Coal-Hearted Woman

March 05, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Correspondent

Keyser, W.Va. -- The snow-flecked winter hills of Appalachia rise at Barbara Angle's doorstep and roll away in rounded ranks to a distant, fading infinity.

This is the landscape of her memory. These are the comfortable hills of home.

Ms. Angle grew up across the Potomac in Westernport, a Maryland river and railroad town that once sent thousands of tons of coal downriver on barges, a town long ago nicknamed "Hardscrabble." And she was injured for life in the soft coal heart of these hills.

Now, in her new book, "Those That Matter," she has published a fine, bittersweet novel about a girl growing into a woman in a hardscrabble West Virginia coal town. The woman flouts convention and taboo and harassment to go in the mines. She marries and divorces and bears a child she'll raise as a single mother. She has a crippling accident and survives. Ms. Angle's book closely parallels her own life -- though it is still more art than autobiography.

The Appalachian coal fields run from here to Harlan County, Ky., and nowhere under these hills is the life of a miner easy. Ms. Angle's grandfather worked in the mines. Her brother still works underground. Barbara Angle worked in the mines until an accident smashed her right arm and left it mostly useless nearly 17 years ago.

But if she hadn't been injured, she'd probably still be in the mine, thinking about getting her pension in a few years. She liked it underground.

"Yeah, I did," she says. "It's kind of a sensuous environment, as funny as that may sound. Even with the danger there. The sounds and the darkness and the shadows and the lights and the smell. You can walk in that mine and as soon as you inhale the sulfur it's like being back home.

"Like you always remember your mother's scent," she says, "or that old boyfriend who wore English Leather."

She's 48, a strong, independent woman who habitually wears jeans and flannel shirts and hip eyeglasses. Her blond hair looks as if it has been combed with a hose, and her face is sweet and smooth and clear as if it's been burnished by soft mountain rains.

In the book her alter-ego, Portia Crowe, acquires a death's-head appearance in the mine: "skin rubbed raw . . . her skull sheds flesh until red eyes hang in black pouches."

"Those That Matter" is one of those rare books that celebrate the heroism of everyday life. Ms. Angle writes of workingmen and -women in their naked and profane ordinariness. She writes with rigorous truth, stark realism and profound compassion.

"Remembered pain has its value," she says in a prologue. She's created Portia Crowe as a buffer to give some distance to her tale.

"I cannot get too close," she writes. "Still, yesterday's lost possibilities track me."

Portia Crowe tells a story of home and family and community. Her fictional mining town of Cogan's Bluff, W.Va., is a place where the old die at home with their families around them or in the mine with the mountain fallen on them.

Portia's father, Dan, dies in the mine almost casually when a cave-in slaps a slab of rock against his back and knocks the life out of him forever.

"The mutilation and death of its men are a way of life in a mining community," Ms. Angle writes. "For coal miners accidents are more than a possibility. They are a probability."

The probabilities caught up with Barbara Angle on April 14, 1978. Ms. Angle worked underground about 40 miles west of here at Laurel Run Mine on Mount Storm.

'Total darkness'

She was driving a shuttle car, a low, wide vehicle like a topless Humvee, used to haul coal away from the mine face. The driver's seat was tacked on as an afterthought.

"What they're doing is giving consideration for the maximum coal that can be hauled," she says.

"You're completely exposed on the side. If you don't make a clearance within a certain amount, you're pinned against the rib. You have to try to use your cap light to see where you're going. So you're actually leaning out."

She hit the rib, the support that holds up the roof.

"The only thing that saved me from being decapitated was the cable that runs on the side of the car as it was pulling me out and crushing me," she says. She ran over it and cut off power to the shuttle.

"I saw the elbow fall," she says. "I had bone splinters all over me. [The arm] drug along the coal and coal was all ingrained in it."

But she felt neither fear nor pain.

"No," she says. "Your cap light is out right away and nobody else is around. I was in total darkness. I didn't know what was happening.

"Your nerves go crazy. Later you are [in pain]. But at the time your nerves don't even assimilate what's happening."

Rescue became a problem of moving tons of inert machinery. The jack that was supposed to be there wasn't.

"It was just two guys with a crowbar and they just kept prying," Ms. Angle says. "It was a matter of inches. The arm was only hanging by a thread. That adrenalin runs, you know, they pried it far enough. I fell back. The arm came with me."

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