Randy Nelson is a coal miner who would have it no other way. Every workday he harvests the black ore by machine, a mile or more below the Appalachian Mountainsmoving in his father's footsteps to help provide the fuel which, in turn, provides America with more than half of its electricity.
Nelson, of Costa, W.Va., is master of an occupation he took up 26 years ago, at age 20. He still recalls his first midnight trips into what seemed at the time an ominous cavern coming to life, as though he were in the belly of the earth.
"It's an awesome experience inside," Nelson says. "Every little sound or creak or noise makes you jumpy (at first)." But work provided plenty of distraction, and when his shift was over, he walked outside to a beautiful sunrise. Years later, he still enjoys his job.
"It's kinda hard for someone who's never had the feeling," he says. "It just sort of gets into your blood. I'll stay with it . . . up until retirement."
Coal mining today bears little relation to the dangerous, impoverishing labor it once waswhen coal towns were company towns, and children often worked the mines. Mining today is more mechanical than physical; Nelson operates a "continuous miner" machine with carbide teeth that scrapes coal from the underground walls, sending it to loader cars and a conveyor belt that carries it out.
Before becoming a miner, one now must take 40 hours of safety training, then apprentice for six months before receiving a Miner's Certificate.
In the '70s, two coal mines existed near Nelson's home, and the industry still had a strong influence in the communityhis father even played on a mining softball team. Mining now is just one of many occupations in the region; of 3,000 people in Nelson's valley, only about 100 are miners.
Technology, government oversight, and union contracts have forged other changes for America's 80,000 coal miners. Nelson, for example, earns roughly $50,000 a year, with a month's vacation, a pension, and health plan. The coal dust which caused "black lung" disease for so many miners (including Nelson's father) today all but doesn't exist. Huge machines inhale dusty air in the mine and filter it clean. Air quality is monitored hourly, miners' lungs routinely are x-rayed, and respirators provide a final safeguard.
Miners also have reliable communication with the outside world by way of a hard-line telephone system, which not only helps with daily operations, but also is invaluable in case of trouble.
Though work is still physically demanding, Nelson says there is something profound about his job. Advancing deeper into the earth, miners discover areas unseen by human eyes. They even find fossils in the sandstone.
"When you look at something like that," Nelson says, "you really can't help but wonder how it got there and when and how it all took place."
When they have reached the end of a coal seam, it's time to leave it.
The team of three or four miners retreats slowly, taking out as much coal as possible. Pillars of stone and coal were left in place during their advance to support the ceiling of the shaft (timbers are no longer used). Upon leaving, the miners chew away cautiously at the pillars which support the world above them.
Though injuries and deaths are rare in the industry these days, Nelson still is relieved when he emerges into sunshine at the end of a shift.
"There's always something comforting about rounding that last corner and seeing daylight," he says.
But he enjoys the work nonetheless, if only because he knows that by pulling his share of coal from the earth, he makes the light of America shine a little brighter.