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'We are not afraid'

January 08, 2006|Homer Hickam | HOMER HICKAM is the author of "Rocket Boys" (Delty, 2000), "October Sky" (Dell, 1999), "We Are Not Afraid" (HCI, 2002) and other books.

The satellite trucks are gone, the reporters dispersing, the anchors and pundits talking about something else. Tallmansville, W.Va., sits alone now, tucked inside its endless mountains, its people mourning their dead and preparing hillside cemeteries to receive them. Perhaps the preachers in the town are looking skyward with questions that will have no answers, save dipping into the Book of Job. Twelve men are dead.

Why and how they died will be determined by armies of investigators. Air samples will be studied; ventilation diagrams will be pored over; autopsies will be taken; blame will be placed. But the larger question will not be answered: Why would men choose such a dangerous job? On the television news shows I watched, that question in one form or another kept being asked. Some Americans even confessed they had no idea their fellow citizens still went down in coal mines, or why.

Sometimes you have to go away, and get a little older, to understand the place where you grew up. When I was a boy in the little mining town of Coalwood, W.Va., I thought life there was pretty ordinary. Sure, men died in the mine. It was the way of the place. They were also horribly maimed. My grandfather lost both his legs and lived out his days in pain. My father lost an eye to the mine, and when he died, it was by suffocation, his lungs filled with coal dust. Yet, to the end, he was proud to be a coal miner. He was not alone. Though they are loath to confess it, most coal miners are proud of what they do.

When I began to write my books about Coalwood, I reflected on what I had learned there. I concluded that the people of my little town, in order to combat fear, had adopted four basic attitudes toward life: We are proud of who we are; we stand up for what we believe; we keep our families together; we trust in God but rely on ourselves. Put together, it meant just this: We are not afraid.

During the days of drama and tragedy in Tallmansville, I saw the tiny but spotless church sitting proudly on the hill, the old wood-frame houses and the great mine that dominated everything, just as in Coalwood. And when miners were interviewed, I heard the same pride in their voices on who they were and what they did for a living.

They never said it aloud, but I could tell what they were thinking. We mine coal because it challenges us, and because it is important. We do it for our families, and because the money is good. We do it because we have trained long and hard to be skilled in our craft. And we love it. Despite what you may imagine, we're not afraid to do it either. We are proud of who and what we are.

My father used to say that if coal died, the country died. He was right. Our economy rests on the back of the coal miner. We could not prosper without the energy we gain by burning the black diamonds they dig from the earth. God in his wisdom has provided this country with an abundance of coal to fuel our economy, indeed our entire way of life.

He also gave us the American coal miner, who glories in his work.

It is work, for all its brutality, that is symphonic in nature: the continuous mining machines, the shuttle cars, the roof bolters, the ventilation brattices, the conveyor belts, all in concert. When done right, it is a beautiful thing to see. And oh, the mountains of West Virginia! How easy they are to adore. The people who live there love their snowy winter hills, and springs of green meadows and shining dogwoods, and forests of autumnal fire. In such a place, a dozen men may die, but death can never destroy how they lived their lives, or why.

As the investigations begin, let us honor our miner heroes, not only the ones who died but all who continue to fuel our nation by going fearlessly beneath the earth. Thank God they do, and that they are still sustained by the old ways and the old beliefs: We are proud of who we are; we stand up for what we believe; we keep our families together; we trust in God but rely on ourselves. We are not afraid.

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