He handed me a salt-and-vinegar potato chip. We were more than five hundred feet underground, sitting on a blanket of powdered limestone, up in section two and a half south. I asked him if there was anything he enjoyed about coal mining.
He thought a moment. "I'm gonna say no," he said.
"Oh, come on," I said.
"You gotta stop shining your freakin' light in my eye," he said.
"What did I tell you about that?"
He told me that the one thing that was going to piss off Billy,
Smitty, Pap, Ragu, and the rest of the guys in the crew was if I pointed my light directly in their eyes. It's a common early mistake.The normal human urge is to look a person in the eye, and when your only visibility is from a hard hat shining a pinpoint of light through the darkness, naturally you're going to aim that sucker right at the eyeball.
"Sorry," I said.
"Go for the shoulder," he said. "Or the chin."
I asked him how he got the nickname Foot.
"The first day I went into the coal mine, a guy looked down and said, 'Damn, how big are your feet?' I said, 'Fifteen.' He said, 'You're a big-footed son of a bitch.' And that was it. One guy had a huge head, so of course we called him Pumpkin. One guy had a big red birthmark on his face, so of course his name was Spot.
They don't cut you any slack. They'll get right on you. A coal miner will get right on you."
I shined my light on his boots and he wagged them, like puppets.
It was tough getting used to identifying people, in the darkness, just as feet, shoulders, chin, teeth. As for Foot, he was a truck of a man, forty-nine years old, a wide load in both girth and spirit. He had a messy mop of gray hair and a rugged, intelligent face that often wore one expression: You gotta be kidding me. He was proud of a lot of what he'd done with his life — his three kids, his stint as a county commissioner, his coal-mining expertise — but his heart, he said, belonged to his fifty-two head of beef cattle: Pork Chop, Frick and Frack, and, aw, Bonehead, with the amazing white eyelashes. He'd been in and out of coal mines since graduating from high school and had just been promoted to assistant safety director of the Hopedale Mining coal company in Cadiz, Ohio, a small operation in the eastern part of the state, just beyond the panhandle of West Virginia. Aboveground, the area looks a lot more New England — rolling farmland dotted with tall oaks, white church steeples, geranium pots hanging on front porches — than it does the tar- paper-shack Appalachia that people tend to associate with coal mining. Underground, I wasn't permitted to go anywhere without Foot, even though I did. He got sick of me, and I got sick of him, and so he got even more sick of me in what became, over a four-month period, an easy friendship.
"It's kind of peaceful down here," I said to him.
"Yeah," he said.
We were not at the face, not "up on section," where the bellow and whir and hucka-chucka-hucka-chucka of the toothy, goofy, phallic continuous miner machine was extracting coal and dumping it, load after load, onto buggies that zoomed like lunatic roaches through the darkness. We were over in B entry, or A entry,
or perhaps room 3; I had no idea. I rarely knew where I was in that endless catacomb of tunnels, on and on and on, about fifteen square miles in all, where the quiet, when you found it, felt like an embrace. You could sit there. You could shut your light off, sit there in the perfectly dark silence. Nothing. Just — nothing.
A crackle like a fireplace.
When you're inside the earth, this is what it sounds like. The earth isn't some stupid rock, isn't inert, isn't just a solid mass for people to stand on. The earth is always moving, constantly stretching and squawking and repositioning itself like anyone else trying to get comfortable.
"Down here," I said to Foot, "it's like you're away from all your problems. Do you think that's part of the allure for you guys — that you escape your problems down here?"
He looked at me, laughed. "This is our problem," he said.
From Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Copyright 2012 by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books.