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Homer Hickam: An updated view of the modern coal miner

April 14, 2010

While investigations are under way into what caused the recent coal mine disaster in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners, Homer Hickam has offered a look at those lives that were claimed.

Hickam wrote the book “Rocket Boys” which was set in a West Virginia coal mining community, and the book was later made into the movie “October Sky.”

In a column appearing Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, Hickam explains that the lives of those who work in coal mines are different from what’s been portrayed by Hollywood through the years, which shouldn’t be surprising.

Hickam, who comes from a coal mining family, said he’s often called on by the media following mining disasters to talk about the lives of miners, and uses that chance to educate the uneducated.

From Hickam’s column

That’s when I get to educate the interviewer, pointing out that far from being a pick-and-shovel guy, most miners today work in a high-tech environment of electronic monitors, computers and complex machinery. They also possess a pride in their chosen occupation, not to mention a puckish humor and gentle nature. And they are certainly aware of the dangers of their workplace but love what they do. In other words, coal miners are modern Americans who, like many other Americans, probably have high-definition televisions in their dens. I also describe the towns in which they live, usually old villages set within the hollows of scenic, forested hills redolent of aromatic pine.

After I’m finished with my description of people and place as they actually are, the disappointment is almost palpable. That’s because most of the interviewers already have an idea of what life is like in a coal company town, or at least, they think they do. This is because of another company town, namely Hollywood. Over the years, the movies set in coal country have pretty well established how most Americans and the media view coal miners and their communities. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Matewan” and, yes, “October Sky,” all telling stories of an era decades ago, are the films most of the interviewers have seen. Some of them even cite “How Green Was My Valley” as their reference, never mind that it was set in Wales a century ago.

Rather than the little towns in the hills I describe with their snowy white churches, interviewers want to hear how awful these places are, how gritty, ugly and dirty. They also want to hear how downtrodden, bitter and wretched coal miners are. I hate to disappoint them, but they just aren’t like that any more, and thank goodness they’re not.

Give Hickam’s column a read, and watch for a reality show featuring coal miners that he mentions in his column.

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