The holidays are upon us. Hanukkah starts the 20th and ends on my birthday, the 28th. Cool. Christmas lasts all December it seems, at least in the Malls of America. We’ve already had Pearl Harbor Day (not a big gift giving event), and New Year’s Eve looms ever closer.
There’s also Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, and a host of others, including Forefather’s Day, which commemorates the landing of the Pilgrims on a frigid afternoon, December 21st, 1620, at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts. Again, not a big gift giving event, especially not for Native Americans! And there are other holidays in the weeks ahead that I’m sure some of you are celebrating and others are running away from.
In short, I’d like to wish you all a great season and a bit of rest and relaxation. Heck, Chapter 6 of High Pocket may be useful in wiling away an late afternoon or early evening with a hot toddy or glass of eggnog in your hand.
Happy holidays, good health and joy throughout the new year, and thanks again for your continued interest in my writing.
It was two weeks before I saw the mine again after Sunday at my mom’s house because I decided to take a vacation I had coming to me. I saw a lot of Mary, nearly everyday, and we had a great time together. But I couldn’t’ stop thinking about my dad and McFelan’s wife, and about her dad, too, Sandy. If me and Mary kept on like this, I was going to come to butting heads with him before too long.
I know I already told you about the dry and the ramp and all, but if you haven’t ever been in a cage and ridden it thousands of feet down, into the dark, deep under the ground then I’m not sure I can really tell you what it’s like. But I’ll try. Hell, on my first day back, I felt I had never seen the place before. And what Ben had said at my mom’s kept going round and round in my head.
When I drove up with Tom, the parking lot was already full. By the time I got to the end of the ramp after dressing and picking up my stuff, and was sitting with my shift boss and the rest of the miners on my level, all of us waiting for the cage to take us down, the outside world already seemed a long way away.
It doesn’t matter if you are on night shift or day, inside it could be anytime at all. You can hear the cage coming from way down in the shaft. It’s a low, dull whine at first, that gets higher pitched and louder as it gets closer to the surface. The cage, or elevator, is hauled up and down on huge cables and pulleys driven by two gigantic, electric powered motors that roll the cable up on tumblers that look like fishing reels for a giant or something. They’re really monsters, those machines. They have to be because fully loaded, the cage and cable probably weigh over twenty tons.
The cage is large, about 8’x30′, and it has metal gates on two sides that open to get men on and off, and to load and unload the different machines used underground. The other two sides are wire-mesh, so basically it’s an open room. You can look out of it, even stick your arm out if you are stupid enough to and want to get it cut off because the cage clears the shaft walls by only a few inches. And when the cage is dropping, it’s dropping faster than any roller coaster or elevator in the world, and your ears start popping like crazy. You have to remember that sometimes it’s headed as deep as 6,800 feet, well over a mile into the ground. If you don’t want to spend most of the day riding to work, you have to get down there fast. Once the cage starts falling, you better hold on and stand still.
Inside the main shaft, and every shaft or winze in the mine for that matter, there’s a metal ladder built up against the shaft wall, set back so that it clears the cage. It’s there just in case you had to get out quick, say a fire broke out or something, and the cage broke down. Of course, I don’t think anyone could climb straight up for 6,800 feet no matter what they were running from. But it’s there if anyone wanted to try.
So you sit on the bench waiting for the cage to come up and drop off the shift before you and take you down. Me and Tom were waiting for our particular level to come up. By that I mean, the cage has to make lots of trips to get everyone down to their different levels, so you wait your turn.
Tom started talking to me about the day ahead, mostly technical stuff about rail extending. I couldn’t pay attention, though. I was thinking about the cage for some reason, I even felt a couple of butterflies in my stomach. It was pretty crazy. I mean, I’d been a miner for years and never felt this away. I guess once you start thinking about something, it can get to you a little. It was the drop down and the idea of not being able to come up for seven hours that bugged me most. Never thought about that before, never considered it. But now it bothered me some. Goddamn Ben for spooking me. I stood up from the bench and shook the idea from my head.
“Did you see where they’re going to close down the Cyanide 2 in the Call?” Tom asked.
“No. What for?”
“To add on to it or something.”
“I didn’t see it,” I said, but I wasn’t really interested.
“Making it a ‘super-plant’ they call it. Sounds like an airplane if you ask me.”
“I guess they plan on upping production, with gold going up and all,” I said.
“That’s it, old buddy. No one talks about it ever going down. I’m glad I got some stock in this place after all,” he said with a laugh.
Most of the miners had stock, and it seemed like it always went up. Lately, though, with gold zooming you could watch it go up nearly everyday.
The bell went off and the cage filled the shaft opening a couple of seconds later. The gates clanged as they were pushed apart. Tom and me headed over to it. I prefer riding on the edge of the cage, not only because it gets crowded and smelly in the center, with all the men and the dirty clothes everyone has on, but I like to watch the blue lights go whizzing by. The lights are set at each level, at 150 foot intervals. When the cage is at the top and stopped, you can look right down the shaft and the lights form one straight line of blue, disappearing into a black pit. The shaft is perfectly straight, and I mean perfectly. Once, another one of the shafts got off-center by a 1/2 inch or so. Every miner who went down it was vomiting by the time he reached the bottom. It has something to do with the inner ear being off balance if you don’t drop straight.
When the gates closed, the bell went off signaling that we were ready to drop. I took hold of the bars. As we started falling, the lights started to blur together like always. By the time we reached full speed– which is only a couple of seconds– the lights looked like they were about an inch apart. Hell, the complete trip down to the bottom of the mine doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes.
As the cage picked up speed, I could feel the vibration go through my hands. At full tilt, the ride is pretty smooth, just a humming going through you. It isn’t quiet, though, and not just because of the men talking and joking. Since the cage is all metal, our gear on the floor rattles and sends a weird echo around you. But most of the noise is the air rushing by you. There’s also water that constantly runs down the shaft to keep the timbers from dry rotting. If you are listening for it, like I was that day, the shaft sounds like a river in a windstorm. You can get wet if you are near the edge and you don’t look out. It’s not a soft spray, either. The drops of water are like little lead pellets when you’re moving that fast. The more I thought about it, it seemed like one hell of a way to be getting to work.
I think I told you before, me and Tom are high-ball drifters working on our own contract. We open up new tunnels to the vein of ore, and we get paid by how many feet of tunnel we can dig in a day. Since we’re always leading the way, sort of speak, to new production areas, we’re always at the deepest part of the mine. At the time I’m writing about, we were working on the 8,000 foot level, as deep as the Homestake went then. Since the main shaft only goes to the 6,800, we get off there and wait for a man-car to take us to our winze, which is a shaft that starts inside the mine, and we ride that down to the 8,000 level.
Waiting for the man-car was one thing I always hated about the job. And it was worse today. Sitting there waiting for the motorman to come and get you is dead time. You’re deep in the mine, looking for the train to come out of the dark. Creepy, to say the least.
The train is electric powered and runs on rails. Like most other vein mines, the Homestake has everything on rails. Since you’re following a small vein of ore and not mining the whole area, like salt or talc, the tunnels and crosscuts are much smaller, say, about seven foot square, and there’s no way to get a large rubber-tired truck down there.
I could feel and hear the cage slowing down. I was waiting for the creaking that comes when the cage settles on the platform at the 6800′. It’s a soft landing considering how fast you’ve been dropping. Everyone turned on their cap lamp, and I could hear the boards creak as we settled. The cage doors slide open, echoing down the drift. We all walked across the tracks and sat down on a small bench that’s there.
Your cap lamp is about all the light there is in most of the mine. It’s like a flashlight in a sewer or something. I mean, the place is dark. You can only see in the direction you turn your head. You can forget about seeing things on the side of you. I looked down the tracks in the direction the train would be coming. I couldn’t see a thing out there except the track shining for about twenty feet out. I looked up for a second and could see the pipes for air and water and ventilation above me. I felt like I was in the crawl space under a house and looking up at the plumbing.
There are usually about 15-20 of us waiting for the train. But today about a half of the guys were off, and the sandmen were backfilling their stopes for the next eleven foot cut. Tom came over and stood in front of me.
“That asshole’s always late.” He meant the motorman. “We could have two feet mucked up in the time it takes him to get here.”
“I think I hear him,” I said.
It’s hard to tell sometimes what you’re hearing down there or imagining. Even on a main level like the 6,800 where there’s no blasting and drilling being done, at least not near the shaft, the place is noisy. You can hear the cage flying back up to the top and the water falling down, and the ventilation system makes a kind of hum like thunder somewhere off in the distance. It rumbles and hums at the same time. I put my foot on the track, waiting to feel the vibration from the train coming through it. But there was nothing. Damn, I thought I had heard something.
“Guess not,” I said.
Tom started talking about the hunting trip he wanted to take in December. A couple of other guys came over, Nick and Dave, who also were planning a trip when the season opened. They started talking about rifles, and Tom said he was going to buy a new Remington 30.06 and that his old one was up for sale.
“Oh, yeah?” said Nick. “That’s a pretty piece if I remember right.”
“Damn good rifle,” said Tom.
“Hold on,” I said. “You hear that? Listen. That. Did you hear that?”
They all stopped talking and listened; then shook their heads. I could swear I was hearing something, like rock talking. A dull, rumbling sound, that will suddenly crack in the middle of the rumble, then rumble again. It usually means nothing. Whenever you disturb rock that’s under pressure, and it’s always under pressure underground, it naturally makes some noise. It doesn’t stop giving and shifting right away, either. There is enough pressure this deep under the ground to keep the rock talking for years.
Most times the rock will talk and nothing will happen. Sometimes, though, talking rock can be a sign of rock about ready to move. That’s what worried me. I swore I could hear it talking. Damn Ben, I almost said out loud, I don’t ever think about this kind of stuff, and here I am thinking about it.
“Nothing,” said Tom.
“I don’t hear a thing out of the ordinary,” said Dave.
“Me neither,” said Nick, and the rest of the guys just shook their heads and started talking to each other again.
I put the noise out of my head the best I could. I think anybody could hear just about anything they wanted to down in a mine. It just depends on what you’re expecting to hear. And damn it all, a couple of minutes later I heard it again. I kept it to myself this time, and a second after that I saw a light far down the tunnel, which meant the train was coming. I put my foot back on the track and felt it getting closer.
A train coming at you in the mine is a tricky thing all by itself. It’s hard to judge how far away it is. There’s so much humidity in the air that the train light seems almost like it’s behind a fog bank. And the reflections of the light make it hard to tell what’s really the train and what’s not. The other dangerous thing is that since it’s dark all around you and around the train, there’s no real markers to let you know what it’s passed and what it’s got left to go. So when you see a light coming down the track at you, you just clear out of the way until it passes or stops right in front of you.
There are lots of war stories I’ve been told and told again myself about miners who didn’t get out of the way for one reason or another and who ended up dead or damn sorry they weren’t. A train running into you can do more than a little damage.
The train, or man-car as we call it, pulled up in front of us and stopped. We all climbed in and yelled to the motorman that we were ready to go. He nodded without turning around; I just saw his yellow cap go up and down and we took off. Riding the train through any tunnel in the Homestake is like being on a dark ride at an amusement park. You can hear the wheels running over the track, but you can’t really see where you’re going. Of course you do it everyday so you know what to expect, but still you’re traveling into darkness. The light on the train, like I said before, doesn’t go very far or wide, and the train is usually moving at a good clip so you come up on things before you can get a chance to tell they’re there. It’s best to kept your head down in case a low pipe or board is sticking up along the track and gives you a bump you won’t forget for awhile.
Tom and Nick were talking pretty seriously about the rifle, and I was listening for that noise again. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I looked up at the back, the ceiling that is, and expected it to fall on me at any minute. On the sides of the tunnel there are colored markers every so often to let you know your direction, depth and so on. I didn’t hear the noise again, but at each marker we passed, I felt like I was getting closer to some kind of danger. It was stupid and I felt like a greenhorn kid, but I couldn’t shake it.
We got off the train and headed over to the number 4 winze to take us all the way down. It’s much smaller, naturally, than the main shaft so that even just the few of us made it crowded. I backed into the corner and held on as we dropped still deeper into the mine. Almost right away I could feel the temperature change when we got below the 7,000 level. It was sticky and wetter and started to warm up real fast. I unbuttoned my shirt and took off my cap for a minute. Even doing that, the way I’d been thinking all day, worried me some. I mean, you should never take your cap off at any time you’re underground. Anything can fall on your head when you least expect it. I put it back on and felt disgusted with myself for the things I was coming up with to scare myself.
“I think he’s going to buy it,” Tom said to me in a kind of whisper, meaning the rifle.
“He hasn’t even seen it. Has he?”
“That’s why I think he’s going to buy it,” he laughed. “I’ll make the deal ‘sight unseen,’ so that when he sees it, though I got nothing to hide, he won’t be able to say no.”
The cage stopped at a couple of other levels before letting me and Tom out at the 8,000 level. When the gate slid back, the heat hit me like a furnace. It’s funny, but when you first walk out, you think that you won’t be able to work in heat and humidity like that. Your skin starts crawling and itching and the dirty coveralls stick to you and sting. I felt like taking everything off and hosing myself down with one of the drill lines. But, damn, before you know it, your body gets used to it. Well, not really used to it, but you can put up with it and you go on to work. Then, for no reason at all, the temperature will hit you fresh all over again. That can happen a couple three times a day. It’s like you body has been adjusting and cooling all along and then breaks down for a minute or two and then catches itself and starts cooling and adjusting all over again. It’s a crazy thing. There is a ventilation system down there, there has to be, and air-conditioning, too. You can hear them droning the minute you step off the cage. But at nearly two miles down in the earth and no breeze or fresh air of any sort, they just keep the temperature down to 120 degrees and the humidity at 90.
For me and Tom it’s only a short five minute ride to our drift from where the winze lets us off. All told, if you figure that nothing goes wrong on the way, it takes about a half an hour from the ramp to our drift. Most times you never give the trip a second thought; you think of it like a “drive” you’d have to make to any job. But today it seemed to me like a hell of a way to be getting to anywhere and a hell of a place to call your “office,” if you know what I mean.
The first thing we do when we get to the production face, after wetting down the pile of rock to hold back some of the dust, is to start barring down. Now some drifters I know muck up a little of the rock around the edge of the pile and try to clear some off the top so they can get farther in to put up their bar. Not me. Red Kentner was no rare accident, and I want to get any of the loose rock down before I muck up a shovelful. I don’t want to take a chance on the ceiling falling in one me and flattening my head. It’s a good thing me and Tom see eye to eye on that. As contractors we get paid like a private company; we buy our own blasting powder and other tools and work our own time, and the less we disagree, the more money we make. And we make pretty good money.
By the time we finish the barring, and I already told you that it’s done with a twelve foot heavy bar, we’re completely wet with sweat. You could wring out quarts from your coveralls and they would be soaked again before you got them buttoned up. You’re working wet from head to toe all day, and once you start mucking, you’re covered in a film of dirt and grit. You look like the bogey man or something.
I took my glasses off, wiped them, and lit up a cigarette. The drift was in shadow by the cap lamp and when I lit the match, I saw the flame dance on the rock face. The rock in the Homestake Mine is hard rock, mostly quartz and different types of iron and a little chlorite here and there which is a green colored talc. With your cap lamp shining on an open face, the drift is swirled with different veins of the colored rock. It’s almost pretty if you don’t think about having to drill and blast it. I mean it’s tougher than the granite they cut Rushmore out of.
The one ore you don’t ever see is the gold you’re digging for. It’s so fine grained most of the time and locked in the other ores that it’s not really visible. Sometimes, though, you might be in a really rich vein area and you might catch a sight of a flake or two glistening in the rock around you. That always gave me a strange feeling, seeing the gold right in front of me. It’s like the Homestake was one big geode, cruddy and plain on the outside, but inside sparkling and surprising. At the bottom of the mine in the muck and dust and dark, a sparkle of gold is a near miracle to see.
“They went more than eight feet,” said Tom, referring to the shift before us. “That’s a good goddamn night’s work.”
Drifting is a four part system. You drill, blast, muck up what you blasted, and haul it away. Then you start all over again. I would add another one to that list which is extending the rails and air lines and pipes and electric the eight feet distance that you’ve cleared out. Tom went ahead and got the power shovel ready. It scoops up the blasted rock and dumps it into an ore car behind. If you picture taking a shovelful of dirt and throwing it over your shoulder into a wheel barrow, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what a power shovel looks like. You keep at it until the pile of blasted rock is gone and then a motorman hooks up to the ore cars you filled and pulls them to be hauled up to the surface for processing the gold out.
When Tom turned on the shovel, the whole drift started echoing and vibrating like we were inside a jet engine. You can’t talk over a noise like that. Hand signals is all that works. The shovel churns up dust and shoots chips of rock every which way. You have to stay close to it, too, even though that’s the last thing you want to do. If you don’t, the shovel will start backing away from the pile and jump back if it hits a large rock. It gets a mind of its own and it could knock you over. Any rock that’s too big to get in the bin you load by hand. Some of them can weigh over a hundred pounds and you strain and pry and get the rock in the car after mashing your finger or foot a little. It’s back-breaking work that has to be done before noon so that you have time to extend the rails and all the other stuff and blast out eight more feet for the night crew to muck up.
We were making pretty good time and had most of the pile up when the shovel jammed. It had a chunk of quartz stuck between the bin and the car and was blocking the way for the shovel to release the rest of its load. I shut off the shovel quickly. That is a safety rule anytime you get a jam in any type of equipment. I tried to get a crowbar between the rock and the shovel arms and pry it loose. But I couldn’t get it to move an inch. Tom came over with a 16 pound sledge to hit and force it through the arms that were cradling it.
“Wait! Don’t hit it!” I yelled. But it was too late.
The effect of him hitting that jammed rock with the sledge was like someone cutting the rope on a stuck catapult. Not only did the rock let go, but 20 or 30 chunks of rock weighing from 5 to 10 pounds each exploded up into the air, clear over the ore car behind us. I jumped back against the drift wall and covered my head with my hands. The rocks landed all around me and crashed into the side of the ore car like someone was shooting cannon balls at us.
Luckily, not one rock hit us. A 10 pound rock falling on you from just 7 feet could end your day, maybe your life. And then I thought to myself just how small a 10 pound rock was when you considered you were nearly two miles deep in the mine, with nothing but solid rock above you. The obvious, real danger I was in sizzled through me. I suddenly felt like running to some sort of safety. But safety was a long way away, and the cage wouldn’t be back for us for hours.
“You all right?” Tom came over to me.
“Shit, man! I told you not to hit it!’
“Jesus. That was a stupid move. But, hell, I didn’t see the tension it built up. Sorry.”
“Yeah. Forget it.” I said, trying to shake it off.
I wasn’t about to forget it, though. I could hear Mary’s voice telling me about the cave-in that nearly killed her dad. I mean, accidents happen all the time. You can make one slip, just one, and that could be it. But the worst part was that you could do everything right and still have the place come down on you. Knock it off, I said to myself. Just cut it out.
I wondered if the noise I thought I heard earlier was a warning or something. There’s all sorts of superstitions that go into mining. They say a phantom noise is the way the mine talks to you and that it’s trying to tell you something that you better listen to. Well I don’t go in for superstition much. But when the rock had been raining down on me a few moments ago, it did cross my mind that maybe the Homestake was trying to tell me something.
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