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Montague, West Virginia

Sunday, March 6, 1973

 

    Which stream of the divided raindrop, racing downward precipitously on the coal dust encrusted glass window pane, would strike the bottom sash first was a question that seized Paul Davao's attention. Could the event have transcendental implications as well, he pondered. Had the original raindrop, alighting upon the window surface,  been destroyed by twin parasites, who had managed to invade their watery host on its vertical journey from the turbulent skies; or had the raindrop, apparently pregnant with an excess of fluids, miraculously given birth to twins once a flat, stable surface had been reached, thereby sacrificing itself to the promulgation of its kind? Was this phenomenon an example of the eternal conflict between the benevolent and the malevolent, the benign and the malignant, or were those characterizations a futile attempt by humans to impose coordinates of morality upon the machinations of nature, a domain where questions of morality and distinctions between good and evil were bereft of meaning?  

    These rather desultory considerations occupied Davao's thoughts, not from boredom nor the essential dullness of his mind, an inclination to dwelt upon the insignificant, to find abstractions in the commonplace; no, these speculations were an attempt to calm his nerves and turn his preoccupation away from the terror he felt.

    Only moments before, a jagged spear of lightning had struck the rusty, no longer serviceable tractor parked permanently near the edge of the parking area for company vehicles. A hazy column of smoke was still rising, and a vague odor of scorched metal was wafting amongst the company buildings, drifting across the narrow stream which fell from Montague Mountain and flowed southward through the valley toward the Monongahela River. His acute focus on the bisected raindrop had been a desperate effort to still the panic he felt beginning to exert its influence over his reactions; he was afraid of losing control.

    Under normal circumstances, Davao thought of himself as a reasonably steady sort, not easily given over to irrational fears, but the lightning strike, the most violent he had ever observed, had been blinding in the intensity of its light, deafening in the crash of its sonic boom, and the resulting tremors that shook the building he had just entered resembled a minor, but randomly destructive, earthquake. More forbidding, the structure in which he was presently located, the mine communication center, was not a wood frame building like the mining office he just left, but a corrugated aluminum Quonset hut with all the qualities necessary to assume the functions of a metal lighting rod to challenge the stormy weather with reckless abandon.

    On the other side of the room, seated before a bank of radio and telephone equipment, Russ Spencer had barely lifted his eyes from the comic book in which he was engrossed to gaze at the lightning through the large glass window overlooking the entire area.

    "Russ, how can you read a comic book in the middle of a thunder storm?"

    "It's a graphic novel, Paul, not a comic book. They're not the same, anymore than the classical music you prefer is the same as rock or jazz."

    "Whatever you say, buddy. I admire your fortitude anyway. Have you heard anything from Cavalier or Winooski?"

    "Not yet, but I'd expect one of them to call within the next thirty minutes if we're going to get the third shift started any time soon. You'll be the first to know."

   

    Davao promised to return within a half hour and left the Communications Center to the fearless Russell Spencer. He should pay a visit next door to the mine foreman's trailer, he thought, but it was dark and probably empty; furthermore, it was another metal structure that could wait for his entrance until the weather improved. If, in fact, it would improve, an assumption not so definitely assumable.

    He walked back across the dark, muddy area toward the administration building. avoiding the many puddles that hindered his progress as best he could. The rainfall had lessened, been reduced to drizzle status actually, and most welcome of all, the noxious smell of damaged metal had dissipated.

    Unlocking the front door, he entered the large, two story wooden building and crossed the front room, the only one lighted at this time of night, to his desk before the front window with its expansive view of all the mining facilities. Davao sat for a moment and glanced at the wall clock: 11:40 PM. He had been at work for almost an hour, and a long night still beckoned, but during the past several years, he had grown accustomed to the loneliness of the night shift; his responsibilities were minimal, the tendency of upper management to monitor his every move was absent, and the long, quiet hours gave him opportunities for reading, listening to music, and especially time to think, indulgences he would never be permitted during the busy day shifts when the building was fully occupied.

    His eyes wandered about the office, looking for his coffee mug. Coffee and music: those were the priorities for the moment now that the storm had abated. He poured a fresh mug full from the electric drip pot on the sideboard and rummaged through the drawers for his CD's. Soon the music from Don Giovanni, his favorite opera, burst forth from the speakers and enlivened the quiet gloominess of the nearly empty office.

    Davao walked back to the front door and stepped outside for a moment, standing beside the entrance, sipping his coffee. What appeared to be a swarm of fireflies were flickering outside the bath house building next door, but he knew these lights did not emanate from chemically illuminated insects; they belonged to miners from the third shift, finishing their last cigarettes before beginning work. It never failed to amaze him that coal miners, with their historically high incidence of pneumoconosis or black lung disease, would persist in smoking tobacco, as though they imagined that two different carcinogens, each attacking the lungs, would neutralize the other's effectiveness to implant disease.

    Further south, toward the mouth of the valley, a mile or two from the river bank, Davao could see a few lights burning in Montague Village, a cluster of small businesses, community buildings, and miner dwellings built on a narrow shoulder of the western escarpment, perhaps twenty-five feet above the valley floor. The Village was once a coal town, built, owned, and operated by the Montague Coal Company to provide rental housing for the substantial numbers of miners employed at their nearby facilities. But hard times descended on the coal industry as the depression approached: the company went bankrupt, and the mine was closed, all the structures shuttered and deserted. In 1931, the remaining residents, now unemployed but still clinging to their homes, petitioned the State of West Virginia to convey ownership of the Village to the miners occupying the abandoned property. Referencing the right of eminent domain, the legal maneuvers were successful, and Montague Village became a privately held community, property ownership independent of any future commercial ventures at the closed mine.

    For all that, the population of the Village continued to steadily decline over the next few years as miners left to find employment elsewhere. Eventually, the community was as empty and boarded over as the mine itself, but the fact of private ownership of the buildings was an accomplished fact, one that would remain unchanged as the economy of the region improved.

    When the Simmons Energy Corporation bought the Montague Mine site and reopened the facility in 1952, a few former miners returned to claim their property and seek employment with the new proprietors. Other workers, younger men recently hired, were able to purchase empty buildings from their previous owners. After twenty years of Simmons ownership, about 160 workers-miners, administrators, and service personal-were employed at its Montague site; contemporaneously, the population of Montague Village hovered around the five hundred mark, down from nearly twelve hundred people at the height of coal extraction during the 1920's. But not all employees chose to live in the Village; some of the older, more financially resourceful miners had bought property elsewhere in Monongalia County.

 

    Davao studied the latest changes in weather. Despite an early appearance of spring in the southern reaches of the state, North Central West Virginia was still mired in deep winter; temperatures registered well below freezing, and patches of ice and snow were scattered around the valley floor, apparently imperious to the constant rainfall that continued to inundate the area: the storm had now persisted for five days without relief. Though the sodden ground was rapidly being transformed into a gelatinous soggy ooze, nature appeared to be indecisive over whether to freeze the latest accumulations or to allow the excess downpour to flood the narrow valley, which had become dappled with icy white patches and striped with numerous rivulets of shallow, murky water. Apparently the nadir had been reached, Davao decided hours earlier,  but that was an optimistic conclusion that never anticipated the thunder storms and intermittent lightning that arrived this evening.

    So the weather was deplorable, that was certainly indisputable, but perhaps the worst had finally passed. While it was true that light rain continued to fall without any indication of cessation soon, at least the thunder had receded into a faraway rumble, and lightning had been absent since the attack on the hapless, discarded tractor in the parking area.

    He closed the front door and returned to his desk, letting the hot coffee warm his lips, almost frigid from his second brief excursion outside the administration building; then he sat back, closed his eyes, and invited the melodious Mozart to soothe his still jangled nerves.

   

    Davao was born and raised in Huntington, Long Island, New York, a second generation American: his parents, both of them teachers and musicians, had immigrated to the United States from Barcelona, Spain. During his high school years, he was a quiet and conscientious student, but his classmates considered him to be snobby and aloof. As a result, he had few friends, but he labored to offset those inaccurate impressions by engaging in as many activities as possible. To everyone's surprise, he excelled at sports.

    Upon graduation, he was offered a partial athletic scholarship, in basketball, at the prestigious Colorado School of Mines. Of course, he accepted the offer, and his future career as a mining engineer had been determined without much further deliberation. 

    After four years of technical study at Golden, Davao moved back east, this time to Charleston, West Virginia. He had vague aspirations of finding work in the coal industry, a goal that was reinforced by the pursuit of his latest romantic interest. The affair, once removed from its idyllic academic setting, did not last long, and after several months, Davao found himself alone and unemployed in unfamiliar surroundings.

    What alternatives, then, occur to the over educated, under utilized intellect? why, to acquire more schooling of course. So Davao decided to remain in the state and enrolled in a graduate engineering program with an emphasis on coal mining at West Virginia University. Three more years flew by. By this point, he had spent nearly seven years without interruption immersed in academic endeavors. He was also lugging about a burdensome bundle of student loans. Clearly, it was time to find a job.

    That was an admirable goal, surely, but not one so easily realized: the use of coal in the United States was in sharp decline. What was once considered a plentiful and economic natural resource was now widely seen as a dirty, unfashionable way of producing energy. Residential heating fuel had moved away from coal to oil and natural gas; large, cranky furnaces were being replaced by forced air venting systems. Coal was a casualty of changing consumer preference and taste.

    Eventually, however, Davao did find a job although the effort took him the greater part of  a year. At first, he worked as an administrative assistant at Urecon Energy in Pittsburgh, work for which he felt over qualified and completely unsuited, so when he learned of a mining vacancy at Simmons, he quickly applied and soon after, based largely on the amount of education he had acquired, received an offer of employment. At the moment, Davao was living with his latest girl friend Janice in Osage, a small, unincorporated community just across the Monongahela from Morgantown. He was thirty-four years old.

 

    He looked upward once more at the official clock; another half hour had expired; it was 11:50 PM, the time he agreed to return to the Communications Center. Spencer must have heard from the mine inspectors by now. He bundled up against the weather and stepped outside the administration building. Glancing to his right, he noticed that almost all of the burning cigarettes had been extinguished, but the number of waiting miners had grown, and the volume and quantity of their murmurs had increased as well; the group were probably exchanging news about what had transpired during the just concluded weekend.

    Davao's official designation was Third Shift Mining Supervisor, but his title, as an accurate description of his position, was a misnomer and revealed little about his duties at the Montague Mine. He really had no supervisory authority, none at all. In fact, he had never actually worked as a miner, not anywhere, not once during his career. Oh, to be sure, he frequently visited work sites underground to perform sundry administrative functions, but that was the extend of it; he was never required to hoist pick and axe. Most of his time on site was given over to general bookkeeping, mandatory paper work. He collected time cards, functioned as a first line sounding board for employee grievances, provided oversight from an owner's perspective, ensured that a shift was completed satisfactorily; he monitored inventory and coal production. His duties were completely administrative in scope: he was an office worker, an employee without coal dusk beneath his fingernails. He was not an engineer, the work for which he was trained, but neither was he a miner, not in any sense of the word. He had no supervisory authority over anyone at the Montague site, certainly no one working remotely near the mine entrance, including the dispatcher Spencer. But if his job lacked excitement and glamour-if truly any work within a coal mine could be termed glamorous-he received other rewards; he was comfortable in his position and satisfied with the work. After all, it came with a generous measure of leisure, not something that should be carelessly exchanged for a more exacting and perhaps more dangerous job.

    He headed back toward the Communication Center. As he walked across the cold, dark space between the mine buildings, he thought about his own responsibilities, comparing them with those of other employees. His immediate superior, for example, was Harris Worthington, Director of Mining Operations at the Montague facility; but Worthington's duties were similar to his own. All three shift supervisors were under his purview, but his authority ended with those administrative responsibilities. He was a director of mining, perhaps, but he directed nothing that occurred inside the mine. Real mining authority rested with the section foremen, the face bosses, and the Mine Examiners, more popularly known as mine fire bosses; and ultimately, of course, with the Mine Superintendent, John Bradshaw. All of these positions were filled from the mining ranks by the most outstanding and knowledgeable employees.

    A mine fire boss, In particular, had critical responsibilities. It was his job to certify that a mine was safe for workers to enter, and he was expected to monitor and evaluate safety conditions as work proceeded. Unlike administrative supervisors, a fire boss had the authority to order everyone out of a mine without further questions, permitting no protest; he could be overruled only by the mine superintendent, an event that Davao had never witnessed.

 

    Davao entered the Quonset hut and tilted his head inquisitively when Spencer looked up.

    "Nothing yet, Paul. Why don't you sit and wait? I just made fresh coffee."

    Paul sat down along side Spencer and was about to interrogate him further when the telephone on the console rang.

    "Hello," Spencer began,"How are things going, Noose? Nearly forty miners are straining at their bits here waiting to start work. Oh, and Mr. Davao shares their impatience, too," he added, winking at Davao."When do you think we can expect clearance?"

    Spencer nodded his head silently; Winooski was apparently explaining the delay. Then he returned the hand receiver to its cradle and faced Davao.

    "Noose has completed his inspection. Everything is honky-dory. He's on his way in a man-trip to meet up with Rob at 17. We should be ready to go in a few minutes."

 

    Three seven-hour shifts were normally employed at the Montague Mine, five days a week. The Third Shift, beginning at midnight and ending at 7:00 in the morning, Davao's shift, was primarily staffed with grey beards and peach fuzz, older miners using the night pay differential to bolster their retirement credits, men who had families with older, married children; and the young, the most recently hired workers who were just starting families, who needed the extra money, men who were grateful to find jobs regardless of the hours. Thus, the Third Shift, among all the sections deployed underground, exhibited the greatest disparity between experience and expertise.

    None of the shifts overlapped, and none shared a starting or ending time with a successor or predecessor. Each shift was separated from the previous and the next by a one hour time bracket, one at the beginning and one at the end, intervals during which all workers vacated the mine and coal production temporarily ceased. These relatively brief interludes of non activity were reserved for mine fire boss inspections. Federal mining regulations mandated that a mine be inspected and certified safe at the conclusion of each shift before additional workers could enter the mine and resume extracting coal.

    On this particular Sunday night, mine fire bosses Robert Cavalier and Eric Winooski had been underground for almost three hours. The expanded, more thorough inspection they were conducting was necessary because the mine remained unused and empty during the previous twenty-four hours; only a skeleton crew continued production on Saturdays; no one worked on Sundays. The longer the mine was unoccupied, the more thorough the required inspection.

    All that was true, Davao reasoned; everyone expected an extended delay following a day of rest, but Cavalier was taking more time than usual. He was meeting with Winooski at lateral 17, but what was he up to?

 

January 2012

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