Unsung 'nobodies' surface heroically

It has been just 10 days since the triumphant words "All nine are alive!" echoed across a field in Pennsylvania, reassuring an anxious world that nine coal miners, trapped for three days 240 feet below ground, were safe.

Yet almost as quickly as the miners appeared in our lives, they disappeared. After only a few interviews, they beat a hasty retreat to the comfort of their homes and the warm embrace of their families. They shut out the world, at least for now, leaving us hungry for more details.

Those details of their private drama and their personal lives will have to wait until next year. The men have sold their stories for $150,000 each to the Walt Disney Co., which will publish a book and produce a television movie.

Still, their inspiring examples of courage and determination linger in thought. As one construction worker told a reporter at the rescue scene, "Something like this sure can change the way you look at things."

It sure can. Suddenly, petty concerns seem less important in the context of the miners' ordeal. And the world of blue-collar labor, largely invisible to those of us who work with clean hands in comfortable offices, takes on new meaning. It also commands new respect.

In the rarefied world of white-collar jobs, it's easy to fret about glass ceilings and to forget about the barriers – limited education, training, opportunity – that keep millions from advancing. The little guy, essential as a cog in the wheels that keep the world running, remains unseen.

During the rescue effort in the mine, two 20-somethings of my acquaintance commented separately, with astonishment in their voices, that they didn't know coal mining still exists in the United States. That's invisibility.

We rightly hail the miners and their rescuers as heroes. But we forget to honor the wives and children who must live with the daily reality that their husbands and fathers work in the shadow of danger. They're the ones to whom the miners, fearing they might die, scrawled farewell notes on scraps of cardboard. They're also the family members who were left widowed and fatherless when hundreds of firemen lost their lives on Sept. 11.

Mining ranks as the most dangerous occupation. Truck drivers, farmers, construction crews, police officers, firefighters, taxi drivers, fishermen, and lumberjacks also make the list of dangerous jobs.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Studs Terkel's bestseller, "Working." His paean to real lives celebrates 135 people whose titles range from steel worker, cab driver, and janitor to waitress, garbage collector, and policeman. He also includes two miners.

By giving voice to these mostly unknown men and women, Terkel honors the satisfactions and sorrows, dreams and disappointments that pervade all walks of life.

In some ways, the events of Sept. 11 and the drama in the coal mine form an updated version of "Working." The victims in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, along with many passengers on the hijacked planes, lost their lives on the job. They were working, doing what they had to do to earn a paycheck to support themselves and their families. The miners were doing the same.

"I'm Nobody!" Emily Dickinson wrote. "Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too?" Most days, most of us would answer her question in the affirmative. Like the miners who hurried home and shut the door, we are content to live our modest, hard-working lives in private. As Dickinson observed, "How dreary – to be – Somebody."

But when something happens that turns Nobodies into Somebodies, however briefly, we find ourselves cheering.

The miners serve as a reminder that the real Somebodies are not necessarily those in corner offices high above the city, but those 24 stories below ground, toiling in what miners call an "endless night," earning their modest wages the hard way, one dusty, dangerous ton of coal at a time.

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