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Chippin’ Them Rocks

This summer’s extraordinary rescue of nine trapped Pennsylvania coal-miners verged on miraculous. Scarcely noted was the hellish nature of everyday conditions below. Those who work down there seldom live long, or well.

Like many horrific occupations, mining has acquired something of a cultish cachet. Our quintessential California hippie band, for instance, the Grateful Dead, performed an evocative ballad called Cumberland Blues — “Can I go; buddy? Can I go, now? Take your shift down at the mine?”

Songwriters Garcia, Hunter, and Lesh didn’t glamorize the dig, situating desperation and poverty at center, where they belong. There are lots of soul-devouring jobs, even in this “post- industrial” society. And then there’s mining.

I put in time underneath, enough to get the union card (Oil; Chemical & Atomic Workers), and to never forget how wretched a pursuit it is. First; you must descend. So this poem starts from the top.

by Erik S. McMahon

I’d compare it to a tub

Picture hotel laundry bins or

Those decorated dumpsters they

Cram you into on unsafe, old

Uninspected roller-coasters

Yard wide, maybe; five feet long

Two benches, seating six workers

That's how we commuted

Before even punching in

Lanterned hard-hats, pounds of gear

Hanging from our belts, wearing

Cartoon versions of gloves and boots

Attached to the tubs were

Pitted, rusty metal wheels

And, theoretically, brakes

Bins clattered crazily along

Shabbily-welded, neglected track

Lurching, jerking, jolting

Last downtown local subway

Blank as elevator passengers

No one said a word

You were allowed to smoke, though

So everybody did

Two Lucky Strikes for that endless ride

(Couple, three minutes, really)

Extremely steep angle

Wire-masked lamps flashing past

Less and less real air

No way around it — we had to get

Half a mile underground, fast

Nothing cute about the conveyance

It hauled us to the dark, damp place

Where we stood a good chance

Of becoming hideously maimed, or worse

Depending on your shift

You boarded at dawn, noon, four, midnight

Made no difference once you disembarked

Immeasurable tons of rock and dirt

Around you and above you

Every species of ornery machine

And volatile explosive invented

Comfort food for your inner

Nihilistic maniac

Tourist caverns are solid, smooth

In mines, fissures, fault-lines, random

Trickles of gravel serve as reminders

The whole damn thing might

Collapse at any moment

We got handsomely paid

Riding rickety tubs to hell

Performing dementedly dangerous tasks

Searching for gold, for silver?

No, elements and minerals

Most could barely pronounce

Think of watering the lawn

On a relaxing suburban weekend

Underground, that hose swells

Thicker than an anaconda

Propelling slurried concrete at 500

Pounds per square inch each second

Major mistake to ever release

Then all bets are off

Copper spout darts, whips, dances

Eager to fracture your skull if

Given the slightest opportunity

When loose boulders commence rumbling

Gathering speed along unstable, not

Entirely shored-up drifts

You try and believe something else

Might be creating that sound

When a granite shelf slides free

Like an Arctic glacial iceberg calving

There are neighborhoods you'd rather occupy

On the surface, I've seen people shot

I've been beaten and been stabbed myself

But to watch a man get crushed

Well, that's another matter altogether.

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