I have been watching, with great interest, the rescue of "Los 33," the trapped Chilean miners. After almost 70 days underground, I can imagine the relief that they, and their familes, must have felt at the arrival of the cage that carried each man to safety.
Back in my youth, I was a hardrock miner for a time. I know what it is like to be underground. But I can't imagine what it is like to be trapped for as long as these resilient men.
"I have been with God and I've been with the Devil," exclaimed Mario Sepulveda, dubbed "Super Mario." I'm sure he was with the Spirits. There's nothing like the archetypal journey underground to remind you that there are forces beyond our imagining at work in the world.
Here's an experience of my own in the underworld:
I worked with a giant named Bill in the mines. Bill was a Saskatchewan farm boy who left the family farm to go north to the mine because the work underground, he explained, was far easier than farming. He seemed close to seven feet tall and as wide as a redwood. He wore his hair long to his shoulders and his reddish beard to his chest. A hooked nose and twinkly blue eyes poked out of the dense forest of hair. For his great size and formidable strength, I have never met a gentler or happier man. He was probably in his mid-thirties at the time but he seemed ancient to me.
On his yellow coveralls and helmet Bill had spray-painted the emblem of the Montreal Canadians, the hockey team he worshiped. We got along famously when he learned I lived in Montreal, a city he dreamed about but had never visited. He declared his intention to move there so that he could get season tickets to the home games of his beloved Habs. To support himself, he said, he would become a mail carrier so that he could be outside all day instead of “down in the hole.”
I met Bill that first day in the mine. It was surreal down there and the shift boss Dave made sure it was a first day I would never forget. Dave was my guide as we toured the mine via the ladder system that runs between levels. I climbed more ladders, and awkwardly, violently bumped my helmet more times than I can remember during my mine initiation day. Don’t look down, he warned. Of course I did producing instant vertigo.
By mid-shift, I was a nervous wreck and exhausted. I had climbed several miles already that day in heavy boots, long johns, coveralls and a thick plaid work shirt. I was drenched in sweat and shaking like a leaf from exertion.
Dave, the boss, decided I had done so well that he was going to “double shift” me. I was assigned to “muck-out” an ore spill with two silent Inuit companions for my second eight hours. By this time I was bagged and my attempts to shovel the wet mud and gravel that had spilled over the sides of a machine ominously called “the crusher” covering the crusher-room floor, were feeble in even the most generous assessment. My silent Inuit coworkers looked at me struggling, then looked at each other with an enigmatic smile, then continued to demolish their portion of the work. They finished their part and left me alone with my impenetrable pile of quick drying cement, a vision of Hell that I was sure even Dante had never imagined.
I did my best, finished what I could, and began the long walk back to the surface. The mine, it seemed was deserted as I tried to make my way up the labyrinth tunnel system and back to the real world. I could barely walk. I was dizzy, nauseated and disoriented. In retrospect, I was probably dehydrated from sixteen hours of hard labor.
At one point I had to sit down before I fell down. That’s when it happened. My vision started to implode until I was able to see only a small, circular field right in front of me. Mysteriously, I had no peripheral vision at all. How strange was that? Tunnel vision in a tunnel!
Ever the optimist, I concluded that I was dying. What a strange place for the end to come, interred here on my first shift in the underworld. I wondered if I was about to join a procession of ghosts wandering the mine for eternity, searching for a portal back to life. That would suck!
That’s when I saw Bill the Giant. He found me sitting in a crumpled ball by the side of the “decline,” the main roadway out of the underground tunnel. Decline, I thought, was an appropriate name given the circumstances. Bill wondered aloud if I expected the Montreal Metro to stop here? I was too exhausted to stand up but grateful to be found, even in this embarrassing state. Bill scooped me up and escorted back to the surface.
I can’t describe the rush of relief that I felt as I emerged from the mine’s head-frame back into daylight. Exhilarated by my release, it seemed to me that the world looked different: clearer, more fragrant, even luminous. Even the mud underfoot left by the late retreat of snow and ice had a sweet pungency that I would never have noticed before. I headed back to my room in the bunkhouse to recover my strength and my nerve for tomorrow’s descent.
© Patrick O’Neill 2008. All rights reserved.