There Are No Guarantees….

The Wonders of Wildlife Aquarium and Museum provided the perfect venue for our first visit since the death of Kathy Raub, the wife of Ernie Raub, a Patrol classmate and dear friend. It has been 3 months since the emperor of maladies, aka cancer, dissolved a long partnership between Ernie and Kathy, stilling the heart of a beautiful lady who could melt your heart with a smile and just as easily chill it with a sharp comment or observation. I listened, mostly, as Ernie talked about the struggle they knew they were going to lose, carried along by the shallow hope that a breakthrough in immunotherapy would release cancer’s grip on Kathy. Our visit left me with a cauldron of emotion and reflection, related to the fragility of life, to consider. Ernie is a smart guy and I always come away from our times together having learned something new about navigating life and in this instance, death.

For me, this week has been a study in the management of time. I am reading a book, the last book written by a personal hero, Charles Krauthammer. He, like Ernie is, was a smart man. While his many observations about life in America are mini college level dissertations on navigating our complicated culture, I am struck by the incredibly wise use of his time on earth. As lifetimes go, he made an early exit, however, he maximized his presence. In simpler terms, he made a difference. The same can be said about Kathy Raub. Ernie is a very complex man, perhaps the most organized human being that I know, a trait that requires a support system that shares that need for precision and organization. Their lifestyle reflected a balanced approach to virtually every aspect of living. This organized approach to life presented a stark contradiction to the very unorganized business of dying. Kathy Raub’s seemingly moody countenance was all about intrusions into her structured existence. Given this backdrop, she died well, accepting her fate and dealing with the assured outcome with courage. To the extent she could, she established the terms and followed through. Charles Krauthammer did the same. This strategy only works when the Master gives advanced warning, a courtesy not always extended to us.

The museum was the perfect backdrop for our visit. The thousands of fish swimming about are analogous to the human condition as we move about in our daily lives. Fish don’t reason as we do. They have absolutely no regard for their time in the tank, oblivious to the fact that one day they will be unceremoniously dipped from the population and casually discarded. We have the ability to reason, but are not always provided advance notice of the day the net is coming our way. Throughout the museum there are wonderful quotes from the great observers of nature that frame the significance of our individual contribution to a beautiful earth. The American Indian placed the stewardship of the earth on a pedestal, always concerned about tomorrow and what future generations are going to inherit. These same native Americans were also very much aware of the fragility of life. Their wisdom was hard earned.

As we walked and talked, we would pause and consider the brutality of nature. You will see great sharks capturing and killing terrified seals. You are reminded that a drink of water on a hot day might result in a huge crocodile lunging out of the water and grabbing a leg, dragging you to your end in deeper water. The great cats were masters of stealth as they stalked and dispatched their prey. There are hundreds upon hundreds of exhibits of the work of the most deadly predator of all, man, in the form of magnificent wildlife mounts. Nature reminds us that death can come in an unexpected fashion, leaving us little time to prepare or establish some sort of plan to deal with it.

The picture accompanying this musing was taken by Ernie from his office window. Take a minute to consider what you are looking at. A rabbit, hopping about, enjoying life as rabbits do, is snatched from his existence by a hawk and likely dispatched quickly before being consumed. There is evidence of life, the efficiency of flight, the silence of a glide through cold air, and the last hops of the hapless rabbit.

As a parting thought, Ernie and I share the conviction that, in the natural order of things, Kathy’s demise was not supposed to happen on this timeline. We are both older than our wives, have both experienced the necessity to overhaul our hearts, and can both read actuarial tables. It wasn’t supposed to happen in the order it did. If you are not squeezing every minute of happiness and enjoyment possible from your life, there is still time to do so. Remember, how much time you have is a closely guarded secret, known only to God.

There are no guarantees…….

Mechanics and Doctors……

As we age, it is a good idea to develop a close working relationship with a good mechanic and a good doctor. It should come as no surprise that each of these technical professions is populated by folks who, in the end, either tow their mistakes to the salvage yard or bury them. It also should not be surprising that each of these professions is populated by folks who are really good at what they do and others that have met the minimum standards necessary to hanging a shingle or picking up a wrench. Let’s have a look at the differences.

When you are young and in good health, a doc-in-a box can take care of most of your medical needs. These days there is a good chance that you will see a physicians assistant or nurse practitioner for the occasional bout of flu or sprain, a scenario that works most of the time. I know these professionals are well trained and meet the minimum standards for non-acute primary care, however; I prefer the trained eyes of a physician when I present for a feeling of tightness in my chest or an episode of blurred vision. I also feel it is important to establish a record with a single PCP, who sees Steve coming through the door with a problem as opposed to seeing a problem coming through the door named Steve. I have enjoyed a tremendous relationship with a wonderful PCP in Jefferson City, Dr. Neal LaPointe, since 1992. Dr. LaPointe is a doctor who actually practices medicine and handles many problems that are quickly handed off by today’s physicians to one of hundreds of specialists and sub-specialists. When his extensive experience suggests the services of a specialist is needed, he will quickly enlist their assistance. Only through years of communication and trust can a relationship such as ours develop. Two factors have combined to force me to change PCP’s this year, to a new but established osteopath in Springfield, Mo. who I believe shares Dr. LaPointe’s philosophy. First is the growing list of problems associated with aging, arthritis and a stressful profession, necessitating more frequent visits to the doctor’s office. Secondly, the distances involved in traveling to Jefferson City from Springfield when you don’t feel well really don’t make much sense. Choose your doctor carefully, it may well be the most important partnership, outside of marriage, that you form. Below is a picture of Dr. LaPointe.

To a great extent, our lives revolve around internal combustion engines. A significant portion of our income is committed to the ownership and maintenance of cars, trucks and other forms of fossil fuel burning devices. We are seeing the impact of various adaptations of electric powered conveyances, all wrapped in conventional vehicles, with conventional systems and technology. There are technicians, who are skilled at system replacement and there are mechanics who are skilled at actually repairing and servicing systems as opposed to simply swapping them out. Occasionally, these folks are one and the same. Motor vehicles have been a huge part of my life since turning 16 and earning an operator’s license. In the course of patrolling our streets and roads for many years, I have developed relationships with some of the finest mechanics in existence, many of which worked within our Highway Patrol garages. One of the best mechanics that I have ever known is an affable, down to earth fellow who can shame an Admiral in language skill, all the while tearing a complicated fuel delivery system apart to locate and replace a defective component. He is also a terrific body man, able to straighten and rebuild nearly anything driven or towed into his shop. He can work on diesel engines, heavy equipment, and nearly any marine engine in existence. A beer or two sharpens his analytical skill and his shop is always open to a friend. He has saved me a fortune over the years with his ability to correctly diagnose a problem and repair it, charging a fair fee for his services, all the while sharing his salty philosophy about life. If you have not developed a relationship with a mechanic like my good friend, Scotty Stunz, do so. You will enjoy an experience where “flat rate” doesn’t exist and the job will be done correctly. You will also come away with a new perspective of life in general, an earthy perspective where the unvarnished truth trumps the spin of America in our world today. Pictured below is Scotty Stunz.

So it is with doctors and mechanics. These are two professions that demand honesty, skill and experience. From my perspective, you are missing something if you do not have a relationship with a member of each of these professions where trust is the first consideration. In this season of giving thanks for all that we enjoy, take a minute to thank your doctor and mechanic….

Opening Day…….

Opening days are magic. There have been numerous articles written about the opening days of virtually every sport or activity in America, but in rural Missouri, there is a good chance that when you hear these words, the speaker is referring to the firearms deer season. Not so long ago, opening day of deer season found me sitting somewhere in the deep woods after a pre-dawn walk in, keenly attuned to every sound in the timber around me. A woodpecker sounds like a jackhammer and your own heartbeat resonates with every quiet breath. The anticipation is palpable as you slowly scan the woods for the smallest sign of movement, being ever so careful to not telegraph your location to the critters around you. I can remember bone chilling mornings and cool starts to sweltering days, but mostly I remember just how beautiful our hardwood ridges and cedar glades really are.

My first opening day was in 1966. I was fortunate to enjoy this day with one of the best woodsmen that I have ever known. Don Hathaway still lives in Evening Shade, Missouri, just south of Ft. Leonard Wood in Texas County, a perennial leader in numbers of deer taken in November. Don is an unassuming Ozarkian who I have personally watched kill a flushing quail with a .22 rifle. It may have been a lucky occurrence, but it was an intentional shot that left me speechless, as I blasted away with the new Remington 1100 shotgun that I had purchased with my earnings from a early career as a food packing and transfer specialist, a job title adopted to avoid telling the girls that I was a bag-boy at the Commissary on Ft. Leonard Wood. I managed to scatter 3 ounces of shot over a pasture, with none of it finding the feathers of a flushing bird! On this cold morning, Don deposited me near the end of aptly named “Long Hollow” where I waited for first light. I was relying on that same shotgun and a 1 ounce Remington rifled slug when a yearling buck nearly ran over me. An offhand shot at a distance of 50′ or so dispatched the little guy, the shot alerting Don that I had shot or shot at something. He soon appeared and slung the little buck over his shoulders and we walked out. You would have thought that I had just topped the Boone and Crockett record books! I was now a deer hunter. Don quickly field dressed the buck, relying on a sharp pocket knife and hatchet, hung it to cool and we adjourned to a VFW for pancakes, sausage and the camaraderie of fellow deer hunters all jabbering away as they warmed themselves with strong black coffee before heading back to the timber. These folks were Ozarkians, no pretense, no nonsense and purposeful men. More magic.

There were many more opening days for me in the years that followed, interrupted only by the US Army. As I write, I am under the watchful gaze of a very nice buck that was taken on the Dave Cook farm near Falcon, Missouri, not far from the Gasconade River. Dave and I worked together when I was assigned to Troop D and this farm was his old home place. A hastily erected stand built the night before the season opener with scrap lumber was my perch on a very cold, windy, opening morning. I had located a scrape the day before and thought the location ideal for seeing deer. The buck sauntered into rifle range soon after first light and I dispatched him easily from the stand. His strong heart carried him 30 yards or so to an enormous brush pile that he jumped into before dying, resulting in a considerable effort to get him out of. This bruiser weighed 200 lbs., field dressed, and provided me with one of only two mounts that I have kept through the years. It was another memorable hunt on a beautiful timbered farm in central Missouri. There were five hunters invited to hunt Dave’s property and at noon there were four deer hung from a tree in the old house’s yard to cool. Another magic experience.

I enjoyed a number of opening days hunting on Ft. Leonard Wood, a deer rich military reservation that adjoins Texas county near Evening Shade. My High School buddy, David Strang, his father Col. Tom Strang and I spent many mornings behind Ballard Cemetery, a location not far from the airport. The cemetery was a virtual textbook relative to the history of the tough folks who settled this country many years ago, with graves dating to the early 1800s. We have taken a good number of deer from the ridges behind this cemetery, ridges once populated by Indians who have left behind archeological sites that we were careful to not disturb. Among the many sounds on cold mornings, with just a little imagination, you could hear the Indians quietly slipping along these same ridges harvesting game for their villagers. The military reservation required the use of shotguns only, loaded with rifle slugs, and the shots were usually very close. A few years ago, I sold an Illinois State Police surplus shotgun, equipped with an open choke and iron sights, that I relied on when on the reservation. I should have kept the shotgun, a reminder of the wonderful hunts near Ballard Cemetery.

Late yesterday afternoon, I noted numerous orange clad hunters moving around, each anticipating the opening morning that is upon us. I could feel their anticipation and I certainly wish them a successful and safe hunt today. I have been tempted to join them, but arthritic hands and feet that won’t support the walk in and drag out have reminded me that my deer hunting days are most likely behind me. The memories are vivid and I will always respect the sacrifice of the critters that I have killed over the years. I have not looked down the barrel of a hunting firearm in several years, preferring to work a pool on one of our beautiful rivers or lakes instead, attempting to fool one more fish for the deep fryer. I will always view hunting as a noble sport. The ethical pursuit of game and appropriate consumption of the critters taken is a wonderful pastime and tradition.

Today is opening day and this morning I have relived a number of hunts from the comfort of my office desk chair. I have taken the time to again thank the bruiser on the wall behind me for the terrific hunt on November 10, 1990. The scars on his neck are a clear indication of his strength and dominance before he fell in front of my rifle.

Thanks, big guy, for the memories!

Hogles Creek Jigmasters…….

I don’t belong to many organized groups, clubs or teams these days. High School baseball sufficed to assuage my need to belong to something, a pastime that rewarded me with a number of terrific memories and laughable experiences. I gave passing thought to football, but passed on the opportunity to serve as a tackling dummy for the big guys that populated Waynesville in those days, which didn’t seem like a good plan. Then came the big one. At the AFEES center in Kansas City, (Induction Center), I raised my right hand and “joined” the US Army. My generation was among the last to enjoy “old Style” basic training, where you were greeted by a Drill Sergeant that had everything on his mind other than your comfort. This experience, alone, makes a great case for not joining things.

As time passed, I joined a bowling team or two and played organized softball in a town league with an occasional church league and police league thrown in to add color to my existence. At one time or another, I joined an Optimist Club and became a Rotarian, both were rewarding and not terribly taxing in terms of commitment. By the time these opportunities had presented themselves, I had already “joined” what was to become the ultimate, for me, organization, the Highway Patrol. The commitment here was substantial and tremendously rewarding, and I look back with no regret and many terrific memories. The camaraderie within a state police organization must be experienced to be understood. Your obligation to the community you serve and the officers you serve with is absolute in nature. External threats are met with a closed ranked response, a fact that helps guarantee your continued existence in a world that increasingly views police line of duty death as a routine happening. The common thread here is a uniform, a distinctive, binding indication of membership in something, whether it be a ball team, military organization or police force. Stay with me, we’re getting close to the Hogles Creek Jigmasters, another uniformed organization that involves allegiance and obligation by it’s members.

For many years, I have referred to myself as a fisherman. I have always loved to fish and seldom missed an opportunity to do so, whether it be from a pond bank or high speed bass boat, with a healthy dose of wade fishing for trout or pan fish thrown in when that opportunity presented itself. One of my fishing buddies, another Highway Patrolman named Lee Plunkett, and I joined forces in a local Jefferson City bass club where we found ourselves fishing competitively against local “good old boys” who grew up on the river giving our club it’s name, “The Osage River Bassmasters”. Surprisingly, we held our own, managing to win or place in a couple of river tournaments. We were always tough on Truman Lake, which is challenging if you have not spent a lot of time solving it’s many mysteries. Truman Lake will always be my “home” water, a huge reservoir that is full of fish, but requires hours of fishing time to solve. Gradually, my fishing emphasis shifted from the pursuit of bass to the pursuit of crappie, an angling treasure that rewards the successful fisherman with not only the thrill of the catch, but also a deep fried culinary experience that cannot be beat. One sunny afternoon, with a basket of nice crappie in the boat, it occurred to me that a great concept would be the combination of fishing with my propensity to wear a uniform and belong to something. Thus was born the Hogles Creek Jigmasters, a very exclusive organization of dedicated crappie fishermen who shared a love for the mighty crappie, the thrill of crappie tournament fishing and the rewarding nature of membership in an exclusive group.

The standards for membership proved to be extraordinarily high. The jacket logo, pictured here, was to our members, as exclusive as the green coat at a certain golf tournament. Our membership committee worked in absolute secrecy, and the initiation into this club was challenging. Unlike other clubs, our method of operation required total openness in regard to prime fishing locations on Truman Lake, with occasional references to specific flooded trees that nice fish were pulled from, trees that we refer to as “fish houses”. You must be able to produce, quite literally, hundreds of crappie jigs in a wide variety of colors, with a fair measure of them custom produced by a certain jig maker, Selina Wheatley, who lives near Truman Lake (Rocky Top Jigs). You must be able to recall, with accuracy, incidents involving stepping in styrofoam minnow buckets, lost glasses and hundreds of really big fish that broke off at boat side. You must have certifiable experience laughing to the point of a coronary, at the antics of a partner who has suddenly found himself thrashing about in the cold, April water of Truman lake while attempting to do something that is fishing related. If you do not have the capacity to smile broadly, with tears running down your cheeks at the sound of a transom lapping into the lake at first light, this club is not for you. If you cannot dress a crappie, from first cut to pan ready fillet, in a matter of 30 seconds, membership will be denied. You must also have a working relationship with the G. Loomis customer relations department , to facilitate the replacement of broken rods. Finally, if prevarication is required to make a fishing related point, you must back your lying partner without hesitation. These are some incredibly high standards, folks, and the club is small.

The club is named after Hogles Creek, a nice Truman Lake feeder creek, located at the confluence of the Osage and Pomme de Terre arms of the lake. This creek is close to most tournament start locations, and possesses a flooded five acre hedge tree thicket that is both hard to fish and full of tournament fish. My partner, Ralph Biele, and I have enjoyed money finishes on many occasions out of this hedge thicket. It is a beautiful creek, but can be tough to fish, especially when the water is other than at normal pool. It seemed like the perfect creek to name our club after. Ralph and I, as well as my brother-in-law, Dennis Wilson, love to fish Hogles Creek. Now to the point.

The Hogles Creek Jigmasters is comprised of two folks, Ralph Biele and myself. We have considered at least two other fishermen for membership, but never got around to formally voting on them, Lee Plunkett and Dennis Wilson. At our next formal meeting, we are going to propose them for membership and vote on their acceptance. I suspect they will win approval. The picture below is a team picture of the Jigmasters.

There you have it. The history and standards for membership in the most exclusive crappie fishing club in existence. For me, it satisfies the need we all have to belong to something…..as I mentioned, I am not much of a joiner!

The Coffee Cup Caper…….

In my last blog, I discussed the ramifications of a slowly fading memory as it relates to the “golden years”. As an example of my own battle with short term memory issues, I mentioned the disappearing coffee cup, a concern only in that said cup was a handmade, ceramic masterpiece given to me by a family member who knows that I am addicted to coffee and ritual. After much reflection, I came to the conclusion the cup was carelessly left at roadside in the RV park we are staying in, while I was preoccupied with the task of picking up after Tazzy. Being the trained investigator that I am, I stopped at the park office to inquire if someone might have retrieved the cup, recognized it’s value and turned it in to them for safekeeping. In this case, intuition paid off.

When I walked into the office, the counter was staffed by two uniformed, park employees, both younger men who could not have been more concerned. I directed my inquiry to the young man closest to the register, who was genuinely sympathetic as he offered to drive around and look for my cup. The second young man was listening to our exchange and in a minute or so, sheepishly looked me in the eyes and announced he knew where the cup was. He went on to say he had seen the cup at roadside, gathered it up and thrown it into one of the dumpsters in the park. Not good. He went on to say that he always threw trash into the middle of three dumpsters, to which the first young man offered to go look through for me. I have, in the course of my employment as a trooper, looked through exactly two dumpsters for items of evidentiary value. I will never forget either experience and felt it best that I tackle this job, sparing my new young friend the images he would see that would likely scar him for life.

I stopped at our RV and told Sharon about my plans to recover the cup and she agreed to accompany me to the dumpster, I am guessing to be present when I failed to emerge after sorting through the disgusting contents. The first young man, Corey, was already standing in the dumpster sorting the various bags of garbage into ones discarded by patrons and those, in a unique bag, that were deposited by park employees. I again suggested that he not bother with this task, talked him out of the dumpster and hopped in myself. I now have THREE images of dumpsters seared into my brain. My search did not produce the cup and as I climbed out, Corey returned with a box of flimsy, food service gloves, and told me the cup had been tossed in loose, not in a bag. Corey climbed back into the dumpster, as we needed to work down to the bottom where things really get interesting. (I fully intend to send Corey a box of heavy, nitrile gloves upon our return to Missouri, in the unlikely event he needs to again engage in a disgusting activity in their lovely park.) On the very bottom of the dumpster, in indescribable, gagging, horrid muck, the cup was located. As I write, I am enjoying coffee out of the cup, which still tastes a little like the Clorox it was soaked in for an hour or so, before being brush scrubbed.

What is the takeaway here? First, I must acknowledge the service oriented, concerned attitude of Corey Potter. It was a damned coffee cup, an item that was important only to me for the reasons noted above. He was determined in his efforts to help me find where, if possible, the cup was. Secondly, my hat is off to Mathew Locklear, who could have sat quietly and never volunteered his complicity in the discarding of the cup. In these times, the order of the day is the path of least resistance, and Mathew chose honesty over this avenue. The owner of this park has two exceptional employees in these fellows and I am smiling as I draft this piece. This is a relatively new park, absolutely gorgeous and in an ideal location to enjoy all that Myrtle Beach has to offer with it’s quiet location on the edge of the beach hustle that folks come to enjoy.

Corey Potter and me, with “The Cup”.

Thanks, guys. The cup caper is a story that will be retold time and again. It would have been easy to blow this incident off, but you did not. It is the little things that matter, do them well and the big things will be easy!

The Retirement Minefield………

The golden years. I was blessed to enjoy my chosen profession. On an almost daily basis, you were able to make a positive difference in the lives of somebody you came in contact with. Arguably, you could make a positive difference when you impacted somebody negatively, such as arresting an intoxicated driver before he killed himself or herself, or somebody else as they travelled about. I particularly enjoyed the fact that I made it an absolute practice to never leave a hungry child on a roadway, stranded as the result of poor preparation on the part of parents or “guardians” entrusted with their care. Stranded children, in my world, were never left cold or hungry. You would not know it today, but a police officer’s job revolves around improving the human condition, and it requires concentration and determination to do that. In a eureka moment, on our latest RV adventure, it has occurred to me that leaving such a rewarding and simultaneously taxing vocation for the good life that retirement promises, can be wrought with peril. Here is my take.

Retirement can easily be summed up as a phase in life where you leave behind the demanding role you have played in your working life, that leaves little time for yourself, and enter a phase of life where you can entertain the many considerations that were left to wither away due to a lack of time and/or priority. Folks who are experienced at the business of being retired say they have never been busier, with far more things to do than time to do them. In my case, I have tackled a number of bucket list items, such as back to motorcycling after a short 40 year time out and learning to fly an airplane. RVing around the country has opened our eyes to the tremendous diversity and talent in this country, not to mention seeing firsthand unheralded beauty in newly discovered urban environments such as Greenville, SC., a gorgeous city touted as one of America’s top retirement destinations. Our current location, on the Intercoastal Waterway in Little River, SC., is the perfect setting to kick back, breathe the salty sea air and marvel at the sea boating community. You, at this point, may be asking where the minefield is that has prompted this writing.

Time is the key ingredient to getting oneself in trouble. A second impediment to the carefree golden years is health, or more precisely, declining health. On this trip, we stopped at the Cleveland Clinic so that my advancing arthritis could be evaluated by one of their many health care wizards. An aching back, hands and feet are a constant reminder that pain must somehow be managed and that I have likely forever left behind those great years when I relished hand fighting with other police officers while teaching them to maintain control of their sidearm in confrontations. Today, my grand-daughter could probably take a pistol away from me. Just this morning, I fumbled around looking for ‘my’ coffee cup and realized that I must have left it at the last location in the campground where Tazzy stopped to take care of business. It is a simple multi-tasking responsibility, put the cup down, clean up after the pup, pick the cup up and finish your walk. Time is slowly facilitating the slipping of the icing from the cake, if you understand my meaning here. You notice that names disappear from a memory trained to remember these things and your skills as a trained observer are eroding. The decline in health and cognitive ability is one thing, your awareness of this decline is quite another.

The absence of a demanding profession gives folks like me the time to worry about things that I cannot change. I read posts on social media and feel my blood pressure rise at the commentary of people who do not see the world as I do. What happened to the guy who used to understand that people are different and that everything is important to someone, somewhere? Time is the answer. I have played ball with, fished with, enjoyed a libation or two with and have been proud to associate with folks who I, today, am easily angered by as a result of uninhibited opinion in print form. Has time eroded my ability to understand politics for what it is, the distortion of fact aimed at influencing the minds of people who find it easier to let someone else do their thinking for them? In the end, I am one vote in a little cubicle. This was never an issue for me before retirement provided the time to make it an issue. I have always reserved the right to offer sarcastic criticism and humor to point out the ridiculous aspects of life in a country that reveres free speech….a trait that has probably sent a few friends packing. Sad, really.

My advice for those who are treading into the minefield of retirement? Don’t take the bait. A very successful and close friend that we visited on this trip has it right. He chooses to not be relevant anymore, not running for anything, not attempting to influence anything other than his own household. He is a smart guy and we can all learn from his perspective. As for me, I suppose extraneous commentary on a variety of topics in the interest of furthering humor and the underrated art of sarcasm is a part of me. Use your time wisely, as I can guarantee that sooner or later, you will lose your fastball, and something in that magnificent human machine you were blessed with at birth is going to break or, at least, not work as well as it should.

Be careful in the minefield.

His Name is Dorsel………..

Forty plus years in the coal mining business has given Dorsel an inner strength that matches his physical strength. He is a quiet spoken man, wrapped in country eloquence, who can tell a story or two about the business of mining. I could have listened to him all day as he described the inner workings of a coal mine, a damp, dreary man made cave that has seen it’s share of tragedy and triumph over many years. In 45 minutes, Dorsel completely transformed my impression of coal mining, admittedly limited to Hollywood and required reading, sometime in my past, about the formation of the United Mine Workers. I genuinely love people who are blessed with a work ethic, and my dear readers, miners know something about hard work. Let’s have a look.

Our current RV trip found us in the city of Beckley, W. Va. We had arranged to stay the evening in the city owned RV park, which to our amazement was situated directly over a coal mine that was once owned by a farmer who found greater profitability in coal than beef. This is coal country, and a post hole constituted the beginning of the farmers mining venture. You can tour this mine, sitting in a low transport car on rails, guided by an experienced miner who explains the various pieces of equipment as well as techniques associated with mining. He easily covered the past decades of advances in every thing from lighting to the use of explosives, cleverly using humor to help the young people in our group understand and accept the death of the canaries in a cage that indicated the air had turned deadly in the mine. He talked of conditions that are simply unimaginable, such as lying on your side with a pick “undercutting” a vein of coal, and then shoring up the ceiling of that cut with timbers and bolts. He talked of a single miner cutting and loading a 1 ton coal car 6 times each day in order to earn your pay, and how you marked each car with a unique identifier to insure credit for the load.He talked of crooked inspectors, accepting money on the side, who would turn back a load that was contaminated by rock in the coal. Often the cars were loaded with several hundred pounds more than the required 1 ton, however the miners were not given credit. Dorsel came from a mining family, his father working long before the unions assuaged the conditions the miners worked in. Dorsel watched two brothers die as young men, their lungs ravaged by the deadly coal dust they inhaled as a part of their specialty in the mines. Dorsel quietly, but with measurable authority, spoke of the importance and design of lunch buckets, squibs (fuses), tampers (to pack explosives into hand drilled holes) and bolts used to keep the ceiling from collapsing on you as you worked. He talked of death in the mines, an all too often occurrence, and the many ways that death stalked you in a mine.Safety was not the priority it should have been in the days before regulation, and is still often given second shrift by unscrupulous bosses and inspectors. He described the “Kettle Bottoms”, large pieces of petrified tree trunks, slick sided and weighing hundreds of pounds, that would slide out of an overhead vein of coal and kill a miner instantly. There are two words associated with coal mining, productivity and safety, with safety traditionally following productivity in importance. He talked about the early politics that surrounded mining and the struggles of the miner in a world squarely slanted away from his well being. My eyes were wide when he revealed that your tools and even the explosives were provided by the miners themselves, the company only providing the mine and timbers for your convenience. You, indeed, owed your soul to the company store, who would only accept unique company script for your needs. You rented your home, owned by the company that owned the mine, and your family was quickly moved out if you met your fate in the mine. There would be no additional compensation for your family.

Coal will likely be at the center of the climate debate until the last ton is gouged from the earth. In this part of our country, it is king, and with the recent political shift related to this industry, has restored West Virginia’s economy. Their coal is literally being shipped all over the world, and the enthusiasm in these parts is palpable.

All of this aside, I was most impressed by the mental and physical endurance required to work in this environment. Bosses walked the shafts and saw to it that you were swinging a pick, drilling a hole or shoveling coal. Those young people today, seeking safe places to shelter from emotional abuse, would do well to take this tour. Dorsel’s handshake would be the envy of every gym rat I know, his eyes are both soft and steely, and his authority unquestioned. He is the proud product of a demanding industry who looks back with an eye toward history as it really is and not as retold by others with a dramatic flair. He will take this pride to his grave, of that you can be sure of.

His name is Dorsel, and I am proud to make his acquaintance.