only make the hate stronger. It doesn't. It is, in fact, the best thing about this story, because the bad thing, in the end, makes this a story about love and redemption. Love, I tell you now, is the reason why I wrote it all down, in the first place. If I'm lucky and I get it right, if I manage to use the right words, then I hope it will make you cry. I hope it will make you smile, too. Now that you know these three things about it, I can tell you the story, so read and listen with both your mind and your heart.

Like I said, the setting is Kentucky, 1960. I'll call the mining operation the Kenton County Coal Works, though that wasn't its true name. It happened there, way up in the northern peak of the state, where the hills roll green and endless, and where, some time millions of years past, nature laid the ground rich with deep, hidden, treasure-bound seams of coal. If not for the coal, nobody would have been down in those dark, treacherous places and I wouldn't have this story to tell you, because nobody likes to freely go down in the dark where the devil dwells, not if they don't have to go.

I traveled there in middle of that year, just before summer fully set the blacktop to roiling with shimmering heat, though it was hot enough in May, that year. I had never been to Kentucky, being a northerner, myself, and I thought it must be a backward place, given the haughty nature of Baltimore society at the time. In many ways, it was as I imagined it would be, but, then again, it wasn't. It was beautiful in an unspeakably natural way. I had never seen so many trees and such contours atop the earth. The way the roads pitched and yawed through the crevasses and cracks etched within this planet's hide lent to my thoughts a sense of surprise with each new dip of my rental car's frame. Until you go there, you cannot guess what lies in store for your wide, wonder-filled eyes just around each twist in the avenue or just beyond each rise in the lane.

I traveled there for a reason, since a bad thing happened at the Kenton County Coal Works and since I must tell the tale to thousands of curious readers. The bad thing is why I went, but I stayed, as I have stayed ever since, because of the good that came of it, and because of the nature of that verdant state.

When I drove into the Coal Works, I found it to be the genuine and absolute opposite of the state, itself, because the Coal Works was a bald, ugly scar in the face of it all. It was a barren, tilled, dirty place, filled with dirty men and dirty equipment, scabbed over with a series of unpainted, shabby structures that housed a shabby sort of business, that of delving deep into the heart of the earth in a sort of endless rape to haul out buckets of black rocks to burn. I remember, at the time, how I wondered why a man would ever set foot in such a beautiful place and think of all the ugly things that they could do to it in the name of a dollar, though it be the same dollar millions, maybe billions, of times over. I thought then, and I still think now, such men are monsters, craven beasts with no eye for aesthetics or beauty. When I met them in order to hear their story and tell this tale, I realized they were just that, craven, greedy men.

Yet, I suppose America needs that kind, like it needs its poets and artists, too. I suppose, in fact, maybe America needs that kind more, as much as it saddens me to say, to make itself into the great protector of the world. That coal they gouged from the guts of the earth there fired electric plants and steel mills, and the electricity and the steel combined to make tall buildings and powerful ships of both commerce and war. So there, at the Kenton County Coal Works, and at a thousand other ugly places just like it, America preserved its beauty for all the beautiful people that live there. And the ugly ones, too, I guess.

The man who told me the ugly part of this story, that part about the bad thing and how the bad thing came to happen, he was an ugly man, I guess, but he had a beautiful soul. I think the bosses in such a place must be twinned that way, split between the rape of the earth that was the brutal prospect of coal mining and the natural beauty of his home. This man, nick-named of all things 'Cooter Jones', loved to fish in the streams and hunt in the woods. He could and eventually did tell me the names of every kind of tree and animal that wandered that northern peak of Kentucky, and he could tell where the fat, black bears went in the winter and best how to catch the fat, gasping catfish in the spring. As easily, he could tell how to take a coal-dusted piece of ugly machinery and drive it deep down into the bowels of the world to scrabble black stones that burn to light the world, and he could turn his old, grizzled gaze on the raw scar of the Coal Works with a loving demeanor and he could love it, too. He loved it, not simply because it fed him and his family and the countless families of his neighbors. He loved it because, in its unseemly way, it made America mighty and strong, and because it could make America right, thereby rendering all other nations on Earth right, too, one day.

"It brings light to the dark," he told me with his southern drawl, speaking around a huge cheek-full of tobacco, "it educates our children and it feeds our bellies. Sure," he said, the word sounding more like 'shore', "it makes certain rich man richer and certain fat women fatter, but that's only part of it. The rest of it is for us, since we got a union, and a damned good one, too, that watches over us and makes us safe, that is, when it can and when the fat men will let it. Still, the best thing about coal and the Kenton County Coal Works," he told me with an air of absolute authority, since he was the boss- not the man who got richer from the mining but the man who ran the place and governed its men like a father governs his children, "the best thing about it is that it's all us, you see. We did this thing. We do it every day. We go down into the pits of hell unafraid every morning and every night, and we earn our livin'. Not like some I know, who are content to lay about dependin' on the government," which sounded like 'gubment', "to feed us and make do for us. A lot of folks, folks like you, no harm intended, folks from up north, mostly I guess, say Kentucky is a backward, lazy land of uneducated souls." At this point, I wondered if he could read my mind. "And, to be fair, I suppose in some ways it is, but that's not all it is. I can tell by the way you look around here, how the countryside smote you, mister, like the power and the glory once smote Abraham over that rocky slab. You looked… awestruck… when I first seen you drive through them front gates, and then you looked… disgusted… like you couldn't imagine so much ruin amid paradise. That's okay, mister," he guffawed, waving my unspoken protests away, as he led me across the property to a ramshackle building that bustled with dirty men and dusty work, "I feel the same way most days I report to work. I don't like what the Coal Works has done to this here valley, any more than you do, except I know what it's done for that valley over yonder," he said, pointing over a steep ridge to the northwest, "and that one back there," he added, pointing over another blue ridge laying to the south, "and a dozen other valleys you can't see. It's built homes there, and it's raised up happy, healthy children, who all play in the clear-runnin' streams and scamper through the whisper quiet woods. Some of them kids work here, same as their daddies, like my oldest boy does, too, but some of them kids go on to college in Lexington or Louisville or beyond. Some of them kids become doctors and lawyers and engineers, too, all paid for from their daddy's, and sometimes, their momma's pockets, which this here Coal Works fills, day upon day.

"It's a good job, you know, if it's a dangerous one, too," he told me, pointing the way I should walk, where a pair of subordinates stood beside an odd, flat car that had recliners for seats and a strange, U-shaped steering wheel. "And, sure, some men die here, never to see their sons or daughters grow up to become whatever they would become. Still, we take care of them that goes down but never comes up, and we see to it that their families don't go hungry, 'cause that's how we are, mister – backward, maybe, but righteous… proper. You know?"

I nodded that I did know, when he paused near the strange vehicle and seemed to require my consent. One of his subordinates, a middle aged, paunchy man with eager eyes and a quick, crooked smile, who was childishly named 'Billy', despite his advanced age, offered me a dirty yellow hardhat, asking, "Is this the dude from Boston, goin' to write about Laroix?"

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