A Coal Miner's Granddaughter Reflects

The grandfather of NPR's Brenda Wilson left the coal mines and moved away from West Virginia because his lungs deteriorated. But her family remained around the coal fields in Logan County. Uncles and cousins continued to work in the mines near where Wilson spent many summers as a youth. While reporting on black lung — a painful disease in miners — Wilson met a miner who grew up down the hollow from where she played. He brought back memories of her grandfather's wracking cough during his last days.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Last week, NPR's Brenda Wilson traveled to southern West Virginia for a story that looked at how conditions in the coal mines affect the health of mine workers. The story brought back memories for Brenda, a coal miner's granddaughter.

BRENDA WILSON: Even now, a mine disaster gives me a small phantom tremor. I say phantom because no one in the family works in the coal mines anymore. Once upon a time, all the men did. And what I know of waiting when miners are trapped underground or there's an explosion comes from being a child watching adults frightened and powerless. My more immediate understanding is of what even a short career in coal mining can do to you lungs.

Long before I was born, my grandfather had to leave the mines because it affected his lungs. He moved his family to a small town over the mountains in Virginia, where I was born and grew up. But the rest of his family stayed behind in and around the coal fields of Logan County. I was interviewing someone this week and discovered that he knew them all.

Mr. ROBERT SCHULTZ (Former Coal Miner): My name's Robert Schultz. Everyone calls me Bob. I live at Sharples.

WILSON: You live in Sharples?

Sharples now, that's a name that took me back. I used to run through those mountain hollows as a kid in the summertime. Bob batted around names that seemed like exotic places, except they were familiar - Dobra, Clothier, Monclo. He knew my cousin Lon, who was a practical joker.

One time, Lon was about to set off a blast and the inspector told him he should shout: fire in the hole - three times.

Mr. SCHULTZ: So Lon goes and wires the place (unintelligible) brings the cord out (unintelligible) fire in the hole three times, good buddy, and shot it off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHULTZ: He's a good man. He was.

WILSON: That's what he said about my Uncle Frank too. Uncle Frank died in his 70s, not too long after retiring from the mines. He was a frail figure of a man then, but he'd been really muscled when he was younger. Towards the end he never seemed to get enough oxygen. And as I listened to Bob, I could hear him struggling for breath as well.

Mr. SCHULTZ: I had to quit in April of '07. I can't breathe.

WILSON: Yeah.

Bob had been a smoker in his youth, quit, and took up smoking again when he was 30 to ease his nerves after coming upon the body of a miner who'd been electrocuted.

Because he smoked, the company won't accept his diagnosis of black lung and pay him disability.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Honey, in this state nothing's work-related. If you get a rock on top of your head, it fell off an airplane. (Unintelligible) job.

WILSON: My grandfather never smoked a day in his life, but I do remember that he spent his last days with a wracking cough that drained him day by day of his vitality.

I'm Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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