It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.
I can still recall Dad returning home from work at the end of a day spent underground. It was 1958, and we lived in West Garrett, a small community in Floyd County, Kentucky. After Mom left us, Dad’s mother — Mamaw, we called her — came to live with us, doing her best to keep us all together as a family.
I was the oldest and I walked each day with my brothers, Eddie and Bobby, to Garrett Elementary where we went to school. Only four years old, our little sister, Luly, was still too young. Today, some might say these were hard times, but we were like most other people around us. We had a warm home, good food to eat, clean clothes to wear to school, and, most important, we had family who loved us everywhere we went.
Like his father, Fair Baldridge, and generations of men in our family before him, Dad worked for the coal mine. Dad was born in Seco, a coal company town in Letcher County, Kentucky. He grew up in
Wayland, the Floyd County town where his father worked in the mines. Wayland is where he met Mom, Azlee Workman, whose father Henry also happened to work in the same mines as Papaw Fair. There were not many options at that time for men to support their families, and Dad probably knew that his future was coal mining, too. But this was during World War II, and in 1943 Dad signed up to serve with the U.S. Navy.
By the time he returned after the war, his father, laid off by the mines, had moved his family to Dayton, Ohio. After they were married, Dad and Mom also moved to Dayton, where he found other work than coal mining. Dad and Mom lived in Dayton for several years and Eddie, Bobby, and Luly were all born there.
It was after their marriage ended and Dad lost his job that we returned to live in Floyd County where we had family to help us. Since there was little work other than mining, that is where Dad went to support his family.
I don’t know the height of the particular vein of coal that he worked, but it couldn’t have been any more than 4-5 feet. The miners couldn’t stand up and had to dig the coal out sitting or lying down. Like most mines, a lot of the coal had to be removed with a pick and shovel and loaded into a “shuttle buggy” to take it outside. I remember many days Dad would leave before the sun came up and not come back again until after the sun was long gone. He went to work in the dark, worked all day in darkness, and came home in the dark.
Dad was always covered in coal dust when he came home, from the hardhat on his head to the soles of his steel-toe boots. I sometimes wondered why miners came home that way. Why didn’t they clean up before they left work? Was it because the coal companies didn’t provide a place for them to do that? It might have been simply because they wanted to get home and away from the mine as soon as possible.
Any exposed skin was caked in coal dust, when Dad got home. When he removed his shirt to clean up, He only needed to wash his head, neck and hands. But it’s Dad’s face that I’ll never forget. Surrounded by all of the black, the whites of his eyes almost seemed to glow in the dark. Filled with powdery, fine coal dust, the lines on his face seemed blacker than the rest and stood out even more.
And that was pretty much all I could see of his face. At least until a never-failing smile broke through his usually grim expression whenever he came home.
And I remember that smile most. It was always the best part, because it was for us.