Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Coal Minds

You smell the coal mines before you see them.

The acrid odor hits and then, just around the bend, the long arms of machinery and piles of black coal replace the snow-laced mountainside in southern West Virginia.

Another twist in the road and it's all gone. Just stray dogs and rows of coal camp houses, some signs for towns built around half of a main street. And churches. Lots of churches out here.

But the power of coal doesn't stop there. It's in dusty boots on the front porch, murals on local school walls, old photos of fathers and grandfathers who mined until their lungs died out. On bumper stickers and television ads where the good guys are the ones who protect your families and the mines, and the bad guys -- like the president -- are the ones who don't.

And the shadow that a once-thriving industry has cast on these towns is just as palpable in the cold Appalachian air. It's not a darkness from lack of human spirit, abundant in the hills and hollers, but it's a darkness nonetheless. One that has broken families and their bank accounts and the only thing they knew would provide.

"Don't write anything bad about us," people keep telling me. The ones who can work are working hard, and they've heard the statistics about them in the news. Neighbors replaced by numbers, dirty laundry aired out in print -- even if it isn't in their hands.

I say I will write what I hear and see, and just the facts. But it's increasingly clear that my profession so easily ignores the signs of light -- the woman who drives hours a day from town to town to share the knowledge she has, a vibrant mayor, a Welch resident who keeps a warehouse of food ready for anyone who is hungry. They bear that burden of bad news.

At the end of the day I sit in a bar with coal miners, nurses, people I've met throughout the day. We sing to the Goo Goo Dolls, we laugh at bad jokes, we lament our collective failure at trivia. And I remember last week I felt we were worlds apart. And feel lucky that today we're not. 

No comments: