Jewish World Review August 8, 2002/ 30 Menachem-Av, 5762

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

Ode to a coal miner | The whistle at the mine sounded for each shift change, blared for every accident. That sound was livelihood, schedule, life and death. That sound meant men trapped, men injured, lives changed. Rows of company houses proclaimed how inextricably intertwined the mines were in the lives of miners and their families. Tennessee Ernie Ford wasn't kidding when he sang Sixteen Tons, "Saint Peter don'tcha call me 'Cause-I can't go...I owe my soul to the Company Store."

When the whistle sounded, hundreds of Al Jolsons trekked through town, lunch pails empty, weary from crouching within Mother Earth to retrieve her stubborn fuel. Their days were the same for a lifetime; the only variant was that lifetime's length. Some succumbed to accident stories deep in the earth. Others lost to black lung's slow suffocation. Death by occupational hazard was the norm.

Nanty-Glo was my hometown. The elders explained that the name meant "streams of coal" in some language they could never name. It could have come from the language of Jack Daniels spoken on Friday and Saturday nights at Bruno's or Erculini's.

I come from a long line of coal miners. My grandmother's first husband died in the mines. "Crushed thigh from coal cutting machine," the coroner wrote. My grandfathers were coal miners. My heritage is a rich one of brave men with perpetually black fingernails.

Watching the rescue efforts of the 9 miners in Somerset, Pennsylvania, just miles from Nanty-Glo, brought a flood of memories and inspiration. I never heard a miner complain. They descended fearless into black holes. The whistle summoned a hardy breed whose work ethic is part of me. How could I think my lot hard after living among miners? Being drafted was a welcome break for them.

The drama in Somerset was a chance to be inspired again by the gallantry of 9 men who joked, as they tied themselves together, that the company owed them overtime. Their first words when the cell phone dropped were, "What took you so long?"

Their lives hung in the balance, but there was no whining, just Ronald Reagan humor and grace under pressure, and gratitude for being spared to mine again. Today's whiney, post-traumatic-stress-disorder victims are an insult to bituminous miners. Upon rescue, they wanted a chew, just a pinch of Copenhagen, having lived 77 hours snuff-free. To a miner, tobacco's hazards offer a more pleasant passing.

What men, these miners. Dennis "Harpo" Hall shunned praise, "I was just doing my job." Nine fathers, 9 married men, literally and figuratively bound together, spent what they thought were their last hours writing notes to their wives and children. "Moe," "Flathead," a conglomeration of nicknames who love the mines and their $15 an hour.

Enter Geraldo et al and a caveat. I see a betrayal emerging particularly from the youngest miner, 31-year-old Blaine Mayhugh, who has already made the media rounds to David Letterman. He assured Dave, twice, that he's okay physically, but not emotionally and that he will never mine again. I smell an Oprah appearance and a lawsuit coming. Leave it to Gen X to hatch the wimp miner.

Young Mr. Mayhugh, quit the mines if you must, but do not betray your heritage or the dignity of your forefathers. Counselors are swooping in for the feeding frenzy as they assure these folk with their odd Pennsylvania accents (note "wash," "shower" and creative verbs) that they cannot survive without psychological intervention.

Pshaw! Mining is in their blood, perhaps more than they know given OSHA findings on coal dust. As psychological mumbo jumbo descends on Somerset, I find myself screaming, "Don't you dare!" Don't you dare portray the human spirit as fragile china that shatters at the slightest force. For centuries, the fiber of those mining towns has shown that the human spirit is resilient, powerful and capable of overcoming more than modern psychiatry will allow.

The juxtaposition of the upbeat press conference of the 9 miners with the Fort Bragg revelations that soldiers returning from Afghanistan have been killing their wives and themselves (4 wives down; one husband down by his own hand) is revealing.

When placed in gruesome and threatening circumstances from which fate plucks us alive, we have two choices. We can wallow in self-pity or we can march on. In a recent program on post-9-11 stress, there were 3 profiles of New York-area residents. One, a high school student, was using marijuana to cope. I'll bet he never touched it before! The other two were a woman who walked her way out of the WTC and a paramedic who answered the call of duty. These two women say their lives are now paralyzed. But, gals, you made it. Soldiers, you did it. By living with zest, not hobbling along paralyzed by fear or consumed with psychosis, you honor those who perished.

Honored, resilient miners! Teachers of survival with grace, dignity, and humor. No fear, no victim status, no whining. Chewing tobacco is optional.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2002, Marianne M. Jennings