Tuesday, June 30, 2015




The mound was seventy feet high, void of vegetation, the color of saw dust, missing the dark rich soil normally found along the river, offering a wide panorama of the Ohio River, barges and tug boats trudging slowly, in the swift current, its loose dirt and rock created by the digging of a new mine shaft, waiting stoically for its final resting place, a tempting sight for two young boys.

Doug was tall and strong for a young boy, with red hair and a rugged face, always looking for adventure in the small unexciting town. Tim was much smaller and thinner with brown hair, and a curiosity that sometimes got him into trouble. They were both twelve years old, and loved to walk out to the mine after school to play until their fathers, at the end of the day, showered off the accumulation of coal dust, before going home.

They had to be careful, not to climb on the belt line, which ran from the mine and down to the river, with its ever turning rollers, and screaming bearings, loaded with coal, bouncing up and down as it went over each roller, worse yet the belt could break, dropping the coal on them

Throwing rocks and playing on the mound of dirt seemed safe enough except when the miners would set off a blast in the new shaft, sending rocks and boulders flying through the air. Tim and Doug would stop and look upward watching for the rocks that came crashing down through the trees, dogging left and right like a strange game of war with the enemy bombarding them from a ship on the river.

Tim suggested, “Let’s dig a tunnel where we can hide from shelling.”

Doug added, “Yea, we could dig us a path around the side of the dirt pile and when the rocks start falling we could run up and jump in.”

“We’ve got a short handle shovel at home that would work just fine in a small tunnel.”

“Climbing that hill is not easy, with the dirt sliding down and filling our shoes. With a trail going around it we can run up the hill and slide down the other side.”

“Sounds like fun Doug, I’ll go get the shovel, let’s do it.”

Doug made fast work of the path, meandering back and forth up the side of the steep bank in the soft dirt, packing it down hard, building a bank to hold back the loose dirt. The first two tunnels were small and side by side, where they could jump in feet first, lying down with a good view out toward to river. The next tunnel was much deeper, making a circle at the end, then turning around and reconnecting back near the entrance.

 When the tug boat came to pick up the loaded coal barges, they would head down to the river and watch the skillful tug boat captain line up a string of barges for the ride down to the Mississippi River, out into the Gulf of Mexico and across to Tampa Bay. The tug boat crew would tie the barges together three wide and up to four or five deep, then the tug boat would gently push them into the current for the long ride south.

Doug and Tim enjoyed watching the tug boats and dreamed of taking the round trip to Tampa where the barges would be unloaded at the power plant and then reloaded with phosphate from the Bone Valley region of central Florida for the long ocean trip back to New Orleans, followed by the push up river to Ohio. The mining company owned the coal mine and the barges, making money selling the coal to Tampa Power and Light, then hauling phosphate back up river instead of pushing empty barges.

Tim’s father ran the underground mining operation and arranged for Tim and his friend Doug to take a short ride on the tug boat. The boys were spell bound, the tug boat larger and faster than they imagined, cutting through the water and turning on a dime. The captain showed them how he used the boat’s radar, with its green sweeping line, leaving a trail of dots, to mark the sand bars and other boats on the river. The sonar caught Tim’s eye, tracing the bottom, making low beeping, as they cruised along.

“What is that?” As Tim, pointed to a blurry image on the round screen.

“That’s a school of fish twenty feet below the bottom of the boat.”

He explained how they would park the barges at the dams, that were located, every six to twenty miles, depending on the fall of the river, and push them through the locks a few at a time, tying them back together on the other side. The mile long belt line ran loaded high with coal from the mine day and night, filling the coal barges, upon their return.

Near quitting time and a shift change at the mine the boys would head for the showers to meet their dads. Rows of clothes hung from chains, like bodies in a horror movie, hosted up above their heads in the large shower room. The miners would discard their work overalls, to be washed overnight and hung on the chains to dry, with matching numbers, overalls to chain, then showering off and lowering their clean clothes and baskets with belongings before heading home.

The boys started a new tunnel near the bottom of the dirt mound, the digging was easy and Doug was soon in more than a full body length, when the ground shook from a stronger than usual blast in the mine shaft. Doug started backing out to watch for rocks when the dirt pile started to slide down toward the opening. Tim watched helplessly as he saw Doug’s feet being covered with dirt, and before he could reach him he was completely buried, head first in the hole.

Tim tried to dig Doug out, but the faster he dug, the faster the dirt slid down. Giving up he ran toward the shower house hopping that someone would be there who could help.

Doug could not move his legs, dirt closed in around his chest; in reflex he raised his arms over his head in an effort to hold back the dirt. Each time he exhaled, the dirt slid in tighter, under and around his chest, until he could only take in small amounts of air.

Tim found a few workers out side of the mine. “I need Help! Doug is buried in a hole we dug.”

“Show me where Tim.” Grabbing a shovel, “Sound the mine alarm!” He ordered a co-worker, running toward the dirt pile. As fast he shoveled the dirt away more dirt slid down. “We have to hold back the dirt, get some boards,” He yelled to the approaching miners,” “and shove them into the bank.”

Several workers shoveled the dirt out, as fast as they could, with sweat pouring off their bodies, in a desperate effort to find Doug. At last his shoes appeared; the miners slowed down for fear of injuring him, then digging with their hands they reached his waist, grabbing his belt, legs and feet, the men pulled him from his fresh grave.

A respirator on his face, forcing air back into his lungs, his vital signs checked, Tim and the miners stood over his dirt covered, limp body, waiting for any sign of life. Doug’s eyes open slowly, the blinding sun light causing him to squint, the men shouted, “Praise God, he is still alive!”

His father, just exiting the mine, black except for his eyes, running to his son, with tears streaking the coal dust down his face, “Thank God he’s OK. How long was he buried?”

“It could not have been more than thirty minutes; a pocket of air near his head saved him. If he had been facing the other way he would not have made it.”

That evening Doug and his father showered together at the mine, and Tim learned his first hard lesson about digging tunnels.

Copyright © 2015 Hubert Clark Crowell
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