A Coal Miner's Granddaughter Reflects
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.
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.