IN JUNE 9, 1968, my flight landed in Charleston, West Virginia. As I pulled my suitcase from the baggage carousel, a young man with black hair and a swarthy complexion strode up. He wore tan pants and a long-sleeved shirt. A flat-billed railroad engineer’s cap perched on the back of his head. “Hi. I’m Tim Bowman, but everybody calls me Mex,” he said, sticking out his hand.
I shook it. “I’m Casey.”
“Figured so,” Tim said. “Boss’s kid, right?”
I nodded, wondering if that fact would be held against me. Tim didn’t seem to care one way or another. “Come on. It’s a long drive to Coalwood,” he said, leading the way to a beige pickup with the Case Foundation Company logo emblazoned on the driver’s door.
On the two-hour drive, I learned that Tim had been born and raised in Coalwood, the middle child in a family of three boys and three girls. He was my age, eighteen, and had just graduated from Big Creek High School in War, a couple of towns over the mountain.
Tim drove casually, one hand on the wheel, his left elbow crooked over the open window. I was transfixed by his Southern drawl as he laughed and joked and asked me questions about living in the big city. He reminded me of a younger Sheriff Andy Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show, which I had watched religiously since it first appeared on television in 1960.
We swapped stories as we cruised along. By the time we arrived in Coalwood, we were friends.
Coalwood, in the southwest corner of West Virginia near the Kentucky border, became famous in 1998 for being the home of Homer Hickam, Jr., known as Sonny to his friends, whose fledgling experiments with rocketry in the late 1950s led him to later write a book about the town and his and his friends’ experiences. Rocket Boys was a huge best seller and later was made into the movie October Sky, which starred Jake Gyllenhall as Sonny and Chris Cooper as his father. Mr. Hickam, Sr., was the superintendent of the Olga Mining Company coal mines buried deep below the town.
During my call with Emily Buckberry in November 2008 (when she floored me about holding onto Dad’s letter for 40 years) she asked me if I’d seen October Sky. Hilary and Jimmy had gone to see the film soon after its release. When I got home she said, “We just saw a movie that I think takes place in that town you worked in the summer after high school.” The next day I went to see the movie and bought the book. I was shocked that a movie had been made about such a small, tucked away-from-everything town. Emily also told me she and Sonny grew up together and were close friends, and that she was hired to work on the film as a dialogue consultant. “The director, Joe Johnston, didn’t want the actors to sound like they were from the film Deliverance,” she explained.
As he made clear in Rocket Boys, Sonny had a less-than-warm relation- ship with his father, a no-nonsense mine boss who believed in hard work, company loyalty, and sticking with what you knew. So familiar with the depths of the earth, he couldn’t understand why his son would want to waste time on things that went up into the sky. Even Sonny’s numerous awards from science fairs didn’t faze him. However, when the boys brought home a gold medal from the national science fair, Homer Sr. came down to the slag heap to see what they were up to.
Mr. Hickam had black lung disease, a consequence of his many years of exposure to coal dust. As Sonny and his pals prepared to launch their latest creation, Sonny turned to his dad and said, “You launch it.”
Mr. Hickam put his thumb on the toggle and pushed. Flames shot from the rocket and it rose majestically. Mr. Hickam got so excited that he
lost his breath. Sonny put his arm around him to hold him up. It was the first close moment ever for Sonny and his father.
Later Sonny would say, “So in a lot of ways—actually in all the ways— I wrote that book for that final scene: to write about the moment that I had with my father growing up. I never had a moment like that before, and never had a moment after, but for that moment my father and I connected and, ultimately, that’s what Rocket Boys is about.”
It wasn’t until ten years after reading Sonny’s book that I discovered Coalwood was the crucible for my moment with my father and my return to the light; ironic, since I spent most of that summer in a hole hundreds of feet below ground.
Between my senior year of high school and my freshman year at the University of Southern California I worked for Case Foundation on a job in Coalwood. Case had been hired by the Olga Mining Company to install a two thousand-foot ventilation shaft for a new section of its coal mines. This was a very odd job for Case to take on. Its specialty was constructing deep foundations for skyscrapers such as the two-hundred-foot deep caissons sunk in 1966 for the one hundred-story John Hancock Building in Chicago known as “Big John.”
I had begun working for Case the summer after sixth grade. My brother and I painted the seven-foot fence that encircled the ten-acre headquarters property in the Chicago suburb of Keeneyville, laboring for six or seven hours a day for fifty cents an hour, a lavish sum in 1962. Not yet men of height, we erected a scaffold so our brushes could reach to the top of the fence.
One morning I was sitting on the scaffold, painting a section of the fence near the office building, when my mother’s father came out of the building, dressed, as usual, to the nines in his hand-tailored three-piece dark gray suit and black wingtips with metal studs in the heels. His heels chirped on the concrete as he marched across the parking lot, his face stone serious. He didn’t bother with a greeting. “Casey, don’t ever let me catch you sitting down again while you’re working. It makes you look lazy. If you need to, get down on one knee, but never on both knees. If you’re too tired to work, go home.” He turned on his heel and marched back into his office.
The following summers I worked at many different jobs—carpenter, welder, lathe operator, laborer—but always during slow times, keeping in mind my grandfather’s admonishment, I picked up a broom and swept the shop floor, put tools away, or cleaned parts without being asked. I learned at a very young age how to work hard and do a good job. I never allowed anyone to think I didn’t pull my weight, even if I shared the owner’s blood.
Tim helped me get settled in the Clubhouse, a splendid three-story boarding house and hotel built in the early 1900s. Enormous white pillars framed the porch and entrance. Junior Chapin and his wife, Carol, ran the place, both employed by Olga. As I followed Mrs. Chapin to my room on the second floor, she chattered away like we were old friends. “We live here in the hotel, you know. We have two teenage daughters, Kim and Theresa. You’ll get to know them real quick. I make breakfast every morning, and I’ll make sure you have a good lunch to take with you. Dinner is at five- thirty sharp.”
As I unpacked, I wondered what it would be like living in a company town where every house, every business, every person was owned or employed by the mine. It wouldn’t take long to find out.
The jobsite was a few miles outside of town on the side of a hill above Mudhole Holler. The day shift crew met at the Clubhouse around seven- thirty, and we drove up to the job in the company’s four-wheel drive Jeeps. It was a “two-smoke ride.” I usually bummed unfiltered Camels from one of the crew members everyone called The Greek.
I considered myself reasonably fit, but my first shift in the shaft made me realize that a passion for golf and gymnastics couldn’t prepare me—or anyone—for the rigors of underground mining. I got kitted out in my yellow, waterproof suspendered pants and coat, strapped the battery pack for my miner’s lamp to my waist, settled the wide-brimmed metal hard hat on my head, and stepped into the skip, a metal can a few feet square that acted as a crude elevator to drop us down to the bottom of the shaft. The sides came barely above our waists. Tafon Hylton, Hub Alger, and Rat Kirk, all Coalwood boys, rode down with me.
“Keep all the body parts you wanna keep inside this here skip,” Rat informed me, “or whatever hangs out will come back a bloody stump.”
Fear rose in me as the skip began to drop. I pressed my arms close to my sides. This mine would not claim any of my body parts if I could help it. The skip picked up speed, plunging four hundred feet to the bottom of the shaft, where I’d spend the next eight hours. The jagged rock walls blurred as we plummeted past.
The skip slowed and stopped. I hitched up my britches and stepped out into darkness pierced only by the headlamps we wore. My first day of work had begun.
I was handed a pneumatic drill—a jackhammer. My job was to drill holes into solid rock to accommodate the sticks of dynamite that would shatter rock and deepen the shaft. The jackhammer was about two feet in length and weighed sixty pounds. Tafon, my shift boss, showed me how to clip a five-foot drill bit into the business end.
“Hold it as far above your head as you can, and keep it tight to the rock,” he instructed. Fortunately, I had grown quite a bit the past couple of years and was about six foot two and a whopping one hundred fifty pounds. I set the bit against the rock and pressed the trigger.
Oh, shit! It felt like my teeth were going to shake out of my gums. The noise was ferocious. As I drilled my way down into the two-inch diameter hole, the work got a little easier and I learned some tricks of the trade, thanks to Rat, the only guy on the crew skinnier than me, with an Adam’s apple big enough to rival Johnny Appleseed’s. Once I got the drill handles down to chest level, I’d throw one of my legs over the drill to add more weight to force it down. When it worked its way a little lower, I sat on it.
More than once the drill bit would suddenly bind up in the hole and I’d get bucked off the drill like a cowboy tossed from a bull’s back, slamming into the wall and getting pretty banged up. The other miners guffawed, thinking that was about the funniest thing they’d ever seen. I’d struggle to my feet, shrug, and do it all over again.
Drilling through solid rock, even with water-cooled drills, created a blinding swirl of dust. The solution? Red Man chewing tobacco. I’d put a
big chaw of that in my jaw and as I breathed in through my mouth, the slug of wet tobacco acted like a filter and trapped some of the dust—at least in theory. Of course, it never dawned on me that I was swallowing the dust, along with the nicotine, which made me feel like I could work forever and never get tired.
My mom would have been horrified at such a dirty habit. I could almost hear her: “If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?” Well, I felt like I was figuratively jumping off a cliff when I climbed into the skip, and if I was old enough to do a man’s work, I was old enough to pick up a man’s habits.
The noise pounded us from all sides, deafening, suffocating, exploding, and crashing off the solid granite walls of the fourteen-foot-wide shaft. Compressors pumped air to four drills, creating a cacophony as we miners punched sixty firing holes in the rock floor. I would soon learn that the noise never stopped. Never.
Eight weary hours later, ears ringing from the constant hammering of the drills, bodies drenched in sweat, we packed ourselves like sardines inside the skip and began the slow, cautious ascent from this hell-pit. Water seeped constantly from the walls of the shaft above us, pouring off the brims of our metal helmets and running inside the collars of our heavy jackets. Even our waterproof coats couldn’t keep us dry. The seeping water added to my misery.
After we passed through a maze of cables, hoses, and steel supporting the jaws of a gigantic metallic shovel, the skip surged upward, cement- ing our boots to the floor. The noise dissipated as we rocketed toward a dime-sized circle of bluish-gray light, the doorway out of hell. Large droplets of water smashed into my face, turning into rivulets that carved tracks through the rock dust caked on my forehead and smooth adolescent cheeks. I wiped the muck from my eyes as turquoise light surrounded us, dancing upon the cavern walls retreating beneath.
I looked down through the receding murk. Through the damp, dust- filled air, tiny pinpricks of yellow light, the rapidly vanishing headlamps of the second shift heading into the hole we’d just left, winked up at me, like lightning bugs that filled the muggy summer nights in suburban Chicago with magic. I was a long way from Chicago. I wanted to scream, “How the hell did I end up here?” The noise was so damned loud, I could have shouted at the top of my lungs and the three local men crammed in the bucket with me wouldn’t have heard a thing.
The biggest deterrent, though, was that over the years, I had learned not to show fear—or any other honest emotion. Emotion was something my father and grandfather seldom expressed, and they seemed to hold those who did in low esteem.
Looking up, I shielded my eyes from the blinding light that gradually softened to pale blue as we hurtled toward the surface. The skip slowed. The metal grate that covered the mouth of the shaft to keep unwary pedestrians from a long, long fall rolled back. The grizzled guardian, his long, dirty hair dangling around his face, permitted us to pass through, greeting us with a wide grin. His few remaining teeth were stained by years of tobacco and neglect, each gap in his gums a story. Our Top Man, as he was called, had recently been released from prison, having served ten years for second-degree murder. “Only one they ever done got me on,” he beamed.
Tafon, Hub, Rat, and I hopped out into the relative quiet of the surface, and the grate rolled back into place. I took off my hard hat and knew that if I looked in a mirror, my forehead would stand out whitely, a stark contrast to the rest of my face, which was covered in grit and sweat. I switched off my headlamp and unbuckled the battery pack. I couldn’t wait to shed the waterproof gear and feel the breeze on my skin.
Five days earlier I had celebrated my graduation from Lake Park High School in suburban Chicago. Now I asked myself what the fuck I was doing in Coalwood, West Virginia, working with a bunch of miners. I wondered if I would ever become one of them. But at least I had survived the first day.
One evening after dinner, when I’d been in Coalwood less than a week, I was sitting on the wide porch of the Clubhouse with some of the boys, occasionally shouting something at another bunch sitting on the steps of the Big Store across the road. The setting sun touched the tops of the deep green, almost blue, Appalachia hills that protected this tiny coal town, sending a warm golden light over the land. It made me feel that anything was possible, including surviving the Case Foundation shaft project.
I looked up to see Tim Bowman sauntering down the road. “Hey, buddy,” he called, “take a walk with me. I want you to meet my folks.”
I hopped off the porch and Tim and I strolled down the middle of Main Street. The night shift workers had gone down in the mines a couple of hours earlier. Those lucky enough to be topside to enjoy the balmy summer evening sat with their feet up on porch rails, tossing out friendly greetings.
As we passed the turnoff to Snakeroot Hollow, Tim said, “That’s where the colored live.”
I was surprised by his casual reference to segregation. I didn’t consider myself prejudiced, but to be honest, the only Negroes, as African Americans were called at the time, I’d actually known while growing up were Carrie Fowler, who cleaned our house, and Russell Allen, my grandfather’s and father’s chauffeur.
Though the rest of the country was being torn apart by race riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coalwood seemed oblivious to outside struggles. For a moment I wondered if the blacks had been required to keep to themselves or if they preferred to gather together. Then I reminded myself that Coalwood was part of the South, and that it wasn’t my place to judge how folks here lived.
A hundred yards later Tim and I came to Mudhole Branch Road, which forked off to the right, leading to the shaft job. We took the left fork up Frog Level Row, a string of fifty cookie-cutter, single-story wood-framed houses on lots the size of postage stamps. Originally, they had been painted white, but in the dusk they hunkered like gray ghosts, their clapboards having surrendered long ago to the coal dust, which hunted down every exposed surface. Like most of the other houses in town, these were owned by the Olga Mining Company and rented out to the miners. A tiny stream flowed through the hollow. “Looks harmless now,” Tim said, “but after a gully washer, that crick can rise up ten feet or more. That’s how come some of the houses are up on stilts.” He turned toward a small two-story house. “Home, sweet home,” he said.
Tim held the weathered screen door open for me as we entered the fam- ily room. The remnant odors of dinner, something fried, hung close to the low ceiling, mingling with the dense cloud of cigarette smoke. The only light in the tiny room came from the nineteen-inch black-and-white television that sat in one corner. A hand rose above the back of a large recliner that dominated the room. The red tip of a Camel glowed between the stubs of two fingers.
“Dad, I want you to meet somebody,” Tim said.
His words were answered by a wet, raspy hack erupting from the bowels of the chair. Tired springs creaked from the upheaval as Tim and I sidestepped around the recliner into the room. I repressed the urge to stare as I looked at a gray skeleton that seemed to be struggling to escape the over- stuffed cushions of the faux leather La-Z-Boy. Black pools had replaced Mr. Bowman’s eyes. The taut skin where his cheeks had once been sucked against his back molars, outlining them as if the flesh had been pasted over the teeth.
“Pleased to meet you,” he whispered, extending a skeletal hand.
I took his right hand in mine, wary that even my light touch might break the fragile bones. He struggled out of the chair. I was aghast. There couldn’t have been ninety pounds of flesh on his six-foot frame. Once-blue denim shirt and trousers, now faded to white from thousands of washings, hung on him like old clothes fluttering around an autumn scarecrow. He was fifty-three, going on seventy-nine.
Later Tim would tell me that his father, like so many other men, had been forced to retire from mining when he contracted black lung disease from breathing the dust in the years before respirators became mandatory. He received a disability stipend of just over a hundred dollars a month.
Everyone in town knew that my grandfather and father ran Case Foundation, and I was a little surprised when things went fairly smoothly with the other members of the crew. I suppose working all those previous summers for Case in Illinois had prepared me better than I imagined to work with hard men who didn’t have time to babysit a kid with the silver spoon sticking out of his mouth. I had worked a lot around guys older than me who came from widely diverse backgrounds. By the time I was twelve, I had learned to swear with the best (or worst) of them and how to fit in. They didn’t let me off scot-free, though.
One day I was topside. “Hey, Casey! Move that Jeep!” someone shouted, pointing to one of our trans- port vehicles.
“Right away!” I yelled back. I jumped in the Jeep and fired it up. Suddenly I heard this loud tttkkkktttktkkktkk behind me. I looked over my shoulder. An enormous eastern diamondback rattlesnake was coiled on the seat, its spade-shaped head weaving back and forth.
I flew out of the Jeep and dove to the ground. When I dared to look up, I saw the entire crew laughing their asses off, falling down and rolling around holding their sides. Sheepishly, I got to my feet, dusted myself off, and went back to what I had been doing before I fell for their prank.
Another time I was asked to move a tractor. I climbed up into the driver’s seat, turned the key, and pressed the starter, but nothing happened. I got out and lifted the seat to check the battery. Sitting on one of leads to the battery was a blasting cap used to ignite the dynamite we stuffed into the holes drilled at the bottom of the shaft. If the engine had fired, it could have blown my ass off—literally. This time there was no one around watching.
Had they indeed been just practical jokes? Little tests to see how I’d take it and find out what I’d do? Thinking back, I realize if I had ever tried to pull any sort of rank with these guys, they could have easily arranged “accidents” and they wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
Later that summer Tim confided in me. “Those first few weeks you were here? Somebody—I’m not sure who, and I don’t know if they worked for Case or Olga—sneaked into your room and went through your stuff all the time.”
“Why the hell would somebody do that?” I answered, outraged at this violation of my privacy.
Tim shrugged. “Just checkin’ you out, I guess, tryin’ to figure out what you’re doin’ in Coalwood.”
“Like I’m some kind of spy?”
Tim shrugged again. He had no answers. Neither did I.
That summer, I worked hard and I played hard. Shortly after I arrived, Tim invited me to join the Coalwood softball team. I was pretty proud to
put on the uniform that had “Case Foundation” written across the shirt. “But I’m not askin’ you because you’re the boss’s kid. And nobody from Case told me we had to invite you to join. We did it just because you fit in,” Tim said.
I felt that way, too. Most people there had accepted me easily, and they were the friendliest, most open, fun people I’d ever been around.
Three-two beer was legal for those of us eighteen and older, and we drank a lot of it. On nights we weren’t running bases and hoping for home runs, we’d drive over to Welch and shoot rats at the dump. Rats are like moths, drawn to light. We’d pull the car to the edge of the dump, switch on the headlights, and climb on the hood. Hundreds of rats charged toward the car as we blasted away with our .22 caliber rifles. That’s what I call fun.
My dad came to visit me late that summer. We had dinner and he spent the night in the Clubhouse. The next day he joined me at the jobsite, an alien draped in his dark blue suit. The crew snapped to, almost saluting when he showed up. My father naturally commanded that level of respect from tough men. He paid little attention to me. Inside I was beaming.
As he got ready to leave for Chicago, he took me aside. “Casey, before you get home, do me a favor. Get a haircut and don’t chew tobacco in front of your mother.”
As August wound down toward September, I felt sad that my time here was ending. Coalwood and the shaft job had been real learning experi- ences, at least a couple of doctorates’ worth. It was transforming—I arrived as a boy and left as a man. I would miss Tim and all my new friends. I would miss the town and its friendly people. Yet a new adventure loomed: college at USC and a new life in Los Angeles. On August twenty-fourth, as I boarded the plane that would take me home, I never imagined that I’d have anything more to do with Coalwood or anyone who lived there.
Grover C. Gauntt, Jr (1919-1970), Casey Gauntt (1950-) and Jimmy Gauntt (1983-2008)