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Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

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Of coal mines, and
light in dark places | The abundant, expensive, easy-on-the-eyes lighting in corporate boardrooms. ...

The darkness and gloom of a subterranean coal mine. ...

At first glance, the two places could not be more different. The boardrooms, with everything seemingly illuminated, in buildings with walls of glass to let the sun in ... the coal mines, black and claustrophobic, beneath the earth where not a glimmer of light can possibly penetrate. ...

Yet the news from the two places over the weekend -- the news from some boardrooms, where the fallout from deceptive accounting practices continues to shake the very foundation of the U.S. economy; the news from the coal mine in Somerset County, Pa., where, as hope appeared to be running out, the nine men were pulled from the collapsed and flooded shaft where they had been trapped for 77 hours. ...

Some of those bright, airy boardrooms have been places of considerable darkness lately. Those boardrooms where everything can allegedly be seen, in full view of those in charge -- those boardrooms have begun to strike the American public as murky, muddy places. The lights may be turned on in those rooms -- but the shades, symbolically, have been drawn. The light of the outside world was not permitted inside.

In that Pennsylvania coal mine, there would seem to have been virtually no light for most of the time the men were trapped. It is difficult to imagine a darker place -- literally and symbolically -- than the shaft where the men waited. The first thoughts: Does anyone know what has just happened to us? The second thoughts: Are they trying to save us? The third thoughts: What if they can't? Imagine, if you will, being hemmed in 240 feet below ground for five minutes. Now multiply it: Imagine being trapped for 77 hours. And not knowing what is next.

That is where the light, the glory, comes in: the faith of the men below, the determination of the rescue workers above. In utter darkness, the most magnificent kind of light: the light of humans struggling to free their fellow humans, not caring that the odds are almost impossible, caring only that any odds at all are good enough.

The miners, it was said, wrote some of their last wishes and messages for their families, in the event that the nine of them were to die in the shaft. They reportedly put the messages in the safest place they could think of down there: a lunch pail.

If ever there were a fitting emblem for the difference between the coal mine of all that invisible, yet beautiful, light, and the boardrooms of all that darkness disguised as illumination, the lunch pail is it. Coal miners carry lunch pails; the corporate chieftains do not. Such distinctions, while always a part of the business landscape, have not been talked about much in recent years, because the purportedly prosperous economy was bathed in a sea of feel-good words where workers were told that they, as much as the CEOs and CFOs, were the owners of the companies, that there was no wall between the boardroom and the factory floor.

We may be on the verge of re-entering a previous era in U.S. business -- an era in which distrust and skepticism between management and labor were not only rampant, but a constant way of life. No industry has a more vivid history in this regard than does coal mining -- from wages, to safety, to the very health of the men who breathed that dust every day, the story of coal in America is a drama worthy of Shakespeare, assuming Shakespeare would have had the guts to go down into the mines. The pay for mining is pretty good these days -- but for most people, no amount of money would be enough to make them descend into the shafts. We may dress up the lexicon of American business -- "energy trading" is a phrase that was used to describe what Enron did in the darkness of its bright suites -- but in the end, energy, as it always has, comes from the backs of the workers who have to go retrieve it. The coal is down there -- the miners, every day, are expected to go get it.

It's a story full of lightness and joy, the story out of Pennsylvania over the weekend. It played out during days of darkness in other sectors of the business world -- sectors where, even when the lights were burning, things were beginning to crumble in dim and hidden corners.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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