By Kelly McDonald
What necessity caused man, whose head points to the stars, to stoop below, burying him in mines, and plunging him in the very bowels of innermost earth.
Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones
My old pocket watch showed 4:00 p.m. A whistle blew, signaling the pending train departure, and we clambered into the small passenger cars trailing like a carnival ride behind the little engine at the head of the line. Many voices murmured as mine workers, old and young, found their seats and waited for the underground swing-shift to begin.
It was the fall of 1970 when I began my higher education at Brigham Young University. I needed to support myself, so I worked on weekends in the Mayflower Mine, north of Heber City, Utah. I worked at the mine, rather than a student job, because its labor-wage was several times higher than on-campus work. I left my dorm early Friday afternoon, drove 40 minutes up Provo Canyon to the mine, changed into my mining attire, and waited for the 4:00 p.m. shift whistle. After Friday's work, my next shift started on Saturday afternoon, capping my weekend work. On Monday morning, I would be back in school.
The train pulled quietly out of the yard and into the mine entrance. There was no loud din of a typical locomotive; electricity powered the underground transportation. We endured a 15-minute ride to the central underground station where the mine shaft, a vertical tunnel, plunged 3,000 feet into the Wasatch Mountains. The shaft guided a small cage, big enough for about eight men to huddle together, as the lift operator lowered work-crews to their destination levels below the central station. The cage was like an elevator, although the occupants could see the cables, pulleys, and operation. We also had a harrowing view of the sides of the shaft sliding past us in a blur, as the cage plummeted to its deep destinations. The stations on each level were well-lighted. But we were quickly engulfed in darkness as we walked down a tunnel to our work locations.
The air was suffocating, but not like a warm summer day. Water dripped on us from the roof of the tunnels we traversed. Because of the high humidity in the mine, it always seemed to be raining. Groundwater also emerged from cracks in the rock, and the water was hot due to the geothermal activity around us. Steam emanated from everywhere. Most miners wore very little clothing, merely a pair of baggy rubberized trousers, tall rubber boots, occasional t-shirts, and a mining helmet with an electric light fastened on the front. There was a 5-lb battery attached to my toolbelt, which kept the light glowing for an 8-hour shift of work. My supervisor told me to never turn the light off when underground. It penetrated the stifling darkness of the mine. It allowed other miners to see me and not throw a rock in my direction.
The mine level's name indicated the number of feet below the surface where its station resided. I was usually assigned to work on the 2,800-Level, near the bottom of the mine. My mining partner was a bristly fellow who had probably worked in the mine since he left high school many years before. He was likely in his early 50s, but he seemed very old to me. He was full of foul language, as were most of the miners. Expletives laced every sentence. Although I can no longer remember his real name, I still recall his nickname. The other miners called him "Cowshit." I once asked another miner how Cowshit had acquired this nickname. It stemmed from the stream of foul language that would emerge whenever he was frustrated with the mine work or with some other miner.
We mined galena, a mineral of lead sulfide, from a vertical seam within the surrounding rock. There was also a significant amount of zinc, silver, and gold mixed with the lead. The veins of galena were sometimes six feet wide. We mined the ore by blasting a tunnel horizontally into its seam. This dynamited tunnel was called a stope, the place where we did our work.
We began our shift by scraping all of the galena ore, shattered by the previous shift's dynamite charges, into a gaping chute. The mineral was heavy. We used an electric pulley mechanism to move most of it into the chute. Then I knocked down the loose rock left hanging on the roof by the blast, and used a shovel to clean up the remaining ore that was missed by the pulley. The chute channeled the galena down to the level below, and rail-cars hauled it to the station. The cage then lifted it to the central station. After we scraped the rubble into the chute, we sat down and ate dinner from our rusting lunch-buckets.
We spent the rest of the shift drilling an array of two-inch holes, 6-feet deep, horizontally into the back of the stope. After drilling, I would prepare the explosives by inserting a blasting cap, the ignition device, into the end of a stick of dynamite. Cowshit would attach an electrical wire to it and slide it down one of the drilled holes until it rested against the previously placed dynamite. Each hole took about eight sticks to fill it. Once we prepared the explosives, we carefully connected the wires from the now-loaded array of holes to a primary ignition cable, which led out of the stope several hundred feet down the main tunnel, a safe distance away. We connected that ignition cable to a power source, opened our mouths, then pressed the ignition switch. The explosion was horrific. Cowshit told me about miners who forgot to open their mouths and suffered from broken eardrums due to the radical change in air pressure during dynamite detonation. I decided not to test his assertion.
After a fresh dynamite shoot, the stope glistened with a bright metallic sheen as I scanned my headlamp across the back wall. Although the ore was mostly lead, we took very few precautions with the dust due to the high humidity and dripping water, which quickly cleared the air of harmful particles. Large fans pumped outside air into the depths of the mine wherever men were working. However, once a section was mined out, we removed the air ducts. The now-abandoned side-tunnel quickly degraded into an eerie dark byway, branching off the main path of the mine level. I imagined some strange beast living within its depths, waiting to grab us as we passed by these deserted side-tunnels on the way to our mining workplace.
Because I worked the swing-shift on Friday and Saturday nights, I didn't always work with Cowshit, who rotated work-shifts weekly. One Friday evening, my Shift Supervisor told me to go to the 1,500-Level with another miner to haul ore from the loading chute to the lifting station. It didn't matter to me; one job was as difficult as another. I had never worked with this miner before, so I endured his teasing and crude jokes until he had established his superiority over the college kid. We finally settled into the routine of filling the train-cars with ore, towing them to the station, then dumping them into a holding bin for the lifting cage. This work proceeded for most of the shift. But during one loading operation, the chute no longer released ore into the car. We were surprised because our supervisor had told us there was more ore in the chute than we would be able to haul in one shift. My partner concluded that the galena must be stuck somewhere, halfway up the chute. The wet ore would occasionally cling to the chute’s wooden slatted sides, creating a blockage.
I was the new worker, so my partner told me to climb the ladder up a vertical shaft, next to the wooden chute, with a single-bladed ax in one hand. He expected me to pound on the side of the chute as I climbed, causing the ore to resume its sliding down to the ore-car. Dubiously, I grabbed the ax and started climbing. There was a platform every 20 feet or so, which encircled the chute. I climbed up to the first platform, squeezed into a partition behind the chute, and began pounding on its wall, trying to shake the wet ore loose. After moving up several levels, I was behind the chute, about 60 feet above the rail tracks. My pounding on the side finally worked, and ore began to slide to the bottom. Suddenly, a deep rumble above me indicated that something big was moving quickly. The slats of the wooden chute above my head burst open. The ore began pouring down, filling the platform, quickly burying me in the heavy wet muck. The sludge rapidly engulfed me; then, it suddenly stopped flowing. I was panic-stricken, yet unable to move the muck pinning my arms and legs. It was nearly up to my neck. For the first time in my life, I believed I was going to die.
My partner was frantic. He yelled my name as he climbed the ladder to help me. He finally reached the platform I was on, then struggled for fifteen minutes to dig me out of the heavy ore with only his hands. I was groggy, not sure what was happening around me. My helmet had at least protected my head from fatal injury, but the raining ore had still left me dazed and confused. We found our way to the main tunnel by inching down the ladder, rung by rung, with my partner wrapped around me, holding onto the ladder, preventing my possible fall. He unhooked the train engine from the ore-filled cars, and we sped to the station on our level with me crouching in the engine beside him, holding on as best I could. I recall his cursing the dangerous mine, and his encouragement to me that everything would be ok. I must have lost consciousness because the next thing I remember was our arrival at the 1,500-Level station and my partner pressing the Mine Emergency Button for help.
Well-practiced procedures took over when the Emergency Response Team arrived. They strapped me onto a specially-constructed stretcher, taking care to immobilize my head and neck. Then they placed me vertically in the cage and lifted me to the central station where a train was waiting to take me outside the mine. I remember overhearing questions and conversation, occasional encouragement, and the ambulance waiting for me at the surface. It was nearly midnight as we sped toward the hospital in Heber City. I looked out the ambulance’s window at the red lights lighting the snow in the fields beside the highway. I thought, "I don't exactly know what happened to me, but I somehow survived a disaster."
As the ore covered me, something slid into place that plugged the hole in the chute above my head. They found lumber, a one foot long 2x6, that had been accidentally dropped into the top of the chute days before. It was hidden in the mud, until the sliding ore moved it into position to plug the hole in the chute, stopping the cascading sludge from burying me completely. Everyone told me that I was lucky. I was only bruised, sustained a concussion, and suffered from cracked ribs. Years earlier, a miner had died while performing the same actions that I had done. There was no 2x6, dropped into the chute, to save him. I realized it was a personal miracle—a David and Goliath sort of miracle. Somehow that 2x6, like David's pebble finding its mark, became a message to me from God, calling me to do good things for Him. This Divine experience changed the direction of my life, but that's another essay. The emergence of the hero from my mining partner, who had been ridiculing my life of education just hours before the accident, was significant. He had bravely put his own life at risk as he climbed to my rescue, dug me out of the ore, and rushed me to the help that I urgently needed.
# # #
After a few weeks of painful recovery, I went back to work on a Friday evening. However, I wasn't the same. A deep unsettledness haunted my underground work in the dark. I couldn't talk to anyone about it, especially other workers at the mine. When a miner showed a bit of fear, the teasing would become incessant.
I observed other miners who had voiced or acted-out their terrors of the mine. These anxious men, some who had spent more than 20 years underground, would endure many episodes of sadistic cruelty as the brunt of someone's joke. For example, one miner, who must have had a similar experience to mine, was skittish of any little rock movement. Often, while we were waiting for the cage to lift us to the central station, someone would walk up behind him and dribble a little bit of dirt on the back of his helmet. He would jump up, yelling and screaming, kicking at everything in sight, releasing the deep fear that he couldn't keep under control. I didn't want to end up like him.
Among the regular miners, outside the view of shift supervisors, a disturbing underground mine-culture thrived. It was a pecking-order, like a pack of wild dogs. Those who were new or weak endured an endless stream of foul language directed at them from a few instigators. They suffered a constant barrage of teasing and cruelty. It haunted their every moment in the mine. During the week, I interacted with faculty and other students, dialoguing about principles of science, engineering, and mathematics. But on the weekends, in the mine, I learned to keep my mouth shut and disappear into the stone and timber that made up my dark weekend world.
The Mine-Pack had a method for hazing those who had somehow earned their ire. If anyone talked back to the Mine-Pack, spoke out in defense of others, intended to terminate employment, or planned to be married, they endured what the Mine-Pack called "a greasing." The candidate for their humiliation would be held down by several Mine-Pack members. A leader would paint the miner's bare chest and midriff with a waterproof machine-grease that was practically impossible to remove. Although intended to keep the mining machinery well-oiled and rust-free, the Mine-Pack used this grease to shame weaker miners and feed the group's hunger for derision. For miners who were taking time off to be married, the Mine-Pack also applied a generous greasing to their genitalia. I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and other than being the recipient of incessant foul language, I largely escaped the wrath of the Mine-Pack. But I knew my time was coming. I was planning to quit work and leave for a church-sponsored missionary adventure. Once my plans were known, a greasing would be the Mine-Pack's going-away present for me.
I continued to work part-time at the mine through the rest of the Winter Semester, then Spring and Summer Terms. There were no significant incidents that I can recall. However, in mid-August, I returned home from BYU to begin working full-time in the mine until I left on a mission in November. I knew the salary I could earn in the next three months would pay for most of my upcoming expenses. Cowshit and I became full-time mining partners.
Cowshit could cuss with the best of them, but he remained aloof from the Mine-Pack antics. We talked little during the 8-hour shifts. We did our work, and I completed every assignment he gave me. Once during my earlier part-time work, Cowshit asked me what I was studying at school, and I responded that I was interested in computer science. He uttered some degrading expletives, and I never mentioned my educational activities to him again. But now that we were together full-time, he had come to think of me a bit differently. I knew I had earned his respect the day he started calling me "pard," indicating in mine-slang that he had entirely accepted me as his work partner.
My last week of work came, and I was sure that my greasing would happen soon. There had already been a few idle threats cast in my direction; my work termination had somehow leaked out. Greasings occurred in the deep mining levels while the miners were waiting for the cage to carry them upward. Greasings didn't happen at the central station because shift supervisors and mining engineers waited for their train ride to the surface. Greasings were actions for the darkness, in the depths of the mine. I had resigned myself that they would grease me at the end of my last day of work. However, with about an hour left in the shift, Cowshit told me to clean up our work area because we were returning to the station early; we hadn't been blasting that day. I didn't ask why. I just did what he said. When we arrived at the station, no one was there because the other miners on our level were still completing their work. Cowshit told me to hide behind some stacks of timber and remain very quiet. I was to stay there until he signaled, then we would catch the last cage to the central station. When the other miners arrived, some of the Mine-Pack leaders asked him where I was. He told them that I had become ill and had returned to the surface early. Foul language indicated they were angry—their cruel fun aborted. When only a few miners were left, Cowshit signaled me, and I trotted to the cage and climbed in. These last few miners in the cage, not part of the Mine-Pack, smirked as they shifted their position and made room for me.
I never saw Cowshit again. I'm sure the Mine-Pack greased him once they discovered that he had led them astray. Nor did I have an opportunity to thank the miner who saved my life that Friday night on the 1,500-Level. The Mayflower Mine closed down while I was away on my missionary service. I went back to school, got married without a greasing, and created a fulfilling career in computing and information technologies that didn't require my blasting experience. I never went back to the dark work underground.
After nearly 50 years, the mine has remained mostly buried in my memory. Occasionally though, I think about my experiences in the mine. I observed a sordid side of life, and I vowed that I would never perpetrate such Mine-Pack behavior. I learned that even in severe human conditions—in the darkest depths of gloom—heroism and empathy can still emerge. I decided I would live the rest of my life above the ground, in the light.
Sometimes, but not as often as when we were first married, I slip and call my wife "pard." She regards me suspiciously until I explain to her, with the best clichés I can think of, “Partners look after each other. Partners have your back. Partners do whatever is in their power to make life better for you, no matter the consequences.”