Good morning! By popular request, I’m posting this next chapter of High Pocket about a week early. I hope that makes it easier to keep the story in mind. To see earlier chapters, click on the word Writings on the right sidebar under Site Content.
As always, I look forward to your comments and hope you continue to enjoy the story.
When my clock radio went off the next day, I was already awake. I had been for hours. It wasn’t dreaming of Mary that kept me up, nothing that romantic, though I did think about her as I laid there in the dark. The reason I couldn’t sleep was that my shift had just changed. At the Homestake, everybody works two weeks of day shift and two weeks of night shift. When you change back from night to day or from day to night, it’s hard to get adjusted. It takes a couple of days just to get back on a toilet schedule. It’s a crazy system, but it keeps the mine open twenty-four hours a day all year long. Hell, there’s lots of things crazier than shifts about mining when you think about it.
Like I told you earlier, my buddy Tom and me contracted together at the mine, and today was my turn to drive. On the way to his house, I kept thinking about Sandy. That bastard has a gorgeous girl like Mary for a daughter. Jesus, I’d never figure he could get close enough to anyone to have anything at all.
That sounds cruel, maybe, but you’d have to know him to understand what I mean. Boy, I was curious as hell to see him today. I wondered if he’d look any different to me now that I knew his Mary.
It was a beautiful day. One of those summer mornings that make you wish you were a kid again. The sky’s the one thing that doesn’t change. When you look up, it could be any day, any year, or any country for that matter. It’s just blue and open and forever.
Tom was waiting outside his house when I drove up, sitting on the front porch drinking his coffee as usual. He got in the car, and I was waiting to hear about the Fourth and Mary and all. But he didn’t say a word. He acted like nothing happened, or like it didn’t mean a thing. I was glad about that. We turned up Mill Street and stopped at Prouse’s grocery at the top of the hill for some coffee and cigarettes. Mill Street’s the way to the mine for most miners whether they work down the Yates or the Ross shaft. It’s a steep climb up out of the valley of Lead.
From the top of Mill, I looked out over the city, across to the open cut where the Manual Brothers first found gold lying only a few inches below the surface. They started digging deeper and deeper, and pretty soon the mountain they were on turned into a canyon. Not all in one day, of course, and they had plenty of help to follow the vein underground, but now the Homestake Mine goes down nearly two miles where men are still chasing after that thin river of gold. Practically every morning I’d stare out at the open cut like this and wonder what it must have been like being the first to find gold lying there right at your feet, chunks of it waiting for you to pick up.
Tom and I worked down the Yates, so we took a left turn at the top of Mill.
“How ’bout doing a little fishing tonight at Pactola?” he asked, taking a deep drag on his morning smoke.
“Sure, straight from work or you want me to come pick you up?”
“Naw. Let’s say 5:30. You come and get me. The dam should be jumping by then.”
We drove on in silence, the Yates headfrme looming closer and closer.
Arriving at the mine is like arriving at no other job I can think of. If you’re not used to it, it can be eerie to think you’re about to go underground where it’s noisy and dark and dangerous to work down there all day in some places no bigger than a bathroom. And it’s hot, too. Deep in the ground where I work, it can be over 120 degrees and even hotter. When I was kid and my dad would tell me about the mine, I kept picturing digging to the center of the earth and seeing molten rock suddenly bursting from a seam. After working all day in that place, you get a pretty good idea of what Hell could be like.
The surface of the Homestake isn’t so inviting either. There’s a railroad that winds around the mountain and goes through most of the big buildings that process the ore we miners bring up into gold. The buildings are ugly and most of the work that goes on in them is loud and dirty. The top of the mountain has been blasted off. They leveled it, and made it the parking lot. On a cold and rainy day, it gets windy as hell up there, the cold blasts from Canada blowing through the Black Hills.
Everything is gray, and the thought of getting in the cage, which is like an elevator that takes you down into the mine, and going to work could make you wish you’d called in sick.
We got out of the car and headed for the dry, which is a huge place, like a giant locker room where you change into your working clothes. I don’t know why they call it the dry, maybe because your sweat-soaked clothes are supposed to dry overnight in your locker. Believe me, they don’t. When you open your locker, the stench is so bad that it takes guts to put those wet and grimy clothes back on, especially early in the morning in winter. They make you shiver and jump around as you haul them up over your butt.
“Someone’s been sleeping in my pants,” Tom said in a kid’s voice that reminded me of the three bears. “And they shit all over them.”
He held his pants up, and they were stiff as a board with caked mud and sludge all down the front and back. He lifted them above his head and brought them down hard on the low bench between the lockers. Mud chips splattered everywhere. A guy next to us got pissed off and started swearing and tossed his socks and shoes at Tom. A game of push and tug started. Hank Cradashaw, a big, burly guy, who’s an electrician, got carried away as usual and threw a pair of pliers that damned near hit me but bounced off my locker and landed near my big toe. I swear, the place is exactly like a high school gym class with the smell, the towels, and the grab-ass stuff in the showers.
We finished getting dressed and headed down the stairs to a concrete surface tunnel that looks like the entrance to a baseball stadium. It’s called the ramp. Besides getting you from the dry to the Yates Shaft, the ramp is where you pick up the gear you need to have underground. The first place you stop is the oil window to get your canister of oil. You have to use it right on your equipment or you’ll run out before the shift is over, and there’s no coming back up for more. Next there’s the brass board where you put on your brass. The brass is a coin with your name and social security number on it. Whenever you go in the mine, you hang it on the board. When you come out again, you take it off. And you better remember to take it off because the foreman of your shift checks that board after every shift to see if he’s got any men left underground. If the brass is still there, and the shift’s over, it means somebody didn’t come out. That can scare the crap out of him and he’ll check the dry. If you’re there and forgot to take your brass, you’ll catch hell for it. If you’re not in the dry, a search gets going quick to find the missing man or men. Mining is still pretty tricky business. Anything can happen to you down there, and the brass hanging on the board is a good sign that something has.
There are other things to pick up as you move past the stations on the ramp, closer and closer to the shaft. If you just think back to checking out a ball at the school playground through a split-door, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the stations are like. They’re usually tended by someone who’s either too old to mine or who’s been injured bad enough that he can’t work anywhere else. The Homestake’s good that way. They try to keep their dedicated guys on the payroll. Hell, I figure it’s the least they can do for a man who’s been mining all his life, pulling out gold for the Company, losing a leg or arm or worse for his trouble.
Anyway, the reason I’m telling you any of this stuff is that’s where Sandy worked. He was the bitman, last window before the shaft. The bitman gives out the drill steel at the beginning of the shift and takes it back at the end. He wheels the bits down the rails to the drill shop to be sharpened for the next day’s work. And he never smiled. Never. He didn’t say hello, either, at least not to me. He just called out the number of my bits and handed them to me.
Tom and me made up lots of war stories to explain the way he was. Accidents of any kind. Most of them could fit, too. First off, he limped real bad. When you handed him your bits, he would drag his left leg to the back of the bit room and hang them up on a peg. We figured he got that leg “riding pile” in a stope, that it got crushed when the bottom of the pile gave way. And his right hand was nearly paralyzed, too, gnarled like a claw. And we knew his green cap, which he wore all the time, must have been hiding something pretty awful. Tom was sure a rock had dropped on his head and the cap was holding in his brains. Anyway you figured it, something happened to him underground.
He was in his fifties or sixties it was hard to tell, and he always had a day or two gray stubble on his chin. He smoked constantly; and between puffs, he chugged like an old train. I said a minute ago that he never spoke to me. But come to think of it, he did once. I handed him my bits one night, and he looked up at me for a second and mumbled something like, “beat to shit.” I didn’t think it was worth a fight, so I let it pass. But it burned me up some because I’m careful with my tools.
If he wasn’t such a bastard, you could feel sorry for him. After all, he’d been in that bit room for who knows how long, all the time I worked at the mine, probably long before that, and he sure wasn’t going to be moving up. It’s the last stop for miners before they leave the Homestake. Some work there until they drop dead. Tom’s dad did. He ran the battery room after his emphysema got so bad he couldn’t go underground anymore. Then one morning he couldn’t get out of bed. Two days later he was dead. I guess if you look at it that way, the ramp is like death row in a prison.
But it’s much busier than any prison could be. Miners are coming out of the shaft and dropping their gear off on the way to the dry, and the shift that’s coming on is picking up and moving down to the shaft, waiting for the cage to take them underground to work. I suppose it’s kind of like subways in New York City, and with the cement walls and the low ceiling, it can sound like a roaring train in there. In fact, from the moment you walk into the dry, until you get back into you car at the end of your shift, you’re going to be in a lot of noise one way or the other. Underground, it gets unbearable.
Anyway, I was moving through all the men and getting nearer to the bit room. I have to admit it, I was getting nervous as I got closer. I don’t remember now if I planned on saying something or not, but that doesn’t matter much because before I got a chance to see Sandy, nine bells went off signaling an accident underground, and the place went wild.
This time it was one man, Red Kentner Kentner. I knew him, but he wasn’t a close friend or anything. Still, when someone gets hurt bad you know it’ll affect the whole mine. Everyone gets cautious and a little scared until it wears off. Tom and me moved to the side of the ramp with everyone else to clear the aisle.
“Where ya think it is?” Tom asked.
“It’s deep. That’s all I know.” I could hear the cage still dropping. “Below the 6500’, I’ll bet.”
“Stope,” Tom said, “barring down. Got to be bad anyway.”
And it was bad. When the cage finally reached the surface, and the doors clanged open and they wheeled Red out, he was dead, long dead. Don Mech, his partner, was hurrying alongside the stretcher, tears coming down. Red was covered with a blanket, but still the blood was everywhere, dripping onto the floor.
“Get out of the way! God damn it! Get out of the fucking way!” Don kept yelling over and over. But no one was in the way, and there was no need to hurry anymore.
Tom was right about what happened. Red was in a stope on the 6,800’ level, and part of the back gave way under his barring rod. Of all the things that happen in a mine, barring accidents happen the most. When you’re in a stope that’s as dark and wet a somebody’s basement, you’re working your way to the level above you. Most people think of mining as mining down. Usually, though, you mine upwards, not down. The levels in the mine are 150 feet apart. You mine up to the level above you eleven feet at a time. Most of what you mine out gets filled back up with milled ore and ground rock, called backfill. Then they pump in a cement layer on top of that about six inches thick. That layer becomes the new floor you stand on to drill the next eleven feet up and so on until you break through to the level above you, 150 feet away. There’s more to it than that, of course, but you get the idea.
Anyway, since you’re drilling into the roof, what they call the “back,” you want to get down any loose looking rock that may be hanging there so it won’t drop on you when you start drilling again. You do that with a 12 foot pole, and it’s heavy as hell. It has to be that long, though, to keep you away from the rock you’re prying loose. So you start tapping around until you hear a hollow spot, then you forced down any of it that’s loose. That’s called barring down. Sometimes, though, which is what happened to Red Kentner, more rock comes down that you figured on. Usually, you can hear the rock talking and working and moving, and you run like the devil from a church. Sometimes, though, you don’t get out from under it before it collapses.
If it’s large enough, it can kill you when it falls. Whole crews of four or five men have been killed when a piece of the back big enough to be the foundation for a four bedroom house collapsed on them. Most miners don’t like barring down at all. But if you’re going to be a miner, especially if you’re contracting and making money by how much rock you pull out, you do it whether you like it or not.
As the stretcher passed, men started filling in behind it and talking about what happened and the way Red looked. You could hear the ambulance arriving and later you could hear the siren as it raced for the hospital. I turned to say something to Tom, and I found myself staring directly into Sandy’s eyes. He was leaning on the counter top of the split door to the bit room. He was glaring at me. He looked angry. I just stared back at him.
I don’t know how long it was before I looked away, but when I turned back, he wasn’t there anymore. I guess I was curious more than anything else, so I walked over to the bit room. He was standing completely still, staring out the window that looks over Lead. His back was to me. Without the split door supporting him, he was smaller and kind of pathetic to come up on. His green cap had a pack of Pall Malls tucked in the fold at the back; his black boots were squashed into his dirty, gray construction pants at the cuffs. He seemed like a cutout of a wooden figure, planted in that greasy room. I was about to move away. Then he turned around.
“Good day to be outside, and stay there,” he said, but not like he was talking to me.
I said, “Yeah, it sure is.”
His eyes focused on me and he came forward.
“It’s going to be hard on Red’s family,” I said because I had to say something about what happened. I was trying to talk to him. But he didn’t want any part of it.
“What the hell do you expect, you go digging underground, riches? There’s no riches down there for a miner.”
He was spitting his words out so hard he began to cough a little.
“I guess lots of jobs are dangerous. It’s a job, good pay, that’s all.”
I was standing there defending the Company without even thinking of what I was saying. It was stupid. But the way he came on, it kind of shook me. He turned, dragged himself to the back of the room, got my bits, and handed them to me without another word.
There was something in his voice that shook me up, something deep inside him that was burning hot, fueling the anger in his eyes. When I found out what it was, everything about him suddenly made sense. Fact is, if I’d known the fire had been raging since the accident on the 3800′, I might have turned away. But by the time it all came out, I knew there was no turning back.
I took my bits and walked over to where Tom was sitting, and we waited for the cage to take us down into the ground.
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