Thick fingers work a pencil.
Powell Harmon is writing and dying.
In catacombs lit by sputtering lamps beneath a mountain whose outer air and bright lushness he already misses, along with all else he's ever loved or despised on this green earth, he scrawls his deepest desires in broken script.
He tells his wife and boys to love Jesus so they can meet again in heaven. Then, panting in dank, toxic air, sets down last words....
"My boys, never work in the mines."
Later he gasps. Once. Then he sighs away everything he ever was....
Hours after his death on May 19, 1902, those who retrieve his body from the Fraterville, Tennessee mine near Coal Creek, now known as Lake City, also bring out his last words.
Over a century later, Harmon's advice resonates still. (http://www.coalcreekaml.com/OhGodTourSummary.htm).
As this is written, six miners remain lost deep under the earth at Huntington, Utah. Three rescuers are dead and several are in the hospital, victims of what's known in the understated language of miners as a "bump." That's when a column of coal--left in place to support the mine's dug out ceiling--succumbs to unimaginable downward pressure and blows outward.
Maybe such a bump precipitated the Utah mine's collapse. It's a point of contention. Already owners of Murray Energy Corporation have become targets of critics.
America's Mine Safety Czar Richard Stickler will face punishing questions too, no doubt, for he's one in a long line of political cronies of questionable worth appointed by George W. Bush, and the buck stops with him.
Even before 9/11, Bush's arrogant tactic of appointing foxes to run henhouses alienated many of us. Yes that figure of speech diminishes what's at stake, but nothing else says it so succinctly.
Bush has placed energy and arms merchants in charge of foreign policy, lumber executives in charge of forests, polluters in charge of the EPA, a yes-man in charge of justice, and he named Stickler--a former mine executive with a flawed safety record--to be Mine Safety Czar.
Twice Stickler was rejected by a Republican controlled Senate, so Bush used a loophole in the Constitution to appoint him during a Congressional recess in October, 2006.
The appointment came in the wake of the Sago, West Virginia mine disaster in January 2006. I wrote a column then about how one of the men killed there told loved ones years earlier he expected to die in the mines.
Doubtlessly, many in states like Tennessee have known that sense of doom, for ours is a land more storied than most in mining lore. The Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902 was the worst in the history of the United States at the time, claiming more than 200 lives.
Less than a decade later, on Dec. 9, 1911, the adjoining Cross Mountain Mine, at Briceville, blew, killing 84 more.
My grandfather, C.I. Williams, helped bring the bodies out. His voice used to bring chills to my skin relating how every house along the tracks through the mountain town rang with cries of widowed women and orphaned children as he walked to the mine's crowded mouth to do his part in the grim business.
In October, 2005, I joined descendants of Cross Mountain miners in a walking tour of graveyards, monuments, churches and other sites in Briceville and Fraterville, once the most populous communities in Anderson County.
We stood before the earth and stone-covered portal to the Cross Mountain Mine and watched as descendants shed tears for a tragedy that still lies close to the surface for many.
Some passed around photographs showing the scene as it looked when hundreds lined hillsides cradling the mine's opening. You could almost hear their prayers. Reading Internet accounts 96 years later, it's striking how the nation's media spun the survival of five miners into stories of heroic rescue.
It's an impulse old as storytelling, I guess, and it crawled to the surface last year during the Sago disaster, as TV personality Anderson Cooper proclaimed with great conviction, "It's a miracle." Standing before a small white hillside church he reveled in the word--soon to be revealed as a cruel misunderstanding--that 12 miners had survived.
"Twelve alive!" went the cry. "Twelve alive."
"It's a miracle," bystanders said, weeping before the cameras.
"It's a miracle," Cooper repeated, and the mantra continued for hours. The governor of West Virginia called it a miracle, mining company spokesmen used the word, community leaders likewise. The most haunting voices were those of the miners' friends and family members, who dwelt in bliss for a spell.
"Thank you Jesus, it's a miracle," they proclaimed as they lit candles and sang hymns about heaven. Who could blame them?
I went to bed relieved by the good news, but as I drifted off I thought of the one miner presumed dead. If the survival of those 12 coal miners is a miracle, I asked the night, then what do we make of the one who died? Of the accident itself?
Next morning the nation awoke to a terrible reversal. In truth, 12 died and only one survived. Think what you will, I'm no cynic. I subscribe to the notion that the universe is, if not an unfolding miracle, at least an amazing mystery, and our lives are like intricate dreams the universe keeps dreaming.
But it's a dream composed, finally, of matter and energy, twins of the physical realm. Screeching metal, whirring blades, blasts from dynamite, the bite of shovels against coal. Aching bones, muscle and sinew, tracks of tires mired in coal dust and clay. Life seldom gets more material than this, and seldom more treacherous.
It comes home at times like these, as the world holds its collective breath.
Still, words from doomed miners like Powell Harmon and many others resonate more deeply for me than anything else in mining lore.
I wonder if Stickler's read such words.