Right after Thanksgiving, everyone at the mines would start getting into the Christmas spirit. Even though we knew it was a month away, we couldn’t wait for the days off to spend with our families. Some of us would bring in ornaments to hang on our equipment, and on some sections, someone would bring a set of Christmas lights to hang around the power center. It seemed like every conversation was about what we were planning on doing for our kids and those who were lucky enough to still have a few vacation days would just keep going on and on about using them to extend their holiday.
A week before Christmas the company put together a huge dinners for each shift coming out of the mines where the mine foremen would hand out “gifts” smeared with the company logo. Every year we’d get the same things, a belt buckle, a baseball cap—some years a flashlight if we were lucky. They’d also give us a frozen turkey or ham to take home until they figured it was cheaper to give each man a Wal-Mart gift card. The best gift they gave however, was turning a blind eye to the underground dinners we’d have as a crew.
The days of coal crews shutting down to eat dinner together are long gone at most mines. Now each man takes lunch when he gets the chance. For the continuous miner operators and buggy men, the boss or someone else would relieve them just long enough to get a quick bite and then they’d jump right back on their equipment. In today’s mines, production doesn’t stop unless something breaks down.That’s what made the underground Christmas dinners so special.
During the last week leading up to Christmas, most crews would have an underground potluck. Everyone would bring in their dishes from home, pile them in the back of the man trip, and haul them underground. Once on the section, someone would take all the food to the power center.
For those not familiar, a power center is a huge rectangular box about 10 feet across, 20 feet long, and 3 feet high. It houses the electrical transformers, power connections, and electrical breakers for all of the mining equipment on each working section. The metal lids over the transformers get scorching hot, making it the best place to heat food underground, especially when it’s an entire Christmas dinner.
Since the law states that all power centers must be located in the fresh air supply to the work area, all shift long the smell of hot food would spread its way across the section. The wait for lunchtime was always unbearable. After working four or five hours into the shift, the boss would shut the section down and everyone would pile up on the man trip. Someone would say grace and then we’d dig in. Afterwards, the boss would hand out gifts to each of us and then we’d shoot the breeze or sleep for half an hour. When it came time to go back to work, it was everything we could do to rouse ourselves out of our food comas. Fortunately, the boss felt the same way we did and would cut us a bit of slack over the rest of the shift.
In the final days leading up to the holiday, it seemed like all of us had a lot more love in our hearts. Even the people we couldn’t stand were wished a Merry Christmas. There was just something special about that time—that spirit that seemed to bring us all together, even in the worst conditions.
Here’s wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Be safe and take care of each other out there.