I know nothing about mining. I’ve been in a few caves, and even the local gypsum mine, but my experience is that of a suburban-urban air breathing nerd who thinks of caves and quarries as the place where gnomes and dwarves live.
This is why the recent tragedies in the mining communities of West Virgina are not events with which I can identify. Plus, I’ve never lived in a place where everyone has the same job – the job that their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers had.
The most dangerous job my dad ever had was cleaning up the glass after naughty teenagers broke into our church basement.
But for some reason, I keep finding myself thinking about the deaths of the miners, and the circumstances under which they worked and perished. My most significant thoughts and feelings on the whole thing are about how strange it is that jobs like this still exist. I mean, in a world where most of us think of “work” in the white-collar/blue-collar sense, we generally draw the line before the extremes.
For example, white-collar means desk job, office hours, maybe top executive or VP. But we forget about nuclear physicists, astronauts, and FBI agents, who might be called white collar simply because of the weighty responsibilities of their jobs. On the other end of the spectrum are jobs like steel walking and mining – equally demanding, but in an entirely different way.
And these people don’t get the glory of hearing their accomplishments on the news, but rather their tragedies.
Which is when we remember them, and the fact that there are jobs in this country that are extreme, not only because of their seriousness, but because they are, in a sense, locked in time.
Most of us in the west go from day to day without any immediate fear of death. Our jobs and pastimes occur in secure, predictable environments, where regulations and policies and wealth protect us from the primitive fears of past generations. Not so the miners. Every time they descended into the earth, they must have been aware, on some level, that they were no safer than the miners of the 19th century. Sure there are more advanced systems in place, but reliance on those systems drives humans to take greater risks. An underground explosion can be, and was, just as fatal as it was 100 years ago.
As a history buff, I find this concept fascinating. As a student of death culture, I find it profound. As a U.S. citizen, I see it as another example of the variety, contrast, and social gap that is our country.
If, like me, you know that you can’t really grasp, or even truly empathize with, what has happened to the miners and their families, just try to imagine if you were going to spend your next workday knowing that your job might kill you. Now couple that with the pride of multiple generations.
I still just can’t fathom it.