In this rugged, unyielding country, among creek bottoms and earth-brown mountains laced with coal, the most natural way to earn a living is to follow your father or neighbors into the mines and work as they did.

Even if the miners seem willing to walk out at the drop of a contract, as they did on March 27, West Virginians have a tenacious affinity for this means of livelihood.

"Mining's just something that gets in your blood," says Dave Ashby, the safety operations director at Armco Steel's coal operations here.

As he steers a company pickup along a back country road, he tells me that both his grandfather and his father spent their lives working in and around the mines. Now Mr. Ashby is in mining, too, and he's not quite sure why.

"It's not anything you can describe," he says. "When I was growing up, the idea was to go to school and get a good education, so that you could escape the mines. But all that has changed. Now, everybody seems to want to work the mines."

Most miners seem to share this mysterious attraction for their narrow, grimy work world.

I have come to West Virginia to explore the coalfields and try to understand what, besides good money, attracts these workers to the perils and discomfort of labor in tunnels sunk beneath tree-capped mountains of rock.

I am riding with Mr. Ashby along the road that follows the Big Coal River away form Charleston, past the battered Racine post office and a souvenir store sitting on the river's edge, past shabby, unkempt houses with sagging, paint-peeled walls and depression-style yards, past occasional new brick homes and shiny trailers, and down into the Southern coal-mining country of this state.

We are headed for a mine plunged into the side of a wooded mountain, surrounded by high ridges and rolling hills.

Here in these rich fields of high-volatility, low-sulfur bituminous coal, "drift" mines (drilled horizontally into the side of a mountain) are more common than shaft mines (sunk vertically into the earth). Either way, the mines are identical, once you get inside.

You approach Armco's drift mine No. 7 in a covered metal car, which is pitched at such a steep angle that there are cleats in the floor to wedge your feet against while a twisted steel cable tugs the car up the mountain.

Before I squeeze inside, Don Harrington, who resembles the character Doc on TV's "Gunsmoke," reassures me jokingly that they lose only one or two of these vehicles a year, and then hands me coveralls, a pair of hard-topped work shoes, safety glasses, a hard hat, a headlamp and power pack, and a "self-rescuer," a square metal respirator that fits on the back of your belt.

In case of a mine disaster, he tells me, I am to pull open the respirator immediately and put the breathing apparatus into my mouth. It might burn my lips, he warns, but I am to keep using it anyway, since it's better to have burned lips than breathe poison gas.

You don't worry much about poison gas, though, when you get out of the metal car and mount an open flatcar that runs on narrow-gauge railroad tracks along a lofty ridge and into the mine, especially if this is your first trip into the earth.

The flatcar, called a "jeep," is like a metal longboat with an aging motor in the middle. A long wooden arm on one side is held together with black tape. The arm hitches up against an overhead wire carrying 440 volts of electricity to power the car.

The jeep lurches forward, and we roll along under treetops through the cool late-afternoon air to a huge, round corrugated pipe leading into the mountain.

For a moment, I feel as though I'm entering an amusement park ride. That feeling leaves me as we are engulfed in the utter darkness of the mine and I feel cold air gushing past me out of the earth.

Water drips on us momentarily, as we pass through the seam where the pipe joins the wall of the mountain. And then we begin to roll along in earnest.

Dave Ashby leans over to explain that the jeep is really traveling at only 5 to 10 miles per hour, even though in this cramped, black space, with wind rushing past, it seems a lot faster.Loose rock, secured overhead by narrow beams , seems to race by us. Occasionally we have to bend low to avoid hitting our heads.

This mine, which is relatively mature, has the look of old Hollywood gold-rush movies with its weathered wooden beams, aging shaft, and pitched railbed, which reaches two miles into the mountain under 1,800 feet of earth.

As we roll toward its nether reaches, there is a feeling of dropping into the planet's entrails. The long, cold, dark path seems to snake into ever-blacker chambers, which open onto still deeper passages.

We have been traveling downward with the pitch of the seam for thousands of feet. Now we start burrowing back into a squared-off section of this seam, which has perhaps 20 to 25 year's worth of minable coal left in it.

At distant reaches of the mine, a mechanical behemoth known as "the longwall" is chomping away at the coal, causing what sounds like a dull roar at this distance.

It was the longwall that led mining companies to ask for seven-day work schedules, in order to keep the machine running continuously so it would pay for itself. And it was the longwall that attracted me to No. 7, since here they're using what is considered the largest, most spectacular, and most productive piece of equipment in modern mining.

The longwall is not, however, the only machine at work down here. There are six other mine sections being worked by "continuous miners," which recover far less coal per day than the longwall, but are mechanical marvels in their own right.

Each of the mine's sections contains $1.5 million worth of equipment being manned by several union miners on three eight-hour shifts, the third being a maintenance tour. This means there are 400 to 500 workers inside this human anthill 24 hours a day.

When we reach the end of the railroad track, we get out and tread through the dark tunnels. Fortunately, we can walk upright here. In many mines, including one I had visited earlier in the week, the ceiling is so low you have to walk stooped over with arms locked behind your back to relieve pressure on neck muscles unaccustomed to the strain.

The air, which during the ride was cold and fresh, seems staler and thicker as we pass through the final tunnels and archways that lead to the mine face.

The gloom swallows the slender shafts of our headlamps. We can't see it, but we can hear the sound of a heavy engine ahead. Yet, even the mechanical groans don't prepare me for the sight that greets us around the bend in the tunnel.

Howling mournfully, staring ahead with two eyelike headlights, a giant mechanical insect lumbers into view. It is the continuous miner, as long as perhaps two full-size automobiles and a bit taller. But down in this cramped, subterranean world, it seems more formidable, especially with its huge rotor drum -- covered with 130 steel teeth -- coming at us.

The operator, who sits in a little cradle at the center of the machine, directs it past us to the coal face, jamming the teeth firmly against the rock. Then, with a deafening roar, the rotors begin to spin, and the machine bites into the vein of hard black coal as if it were layer cake.

A conveyor belt carries the coal back through the machine, spewing out 15 tons a minute. It takes three long, cavernous shuttle cars operating full-time to transport this coal to the railroad cars that use the jeep's trail to remove it from the mine.

As the continuous miner works, it exposes a new ceiling in the mine chamber, which has to be supported by bolts drilled up into bedrock.

I find this out when I walk too far back into a freshly mined pocket, and Deke, a burly, bearded supervisor with flame-red hair, says laconically, "I don't believe you want to walk under there. That's unsupported."

The reason I walked toward the wall was to get a closer look at the coal face.

Anyone accustomed to seeing dusty, sooty chunks of coal lying in unsightly heaps on the earth's surface is struck by the pristine beauty of the stuff down here -- shiny-black, wet, clean, and jewel-like, the ebony remains of ancient forests.

In the ceiling we can see fossilized imprints of ferns and leaves. But it is the black, rich, striated coal -- brittle-crumbly when touched -- that is the real fascination. Layered here in the bowels of the earth, where it has been pressed by incredible force, it seems a hidden treasure.

When the continuous miner begins to devour it, however, the black rock crumbles, filling these tunnels with dust clouds that our headlamps can barely penetrate, dust that gets into nose and lungs.

In the far distance, through this haze, I can see the bobbing headlamps of unknown workers. Walking to meet them, we find two young miners who are waiting for the machine to carve out another section of the seam, so that they can go to work behind it.

One of them, Tim Fortner, who has worked three mines in three years, says, "The mines grow on you in a way, don't they? Mining's the only kind of work to me. I wouldn't have no other job."

His bearded face is grimy with coal dust, and he seems to share a lot of the characteristics common to other miners I've talked with: a deep but hard-to-explain affinity for mine work, a distrust of government and business, a mulish determination to get the most he can out of both, and a history of family tragedy connected with mining.

"My father got killed in the mines in 1964," he says. "A loader or a boom fell on him. . . ."

Next to the risk of accidental death or injury, the other specter that haunts these shadowy tunnels is black-lung disease, an illness contracted by miners who breathe coal dust.

In March, miners picketed the White House to protest Reagan administration attempts to curtail federal aid to victims of the disease. Mr. Fortner wasn't there, but he thinks the march was successful. "That's what kept Reagan from taking away our black-lung benefits," he asserts.

Discussions of such dangers are rare along these passageways, though, where the miners seem to be constantly joking and laughing. But it's not hard to elicit a comment about the rigors of the work.

"It gets pretty bad down here, sometimes," says Earl Hudson, a shuttle-car operator with considerably more years on the job than Tim Fortner.

Leaning against his shuttle car, swinging safety glasses with one hand, his other shoved into a pocket, the leathery-faced 38-year veteran of the mines maintains that even though this operation is "pretty safe," it can become dangerous when one spends "too long in the mines" and gets careless.

Whatever the dangers, most of Earl Hudson's male relatives have chosen to work in the mines. His father worked them, and his son is employed here in No. 7.

What brings them to this profession?

Tradition. Money. And benefits.

The greatest attraction has to be the fact that, as one miner told me, "If you want to live in this part of the country and make a decent wage, you have to go into the mines."

Through 50 years of labor-management wars, union miners have won concession after concession from coal companies, which makes union mining probably the highest-paid blue-collar job in the country, paying $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

These gains have cost the miners much, both in lost working time during strikes and in erosion of the union's power. During the past decade, the amount of coal produced under United Mine Workers contract has fallen from 70 percent of the nation's annual production to only 44 percent. And the nonunion gains worry these miners.

In this area of the country, the smaller, nonunion family-owned mines are the envy of the industry. "They may not adhere to all the safety practices the union wants," one 40-year veteran of the mines who is in management told me, "but those same mines make our productivity records look sick."

Safety standards are not the only concessions won by the union. The combination of increased mechanization, liberal work schedules, and high job security have produced a system in which the union miner almost writes his own ticket.

But the attraction of the intangible factors seems as powerful as the money and benefits.

In the north end of the state, I met a miner who had gone to work for a chemical company for better wages than he was making in the mines. But he returned to coal mining because he couldn't stand "factory work." A woman who is now working in No. 7 was assigned a well-paying desk job as a coordinator "up top," but she eventually requested a transfer back into the mines, where she has been working for seven years. A white-haired miner named Mike, who will be retiring this month, told me he plans to make a trip as soon as he retires, "to see them 60-foot-high coal seams they have in Montana."

Other miners point out that the endless motion, constantly changing topography, and unexpected turn of events make mining an absorbing trade.

Not one miner out of the perhaps two dozen I spoke with said he didn't like mining, although most could not explain why. The usual answer was something like, "I just like it, I guess."

Wandering these gloomy tunnels here seems bad enough to a visitor who finds it hard to fathom the attraction of this sequestered world -- sooty and arcane.

But it is not until you see the enormous longwall machine in action, making thunder, smoke, and heaps of coal, that you glimpse this trade at its dirtiest and most dramatic.

Walking into the forest of beams supporting the roof, nearer the heavy yellow curtain that controls ventilation around the longwall, you feel you are entering the inner sanctum of a queen ant. Workers hurry through the darkness to serve the needs of this unseen presence.

Just beyond the yellow curtain stands a mammoth armature of hydraulic lifts, gleaming silver in the pitch. A dozen men are climbing through the machinery, repairing a conveyor chain that is about as thick as a strong man's arm. The machine extends as far as you can see down the tunnel, and all along it men are moving back and forth through it.

Climbing in after them, I enter the monstrous jaws of the longwall. The roof of its mouth is a series of hydraulically supported shields, used to prop up the shaft above. Two rotors, each about the size of a man, contain enormous teeth. The rotors are silent until the chain is repaired.

Then, when they throw the main switch, the very earth seems to move. The two giant rotors pulverize a 30-inch-deep wall of coal into chunks and dirt. The conveyor moves the coal out into the distant mine shafts.

From the controls inside the machinery, miners advance the hydraulic ceiling, pilot the grinding teeth, and adjust the conveyor. Following Dave Ashby, I crawl back a couple of hundred feet into the longwall, bent over double, stumbling past the racing conveyor chain, until I can get a close look at the powerful rotors.

But after a few minutes, I've had enough of awesome power, and I long for gulps of clean air.

As we climb back out of the machine and make our way up to the jeep, Mr Ashby tells me that the longwall cost the company $3 million and produces 1,200 to 1, 500 tons of coal a day. Even though it is down more than one-third of the time, he says, this single machine outproduces the rest of the mine.

We climb into the jeep and sit in silence during the long, dark ride back to the surface. Reflecting on the strangeness of the place, I begin to grasp at least part of the attraction of coal mining. It was written on the faces of the miners down there: a uniqueness and separateness from the rest of the world -- membership in an elite brotherhood.

This brotherhood may be criticized in the months to come, if the strike drags on and damages the economy. The miners don't seem to care, though. Down below, the world seems far away.

My thoughts are interrupted as we come rolling up out of the mountain and emerge into the more accustomed blackness of the West Virginia night. Somewhere in the trees a frog is calling.

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