After going for a year unemployed, Dave Hathaway was back underground, working at a new coal mine — the Cumberland mine — in Greene County, Pennsylvania. He didn’t want to have to go back underground, but no other job came close to paying him enough to support his family and be able to live in his hometown. Reid Frazier visited Dave a month after he started back at the mine. He’d dropped 20 pounds that he’d put on during his year of unemployment, and had shaved off his beard, which had gotten pretty wild–like Duck Dynasty wild–by the end of the year. Was it hard, getting back into the swing of things?

“I mean, you close your eyes, and you could think you’re at the Emerald. I mean other than the guys. I mean my whole crew is all young guys like 25, I think. I’m like the oldest guy on my crew,” he said.

At Emerald, Dave had pretty high seniority. He was operating equipment above ground. Generally, the further away from the place they’re mining coal, the better. Whatever seniority Dave had, went away when the mine shut down.

At his new mine, Dave was back at the bottom of the totem pole, even beneath the 20-year-olds he was working next to. He was working the “section”– the active part of the mine where they cut into new rock with a huge machine called a continuous miner. He handled advancing the mine’s ventilation system at the face of the coal seam.

“All day eight hours, well, nine and a half hours. Gets pretty boring. Same thing every day,” he said. 

Dave said it was hard to adjust, not just to the physically demanding parts of the job, but the hours. Every week, he has to work a different shift — daylight, afternoon, or midnight.

“The first midnight shift, that was pretty brutal.”

LISTEN: “Conclusion to Dave Hathaway’s Struggle to Stay”

Dave was sitting at his kitchen table — it’s one of those high tables you sit at with tall chairs. He walked across the kitchen to blow his nose. The Kleenex was black. 

He and Ashley want to move–not out of Greene County, just a little outside of city limits. They live in town and want a house with some land. Coal mining is the best way he can afford to do this. 

But in the back of his mind, he’s still wondering, ‘how long will this last?’ For years, coal mines have been getting more coal out of the ground with fewer and fewer workers. And the country is simply using less of it than it used to. In 2016, Pennsylvania’s coal mines produced the lowest amount of coal in the state since 1894. What happens when the longwall machine finishes the section of coal they’re currently mining?

“I mean they’re so short, too. Like, the long wall just it’s going to rip through them. Kind of. I’m thinking it might happen again. We’ll see when it happens. Ride it out again.”

I asked him, what would he do if he could do anything else?

“I don’t think I could do anything else now. Probably — this is probably where I have to be. I don’t know if I’d want to do anything else. I mean I tried. No one would hire me. I mean everyone else thinks I’m just a stupid coal miner, too, I guess.”

Dave has a pointed sense of humor. It’s like a coping mechanism. A way of saying, ‘screw it.’ He often jokes with Ashley that someday he’ll move into a van and just live there. He says it so often, it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or not.

David and Ashley Hathaway with baby Deacon in their kitchen in Greene County, PA. Photo: Reid Frazier

Ashley carries Deacon into the kitchen, and sits the baby on Dave’s lap. While she washes up some dishes. He’s now five months old, and he’s up to 20 pounds.

The baby stares at my microphone, and tries to touch it–it’s got a fake fur windscreen that probably looked like a stuffed animal to Deacon.

“Daddy making that coal miner money now,” Dave said to his son. “You haven’t seen that, huh?”

I asked whether they’d ever want to leave Greene County. Dave pauses, like it’s a question he’d never spent too much time thinking about.

“I don’t think we’ll move out of Greene County. We’re stuck here. We’re lifers.”

Dave said maybe once Deacon is in college, maybe then they’ll try and find somewhere else to live.

Dave’s older son, Grant, is one of the big reasons why Dave doesn’t want to leave. I’ve told you about Grant’s wrestling match that Dave took me to, how he lost to a bigger, stronger, better wrestler. 

Well Grant had another match that night. It would determine whether he moved on to the next round in his school’s wrestling playoffs. He paces the floor of the gym. Finally, it’s his turn.

Grant and another boy square off. They’re well-matched, and neither of them can gain much of an advantage. Dave is in his seat just staring at Grant, who manages to go up by a point. That’s Grant’s coach you hear yelling out instruction.

Finally, the match ends, and Grant ekes out a win.

I give Grant a high five. Ashley is there, carrying Deacon in on a car seat. So are Dave’s father and stepmother.

Dave roves around the gym, chatting with other dads, wrestling coaches. He knows a lot of the people in this room.

Grant is beaming. The dejection he felt from losing that first match is gone. Like it never happened. He has a medal around his shoulders, which he keeps touching.

That was in March.

In April, Dave suffered an injury when a rock fell from the ceiling inside the mine. He was on workman’s compensation for months for while his knee healed. He had to have surgery for his meniscus to heal. And the knee still hurts. Adding to the ache he has in his lower back from a previous coal-mining accident.

I visited Dave a few days ago at his house. He told me if he’d gotten a different job when he was laid off, he wouldn’t have gone back to coal mining. But now, a year later, there didn’t seem to be any reason to think about what could have been. And even with this injury, he said he was happy to have a job at the mine. He had a paycheck. He had insurance for his family. And that night, he’d be headed back to work to take the midnight shift.

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This story is part of an ongoing series called The Struggle to Stay

Music in the audio version of this story was provided by Marisa Anderson