Two days out from the deadly mine explosion in Montcoal, and here in West Virginia you can still feel it in the air. I don't mean the explosion itself. West Virginia coal towns are thick with a layer of grit and coal dust anyway, but the air here is heavy with more than just the filth of the way our state makes its living.
I keep wanting to write "sadness," that the air is heavy with sadness. But sadness would be appropriate. Sadness would keep family members in their beds -- but sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, they don't have the luxury of sadness. Late last night, three generations of West Virginians got out of bed and trudged off to work just the same as they do every evening, heavy boots clanking down into coal dust, disappearing into the earth.
The children of West Virginia grow up like any other children, planning to be doctors or marine biologists or storm chasers or circus clowns. Then they reach twenty and there is no money and a lot of times, there is a baby on the way. And the flyers go up on all the twisting, knotted back roads: JOB FAIR. The letters look so bright. The pay, the benefits, they look so bright.
And the boys and girls of West Virginia spend the next thirty years under the earth. Or they spend forever there. Whichever comes first.
I wasn't going to write about the mine explosion. I wasn't going to write about the huddle of nineteen-year-old mountain girls with fiery attitudes flaring, then dimming as they huddled next to the fire trucks waiting for word. I wasn't going to write about the quiet boys with their backward caps, good ol' boys who days ago nothing could touch, today so serious, so serious, more serious than we've ever seen them because we raised them to be joyous and full of hope.
Kids that age aren't supposed to be quiet. Not here in the mountains where there isn't much to live on except your own voice and your will to be happy.
Sadness is too clean a word for the coalfields today. The mountain air is heavy with hopelessness. Our children will get out of bed tonight and go back underground and grow up and grow quiet. And we as a state, we just don't know how to stop them. What to teach them instead of what we've taught them.
We do know, this -- and here's another thing that's floating on the air, thick enough to touch. We know there has to be a better way than this.