By Kandi Workman
Tonight I watched “Blood on the Mountain” for the first time.
I’m a West Virginia UMWA coal miner’s daughter. Granddaughter of coal miners and coal miners’ wives. Both of my parents came from coal camps in Mingo County, and my granny’s camphouse in Ragland was ajoined to an old mining bathhouse that my papaw converted to a workshop. My dad said his great, great uncle used to own all the land down the left fork of Pigeon Creek, from Delbarton on. Said taxes ate him alive and a coal company bought almost all his land, except Curry Hollow near the foot of Cow Creek Mountain, if memory served him rightly.
When I was growing up, I swore to the moon and stars I’d never be a coal miner’s wife, no way, no how. Strikes. Layoffs. All that dust and dirty buckets and heavy boots. The scares. Dad was covered in 22 Holden in 1997, when I was 18. A version of him survived.
I married when I was 19. A buggy boy at Black’s Foodland turned factory worker in Nitro, turned water pipeliner doing a federal job in Cabin Creek, turned coal miner by the time he was 22. The money called to him, and like a receptive lover he went. He just couldn’t say no. I became a coal miner’s wife, and neither of us was ever the same.
Jeremy eventually went to work at Revolution, the Massey mine in Boone County, WV, near where we both grew up. He was a Massey “member,” terminology pointed out in “Blood on the Mountain” that was used to create a false sense of place in a serf-like system. My family went to the Massey clinic on Main Street in Madison, a medical facility established by Massey, and our visits were paid with Massey money. We attended Massey Day in Logan several times (all hail Massey). We even played with “Massey bucks,” an incentive program in which employees could accrue points based on attendance and safety to purchase items from the Massey catalog, anything from clothing to guns to toys to vacations, it was in there. We even owned the Masseyopoly board game (a gift from the company). That’s not a joke.
Money was better than good. Jeremy took classes for a year and a half while he worked and completed an apprenticeship to receive his underground electrician cards. A decade later, by the time we separated, he could bring home $8K a month during a time-intensive, soul-sucking work month, seven days a week at 12 hours or more, usually when it was time to pull out and move the long wall. There’s nothing that makes less sense than using exhausted, work-torn men to do one of the most dangerous tasks underground. Revolution was not family-friendly, but he couldn’t say no.
I thought, yet again, “Is this the life I’m going to live until I die?”
I ADMIT I’M STILL HEAVY WITH GUILT when I think of the end of my marriage and the demise of the traditional Appalachian family Jeremy and I had created. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his. I know this now. However, in the beginning of the end, from admittance to acceptance, I blamed him, inwardly, as I performed the “it’s not you, it’s me” bit. He was an insecure man, I thought, and I knew hearing his wife say she wanted to end a 13-year marriage wasn’t going to forge his self-worth. I wanted to verbally own all the blame and guilt, gladly and willingly, if it meant I could get out of the dark hole I lived in day after day.
I didn’t understand it then, didn’t understand why he couldn’t say no, why I was raising my kids on my own, why I had become his maid and cook and personal shopper, among other things, except his friend. Why did he want so badly for me to become friends with his mining buddies’ wives? Ugh. Like, you’re in a hole with these guys more than you’re with your family, and then you want to spend all your free time with them (he couldn’t say no), and choose their wives as my friends because I have no freedom to go out and make my own? An almost inescapable numbness settled in.
Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain.
Jim messaged the other day to tell me Merry Christmas. He was Jeremy’s section boss when we split. Him and Jeremy used to ride together, third shift, so he’d be at the house every evening and every morning. When Jeremy’d get to talking hateful, Jim’d look at him and say, “Now, Pup, you shouldn’t talk to your ole lady that way. She’s a mighty gracious, lovely woman, and if my wife did half as much as she does for you, I’d be pampering her every day and she’d never have to take out the trash.” Jeremy’s response: “She’s the toughest woman I know. Stronger than any man. She can handle it.” But I couldn’t.
Jim’s mom died the other day, and it makes me wonder what his thoughts about life are now.
I watched Blood on the Mountain.
I watched my life play out before me, the parts I understood and remembered, parts familiar and friendly, and the revelations of things known but not seen. Living here in Southern WV is very much like not being able to see the forest for the trees. So much of what went wrong in my marriage went wrong because my then-husband was being exploited and made to think that he had the good life. No—he was made to think he had the best life. He couldn’t say no.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, MID-DECEMBER IN 2010, I woke up, went downstairs, and sat at the kitchen table. The house was still, dark. I was so much in my head, mood-flat, teeter-tottering with suicidal flashes of images that I would wish away immediately. It was like that table was a pillar and around me, where there was supposed to be support, there was nothing. I thought, yet again, “Is this the life I’m going to live until I die?” Jeremy came down, smiling, all the kids still in bed. Maybe I was crying. Not sobbing-crying, with sound and theatrics, but the kind of cry when tears melt from the slits of your eyes with no emotion attached to them because the emotion is tucked 300 feet deep somewhere inside, and the tears flow from that swollen well without effort. He asked what was wrong. Calmly, without a shift in emotion, I told him our marriage, our life, was wrong, and I wanted a divorce. With a spark of joy, I became elated and smiled because I had spoken that truth to life. I laughed. I laughed in the midst of his pain and humiliation and fear and immediate sense of abandonment. I laughed the laugh of recognition.
His words to me were, “But, our life is perfect.”
I had to say no.
Blood on the Mountain.
This piece is reprinted from “FEARLESS: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment,” a collection by Mountain State Press based in Charleston WV, edited by Cat Pleska and featuring essays, stories, and poems from 30 women. Order the book ($19.99) through www.mountainstatepress.org; find it at Taylor Books in Charleston WV and other regional bookstores, or through Amazon. Pleska can be reached at, email@example.com.
KANDI WORKMAN is a life-long resident of the southern West Virginia coalfields, where she is raising her family of three children and exploring the depths of her connection to her rural community and the Appalachian Mountains that she loves. She is a 2015 graduate of West Virginia State University, with a B.A. in writing and English Literature. She spent two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, addressing such issues as childhood literacy, substance use, and trauma-informed community care. Kandi spent 2018-2019 as a Highlander Education and Research Center Appalachian Transition Fellow. During this time she learned a popular education curriculum focused on dismantling capitalism, was challenged to define “just transition,” and learned how to empower and aid Appalachian people. Kandi is participating in the Project South BAM (Building a Movement) fellowship, addressing oppression, hate, and racism via mutual aid building with people across the South. She is also a 2020 Census Fellow with Our Future WV, working to increase Census awareness and participation in Southern WV. She also serves as a contract harm reduction worker with the Boone County Health Department. In response to the COVID pandemic, Kandi founded the Porchsitters of Appalachia Mutual Aid Project to focus on food needs, access, and sustainability. She hopes to spend the next year connecting with folks in Boone County around food issues and land history, while securing funding to support a food growers’ network to strengthen the voice of post-coal communities.
Here is more on “Blood on the Mountains,” and here is the trailer for the film:
STAY UP TO DATE on WESTVIRGINIAVILLE. Subscribe to our free newsletter at: WestVirginiaVille.substack.com