Miner & Mother
By Hannah Fleace
Only 20 minutes into her shift, and Amanda Jones’ face is dusted black.
Through the blinding ray of the lamp on her head, it is hard to see more than the whites of her eyes and a straight row of teeth. Coal powder cakes the creases around her nostrils and the deep curve of her dimples.
Amanda steers the low, black shuttle car through the dim tunnel. The car beetle-crawls through the mine, its giant scoop loaded with black nuggets preparing to face the sun for the first time in millions of years.
The walls are hissing. Nearby, the miner machine, with its massive spinning teeth, plows through a wall of earth. Amanda, 275 feet underground and 4 miles from the mine entrance, is toiling in the belly of a cavity that shifts and groans.
Did I remember to pay the electric bill, she asks herself. She peeks out from the cab, steering it toward a conveyor belt to dump the coal.
I need to remember that electric bill when we get back up. If only there was something to write on.
No matter how far she descends inside the planet, a little of her life above the surface always follows her. The small things bills that need to be paid and a grocery list for next week. The big things – her boys.
On the surface, her sons are in clean, fluorescent classrooms at Dubois Elementary School, writing in wobbly letters and playing tag outside at recess. For the nine hours of her shift, they are 75 miles away, out of reach.
Working, single moms struggle for balance, and all women in male-dominated fields struggle for acceptance. But the contradictions in Amanda’s life are especially stark. Her world is dark and light, mascara and Matterhorn boots, miner and mother.
With no cell phone service and a 30-minute drive back to the surface, she sometimes ascends to find voicemails, hours old.
“Call me when you get this. We had a little issue with Keyton today.”
“Keyton fell on the playground and bumped his head, kind of has a knot on the back of his head, so if you could please call me when you get this …”
Amanda has a web of other numbers the school can call, but there are still voicemails.
The black nuggets tumble onto the conveyor belt.
Amanda always kisses the boys goodbye. In the mine, a roof could collapse. The ventilation could clog. One spark could fill the tunnels with flame. There is no room for angry goodbyes.
Most people live with their faces to the sky. But a few exchange sunlight for a maze of black. They spend their days, and sometimes their nights, threading coal from seams in the Earth.
Amanda is in her second year as the only female coal miner who works underground at the Triad Mine north of Vincennes near the Knox County town of Freelandville. Her boss wants to clone her and the guys consider her part of the family.
Her boyfriend, Tom, works in the mine, too. Sometimes she asks him, “Why do you love me?”
“You’re one of them girls that will jump into anything,” he replies. “But you can put on a skirt the next night and look pretty damn good.”
For Amanda, a job in the depths of the earth is liberating.
“I get to work my (butt) off every day. I get to get dirty every day,” she said. “I would rather roll around in dirt piles than be in a fancy building any day.”
The miners and their machines sync into the day’s routine. The miner machine roars to life, slinking through passages like a dragon.
It’s an experience alien to the senses. The earth pops and cracks.
“It’s a whole different world down there.”
Not that, for Amanda, it’s any easier up here.
The laundry machine chugged, “Kung Fu Panda” chopped on TV and a pile of clean clothes covered the dinning table.
“You want to help me fold this?” Amanda asked her 7-year-old, Keyton.
He picked up one gray shirt and declared, “OK, I’m done!”
“Don’t throw it on the floor, please.”
The shirt landed in a wad.
The boy’s father, Andy Andrews, is part of their lives. He sometimes takes the boys for a few days and can help when Amanda works long shifts.
For the most part, the family routine depends on her work schedule. Amanda switches shifts every two weeks.
She prefers the day shift because it gives her time in the evening to play with the boys. But the night shift allows her to spend time with them in the morning.
“Do you want a Capri Sun or the Propel stuff we got?” Amanda asked Karter, 5.
Karter motioned with the fly swatter toward the juice packs.
It was mid-morning and Amanda needed to leave by noon to get to work by 2. She wouldn’t be home until 2 a.m. She danced around the boys in the kitchen, constructing a turkey sandwich to tote to work. She usually avoids eating while underground because the food gets covered in coal and there is nowhere to wash your hands. She’s consumed a lot of coal dust.
“Mommy is black on the outside and has a black sandwich on the inside,” Keyton said.
After years of seeing their mother with a coal-covered face, the boys aren’t fazed.
Keyton leapt from his perch on the bar stool onto his mother’s back.
“You’re too big!” Amanda laughed.
“Carry me, mom!” Keyton said.
Among tying shoes and packing lunches and peeling one kid off her back before another attaches himself to her waist, she paused to put on her makeup.
She swept foundation on her fingertips across high cheekbones and around a mouth full of perfect teeth. At 27, she looks like the migrant mother in that Great Depression-era photo – sharp, delicate feature, but lines and fatigue, too. Years of smoking and raising two boys have taken their toll, not to mention six years without the sun’s Vitamin D. She swipes on a couple layers of mascara and pulls her hair into a ponytail.
“I know it’s dumb,” she said, “because I’m just going to get dirty anyway.”
Then a wicked smile, “There’s some cute guys, I’m telling you.”
Cosmic forces squeeze and tug at our small speck in the Milky Way. But inside its inky tunnels, the planet is alive.
Our species uses about 7 billion tons of coal each year – about a ton per person – and the United States produces 1 billion ton of that supply. Indiana is one of the nation’s top producers of coal and has eight underground mines. The Triad Mine scoured for more than 2 million tons of coal last year.
Coal is just trapped energy – sunlight became trapped in plants, and those plants got stuck in the earth. Once, Indiana looked like the swamps of the Mississippi Delta, blanketed in moss and ferns.
The plant life grew so quickly that after it died, beds of peat formed, layer upon layer. Each layer is a chapter in the history of the planet. The coal formed under heat and pressure in one particularly intense chapter written 300 million years ago.
Gone are the days of picks and oil lamps. Robots, drones, driverless trucks and trains have reshaped the mining industry. But despite all the advances, the only way to get the coal out is to send people in.
While the machines bore into fresh pockets of coal, an arrangement of rocks, minerals and dirt begins to shift. Mother Nature releases pressure and throws her weight on the hollow tunnels. That is the element of danger in mining. When the rock’s support system disappears, the hazards of collapse and lethal gases grow. Experience, intuition and guidance are the human elements that combat the planet’s natural reaction.
Several weeks ago, a 65-foot long tunnel roof collapsed. No one was nearby, and accidents are rare. But Amanda could hear the chunks fall like an avalanche of gravel.
Sleep is an elusive thing, broken by the dichotomy of her rotating shifts and 75-minute commute to Knox County from her home near Dubois. Amanda always has caffeine nearby.
She hurries to change in the empty women’s locker room, throwing a bra into the locker for after work and pulling out a pair of massive overalls with neon stripes. When she snaps the shoulders into place, a thin layer of coal dust jumps from the fabric.
It takes a couple minutes to lace up her boots, men’s size 6. A hot pink watch, a pair of gloves, a pack of Marlboro Lights. The guys have started to gather outside by the mantrips, stout vehicles with open sides that carry the miners underground.
The other miners – they go by the names Rabbit, Crash, Lugnuts, Po, Big Bear and Pup – are meandering. Cigarettes dangle from every hand and curse words tumble from the circle.
The nicknames are earned. Lugnuts was changing a tire before work one day and forgot to tighten his lugnuts; the tire fell off. Po looks like the fluffy panda in the movie “Kung Fu Panda” and Crash’s record with machine equipment isn’t exactly squeaky.
When Amanda first began, no one spoke to her. The mine was facing a sexual harassment suit, and the miners weren’t keen on Amanda being around.
“I hated going to work at first,” Amanda recalled.
She greeted her peers and received silence in return.
After four months, Amanda told them she’d worked with men long enough that it would take a lot to file a suit.
“I told them to treat me like another one of the guys,” she said.
Some of them tried to play Prince Charming, doing the heavy lifting. One day underground, the unit was unloading bags of rock dust. Amanda watched one man put a 50-pound bag on each shoulder. After he left, she placed two bags on each shoulder.
“Those guys all stood around and looked at me like I was crazy,” Amanda said. “I saw him do one and thought I could do two.”
She felt a change after that. For better or worse, they started to treat her like one of the guys.
A favorite prank was slathering her equipment handles in grease. Amanda took to swiping it under her eyes like a football player’s eye-black.
Some guys joked that the guys might roll her in a curtain and leave her underground. They once rearranged the hooks on her machines.
“But I guarantee every guy on Unit 1 knows how to do a ponytail now,” she laughed.
When her hands are coated in coal and her hair accessory snaps, she has one of the guys fix it. The most creative device to date is tire wire, wrapped and clipped off with pliers.
At home, a laminated paper hangs on their fridge. It’s a list with 30 tips on how to be a better mother. In pink letters, No. 22 reads: How do you want your child to remember you? Be that mom today.
Amanda thinks about two brothers at the mine, two brothers that remind her of what Keyton and Karter could be 20 years from now. Those co-workers’ mother worked in the mine, and they grew up watching her leave before the sun cracked and return with that familiar dusty face.
“They can’t stand her,” Amanda said. “They’re always talking about how she was never around.”
Amanda asked them one year if they got their mom a gift for Mother’s Day. They jeered and said, “No. Why would we?”
Every now and then, Amanda’s sons ask about the demands of the job.
“Why are you working so much?” Keyton asked one night before Christmas.
Amanda explained that she wanted to buy them Christmas presents. She also wanted to pay for school enrollment, keep the electricity on and put gas in the car.
“I don’t want them to hate me,” she said. “But I’ve got to provide.”
Amanda’s never resented her father, or his long hours at Triad. Claude Jones worked those same twisted hours. He missed Amanda’s sporting events and school dances, but Amanda’s mother, Kim, who works in human resources at The Home Depot, made sure her children understood.
“My mom was at everything,” Amanda said. “She made sure we knew dad was the provider. But I don’t have anything like that. It’s just me.”
Amanda knew she wanted to be like her father. She saw her mother get primped for her job. She preferred the dirt. She knew she wanted to work with her hands. Her father still works at Triad, though on a different unit. They don’t run into each other much but share the same black dusted faces.
Her phone vibrated to life on the counter. Amanda’s mom was on the other end. The boys could stay there since Amanda had to leave so early.
She gave Karter a bath and helped him into his Batman pajamas. Keyton got ready, too, and before the boys crossed the yard to their grandmother’s house, Amanda gathered them into her arms on the couch.
“There once was an old lady who swallowed a fiddle,” Amanda read from a book.
She won’t be there when they wake up in the morning. She won’t make them breakfast or help brush their teeth. She’ll miss sleepy eyes and small bodies bundled in coats. She won’t be there when they get dropped off at school or when the final bell rings. In years to come, she will probably miss basketball games and perhaps the prom. There’s a good chance she won’t be there for nights at the movies and a first date or two.
“It is a riddle why she swallowed a fiddle,” Amanda continued.
But this evening, after the sun disappears, she will finish the book. Tomorrow, she will return to the black belly of the world.