Three old men sit around a propane heater. They are chewing the fat, laughing about the old days.
I walk through their front door. A bell dings.
“Welcome to the coal-mining museum!” hollers one man. He stands, then leans onto a walking stick and adjusts his hearing aid.
The miner’s museum is a tiny building in the sleepy hamlet of Whitwell, Tennessee. Inside are relics dating back to the early days of coal-mining in Marion County.
There are old helmets, blade shovels, iron wagons, carbide head-lanterns, and large stumps of black coal.
“Mining goes way back in my family,” says J.T. “My great-grandfathers come from England to mine coal for the Queen.”
The other two men near the heater are also retired coal miners. Albert and Jimmy.
I get the dime tour from all three men at once.
There is too much to take in. On the walls are a million items J.T. has gathered over the years. I ask why he’s collected so many artifacts.
“‘Cause,” he says. “I don’t want the world to forget about us miners.”
In the center of the room is a large display of photographs. In the pictures are his friends. Most of them deceased.
J.T. can point to any picture of any miner and tell you a story.
“This here was my buddy,” he says, tapping one photo. “Called him ‘Bugus,’ we all had nicknames.”
He taps another photograph. In the frame are two blonde women with blackened faces.
“These two ladies were coal miners. Bet you ain’t never seen women miners. Hardest dadgum workers you ever saw.”
These Appalachian men have enough tales to fill a box car. Sadly, they don’t have many around to listen. J.T.’s little museum doesn’t get many visitors.
Most days, he sits in this room, piecing jigsaw puzzles together on a card table, prepared for any who might stop in.
The museum’s biggest story, perhaps, is of the 1981 explosion in Mine 21, which killed thirteen men. And this is not just a story, it is a saga.
The underground disaster made national headlines. Marion County was flooded with camera crews and journalists from all over.
“Oh, buddy,” says Jimmy. “That was a terrible day, worst day of my life.”
All three men get teary-eyed.
“Yessir,” adds Albert. “Was the worst day the world ever knowed. Messed us up, you don’t never get over losing your friends.”
“No sir, you don’t.”
Albert, Jimmy, and J.T. were part of the rescue team. They entered Mine 21 after the accident, crawled on their hands and knees, toting oxygen tanks, and recovered the bodies of their brothers.
“We didn’t HAVE to go in,” said Jimmy. “Company woulda sent another rescue team to do the dirty work for us, if we had been too emotional to do it.”
“Hell no,” Albert interjects, “We told’em ‘Hell no, sir,’ we wasn’t letting our brothers get carried out by no strangers. We was gonna carry’em out like the men they was.”
The funeral services were so big, they tell me, the town was swallowed by vehicles. People came by the thousands to pay their respects.
“Came from all over the nation,” adds one man. “Far away as West Virginia, and Kentucky.”
It was a ceremony like nobody had ever seen. But sadly, these men had to hear about it secondhand.
“We couldn’t go to the funerals,” says J.T. “Our rescue team was busy working to get the mines back open so that our boys could go back to work and feed their families.”
The men are red-eyed and shaky-voiced. Albert buries his head into his sleeve. J.T.’s lip is quivering. There is a long silence that passes between us.
There are some things time doesn’t heal.
We walk the aisles of mining memorabilia. In the glass cases are remnants of a culture that is a bygone era. These were a breed of men who lived and died together. They were rough, and blackened. Their generation did not use computerized machines, but muscle, and heart.
They were foremen, electricians, explosive experts, tractor drivers, and above all, they were breadwinners.
If you were to visit this museum, you might think these men were ordinary old men, but they are not.
They are brothers. They are loyal. They are white-haired, red-blooded, and blue in the collar. They are much like the kind of men I come from, and they make me so proud it hurts.
At the end of my tour, Albert walks me to the door. He taps a picture on the wall. It’s a black-and-white photo of a man standing outside a church.
Albert begins to cry. He apologizes, then wipes his face with his forearm.
“Daddy didn’t want me to mine coal, since that’s what he done all his life, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be just like him, he was my hero. Don’t let the world forget about us, son.”
I will not.