619 Kutz The Miner (With Links Below)
Call this town a self-designed depressed area trying unsuccessfully to reclaim its identity as a place that once tried to reclaim its identity as a suburb of some coal mines; too small for a Wal Mart and too big for a general store, and with neither.
The rain makes it grayer than it really is, though every trip here looks gray, even when the sun's out. The center of social life on this Saturday afternoon is divided equally between the bowling alley and McDonald's, which is where we're sitting, three of us, with a couple of coffees, a McDouble, some chicken wraps (grilled, please, not fried) and some fries (fried, please, not flame-broiled.)
Kutz is big and he's sitting a few tables down, making notes in a book and sipping what might be a shake. He's got a stack of pamphlets on the table. He gets up, walks over to our table and announces "I've seen Hell." But his eyes are twinkling, and his gray van Dyke is trimmed perfectly. No wild eyes here. He tells us that he is "Witnessing For My Lord, Jesus Christ," and were we interested in his visit to the underworld, and we were.
Kutz is 75 years old, but looks 60. His skin is smooth. His eyes are bright and kind. His hearing aid is well hidden. "Oy," we think, "here it comes. 'Get Saved!'" Kutz then goes on to say he was working on power lines, high-tension wires, when he got zapped. Eight thousand volts. That's enough to do you in, we know, and it didn't. But on the way to the emergency room, Kutz visited a land of demons and fire.
We've heard stuff like this all our lives, but at least one of us -- the youngest -- is interested, has questions and asks them. Pamphlets on how to be "saved." Instruction. This goes on for maybe 20 minutes, but he tells the tales so well, we all pay attention.
Far more interesting than his conversion and his days as a power line worker, he talks about his first job -- a twenty year gig in the mines. Turns out the power line job was a post-retirement way to earn a living, but this guy is a coal miner, capital C, capital M. Soon, he's sitting with us. We're learning about how bulldozers bull doze underneath the earth. We hear how the elevators take the men up and down. (It was mostly men in his day, but there was one woman, he says.)
And he talks about his United Mine Workers' health insurance, insurance he still carries--free, except for his $140 dollars in dues a year. To look at him, you'd think this big gentle ox of a man didn't need it. But he did and he still has it, and the union, he thanks his "lord, is still paying for it."
All of a sudden, the gray skies don't seem so gray. We hear about the first woman killed in a US coal mine "about ten miles from here, right over that mountain," about the heroic effort to save her. "We took a couple of guys a year out of that mine, dead," he says. Most of it's from lack of common sense. But sometimes the company just didn't pay enough attention to what goes on down there."
So here are Kutz and three total strangers, people who know nothing of either of the underworlds in which Kutz spent so much of his life, listening like kids hearing someone tell us about Snow White or Rigoletto for the first time, eyes wide, ears glued.
Kutz has probably told each of these stores a thousand times and probably tell these stories a thousand times more. At 75, he's not slowing down. Not in his six day workout regimen, not in his vitamin regimen, not in his tales from the mine and not in his "witnessing."
How much time has passed since we all sat down? It seems like moments, but it's been much more. In the course of the afternoon, between lessons in his faith and lessons in closing down a spent mine, Kutz has declined offers of fries, chicken wraps, coffee, Sprite and anything else. The McDonald's manager is giving us the eye. He doesn't need the table, but he doesn't like being a social center either.
We exchange phone numbers and Kutz the miner returns to his notebook, his shake and his stack of pamphlets, now lighter by two.
Later, in the car someone says "you ought to put this guy on your radio program. He's far more interesting than your politicians." And she is right.
I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
Coal Mine Songs:
1. Gordon Lightfoot & Terry Whelen "Dark as a Dungeon"
2. Pete Seeger: "Which Side Are You On?"
3. Loretta Lynn: "Coal Miner's Daughter"
Pennsylvania Coal Mine Disasters
1. Quecreek Coal Mine Floods
2. AP Mine Explosion