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Coal: A Memoir and Critique by Duane Lockard

1998; 225 pp. $29.95. The University Press of Virginia.

I know pretty much what a farmer does, and I can imagine what life on a fishing boat must be like, but that forever dark world under the earth was almost a blank page until I read this book. Now I can picture the people who, right now, are working down there under sometimes dreadful, unsafe conditions. True, they've come a long way from the times when, in Europe, slaves, and later, men, women, and children as young as five years old spent their brief lives in the ink-black darkness of the mines, but even now it's no day at the beach down there.

Duane Lockard has written a fascinating book?part personal account, part reference, in which he tells just about everything you'd care to know about the coal industry. He recounts his own beginnings in a West Virginia mine and provides an overview that encompasses the explosions, cave-ins, black lung, irresponsible corporations, politicians for sale, fires, strip mines, unions (at their best and worst), mountains reduced to poisonous rubble, stream pollution, and the never-ending struggle to get safety, health, and environmental laws enacted and enforced.

Nearly a billion tons of bituminous coal is still produced annually in the United States. Most of it is burned to generate electrical power, in spite of increasing public concern about the dangers of global warming.

Following Duane Lockard's rise, from life in a company town to becoming a World War II Air Force pilot and then a professor at Princeton, makes good reading. And it gives us a lot to think about, particularly in this year when we must pick a new president.

"My first nights with a shovel in hand were highly educational. And as weeks turned into months I kept on learning and widening my awareness of the abundant mysteries of the underground world. I had long known, for example, of the difference between "machine coal" and "pick coal"; I knew the union contract called for a bonus of a few more cents per ton for pick coal, which involved a lot more time and work because it had to be dug out entirely by hand. I am certain, however, that I had no conception of the danger of "stumping out," the final stage of what is known as "room-and-pillar" mining. By observation I began to grasp a salient fact about the relationship between mine managers and miners: one was there to drive the other to take chances with life and limb in order to maximize output per unit of compensation.

"Pictures at the Pit Mouth
When first black diamond lumps were found
Beneath the ancient Appalachian ground
A scene that none expected to see
Became as common as common can be
Stunned, the crowds quietly assemble
Kinfolk gather, watch and tremble
Waiting, waiting weary hours
Near the silent tipple towers
Against all odds they vainly hope
Some miner will walk that blackened slope...

ISBN: 0813917840

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