Daily Yonder: He survived a notorious mining disaster and lived long enough to change his ways

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By Gary Bentley
Special to KyForward

Arvil had hair like Elvis, gave unsolicited advice to the corporate bosses, never cheated on his wife (exactly), and lived through one of the most notorious mining disasters in modern U.S. history.

One of the older miners, Greg, was telling me about Arvil, the shift foreman at #9.

“Now that dumb sumbitch was a mine manager in the late 80’s. It was one of the biggest declines in coal I ever saw,” Greg said. “He was standing there up on top of that big ol’ pile-o-coal under the stacker belt. He was wearing these bright orange coveralls, like a prison jumpsuit. At that time his hair was as black as the coal and all slicked back like Elvis. He had a sign that said ‘We can run it but you can’t sell it.’

“He had someone take this picture of him holdin’ that sign on top of that big pile-o-coal and he sent it to the corporate office. Needless to say, they tried to run him off. He was demoted all the way down to shovelin’ belt but he was harder headed than they thought. He’s still here and made his way back up to being a shift foreman. He’s a smart miner and a hard worker, but sometimes his thinking just ain’t right.”

Arvil was just a few inches shorter than me with a broad build. It was easy to see that he was a strong man during his prime, but those years were far gone. He had become very round at the waist, and his hair had turned bright white. He still fancied himself a good looking man and I guess, for his age, he was. He came to work dressed slick. He wore boots with a fresh shine, button up silk shirts, and slacks that had been pressed just prior to the drive to work.

Photo by Lance Booth for Daily Yonder

Photo by Lance Booth for Daily Yonder

“Hey, High Pockets, come over here a minute,” Arvil said. He called me High Pockets because I was taller than he was. He said my shirt pockets were high enough to be basketball goals. “I wanna show you something, High Pockets.”

Arvil called me to the back of the warehouse, where he stood with a small leather notebook.

“Now look at this. I wasn’t the best of men back in my day, and my wife reminds me of it often enough, but now look at this. They sent me over to Russia back in the 70’s. Now them Russian women, they all but loved us American men.”

He showed me a picture of a much younger Arvil. His hair was so black it had to have been dyed. He was shirtless, in polyester bell-bottoms and there was a gold chain buried in the hair on his chest. The reflection of the camera’s flash is the only reason it was visible. On each side of him there were two topless women, both with hair just as coal black, with their arms wrapped around his waist and their breasts pressed against his abdominal muscles.

“Now, I’m a changed man High Pockets. I’m a church-goin’ man who puts his wife and family before everything but God. I wasn’t such a person back then but the memories are still good. Now I know a young strappin’ lad like you don’t have any problem with women and I’m showing you this for a reason. You stand there as tall and broad as an oak tree. Them women notice more than those stripes on your uniform. They eyeball your arms in the grocery store. But don’t make the same mistakes I did. Not every man is as lucky as to have a wife that will forgive him for his wrong doing.”

I wasn’t sure if Arvil was bragging about his promiscuous past, flirting with me, or honestly concerned about my personal life outside of work. It was hard to tell which angle he was coming from with this story. He flipped a page in the book and pointed.

“Look at that, that was my first motorcycle. I bought it brand new in 1975, a Honda CB750. I got it all stretched out like in that Easy Rider movie and the women begged to go for a ride. See that woman on the back. She was my sugar. Now my wife wasn’t too fond of that woman, but I kept my word to my wife. I never slept with her. We might’ve necked up at Kingdom Come State Park occasionally, but nothing anymore.

“She was kind of like an accessory to the motorcycle. My wife was scared to ride and I sure didn’t want to be known as some kinda hippy queer that rode alone. People in town already thought I took too much pride in my looks and the way I dressed. So me and her just rode all over town. So like I said before, High Pockets. Don’t do your woman wrong. You don’t need no accessory. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t of even rode that damned motorcycle. I would have never bought it. The thing just about killed me in 1979. I figured if I made it out of that explosion in ‘76 there wouldn’t nothing that could kill me, but that damned ole rice rocket proved me wrong.”

Arvil wasn’t one for avoiding offensive language.

As I listened to Arvil, I couldn’t help but to think about his remark to the explosion in 1976 so I asked.

“Arvil, did you work at Scotia?”

He had. He was a section foreman at the mine. He started working there after graduating high school and didn’t leave until the rescue efforts had been finished after the Scotia Mine Disaster of 1976. He didn’t want to talk about what happened or about the rescue. He was quick to change subjects and share with me photos of him and his girlfriends of the past.

I would later learn from Greg, who had also worked with Arvil at Scotia, that Arvil was one of the first miners to arrive upon the bodies of the miners who did not make it out of the mine that day. Greg said he could remember them talking about the men lying on the ground with the self contained self-rescuers melted to their faces.

According to Greg, and as much as he could remember, Arvil never left the mine until the final day when the rescue efforts ended. He said he never saw Arvil again until 1985 when he showed up at the Golden Oak mine and Arvil was sitting behind the desk as superintendent.

I worked with Arvil for four years. I learned a lot about his past and I learned that deep inside, he never changed from the man who he was in the 1970’s. But he had made a conscious decision that he needed to change for the better. Not for himself, but for his wife and his children, and now his grandchildren.

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky who now lives in Lexington. He is writing a series of columns for The Daily Yonder, and it is reprinted with permission. The entire series can be found here.

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