The previous issue of Mimosa
was sort of a transitional "Farewell to Tennessee" issue for us. We lived there for
15 years, and found that despite ourselves, roots are only too easy to put down. Many
of our most vivid memories and most of our connections to fandom originate in the
mid-South part of the United States, of which Tennessee is heartland. Although we're
not sure it was ever really 'home' to us, we know we'll miss it. This issue
was originally meant to be a "Welcome to Maryland" issue; we don't know if it'll
actually turn out that way, but in any event there are still some loose ends of our
Tennessee years to write about, and the following article is one of them.
For the past eight years, Dick's job in fossil energy R&D quite frequently took him to a coal-fired power plant out in the wilds of rural Kentucky, where landscapes had been severely and immensely altered by strip mining long before land reclamation laws were ever thought of. Curiously, this station is somewhat paridoxically named 'The Paradise Power Plant'; a place farther from paradise would be hard to imagine. Dick likes to say that the place isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from there. Here is more about that place...
- - - - - - - -
by Dick Lynch
I remember the day well. It was a warm late-summer day in 1980. I had recently taken an engineering position with a large, government-owned utility company (the Tennessee Valley Authority), and this was my first trip to the coal fields of western Kentucky. I had hopped a ride with a fellow worker, and after a long drive we had stopped by this little greasy spoon diner for lunch just outside the coal-fired Paradise Power Plant where we were scheduled to be that afternoon. I was still pretty green to my new job at that point; before TVA, I had worked as a process development engineer in a research laboratory where the biggest concerns were keeping whatever hazardous chemicals you were working with inside the fume hood, and making sure your monthly progress reports got to the secretary on time. Not here, though. I had always wanted a job that put me out in the field a little more, doing something a little more interesting and with a little more practical applications than developing chemical processes that nobody seemed interested in. Well, I had gotten my wish.
The little car we'd requisitioned from the TVA motor pool had been one of those no-frills Pintos that Ford had made in the last year they were built. With hard hats, overnight bags, and equipment we were bringing to the plant, it was a tight squeeze to fit just the two of us in there. It kind of reminded me of the limerick about the Young Man from Boston / Who Bought Himself an Austin; the car was a little bigger than that, but not by much.
This car was even more no-frills than most, because it lacked basic human necessities like air conditioning and a radio. The lack of air conditioning we managed to cope with; we just used the old stand-by: two-fifty-five air conditioning -- two windows down at fifty-five miles an hour. Having no radio, though, presented an inconvenience we couldn't overcome; even conversation tends to peter out during a long, four-hour drive. There was one other thing a radio could have provided us -- the news. Lots can happen in a four-hour stretch when you're effectively cut-off from humanity. In this particular four-hour stretch, something did happen that had we known about it, we would have probably have turned the car around and headed directly back to Chattanooga. Because there are some things in the world you just don't want to mess around with, and one of them is a coal miners' strike.
The United Mine Workers in recent years seems to be losing some of the clout that it once had. Coal prices have been on the decline worldwide for several years; mines have closed or curtailed their work forces, and miners are moving on to different, less backbreaking, and safer professions. They're no longer such a feisty lot, either; it takes a lot more nowadays to enrage them as a group where organized action takes place. One of the things that will set them off, though, is when a utility brings in coal produced by non-union mines. TVA had done just that, and now there I was, right in the middle of a wildcat strike that was just starting to get ugly.
The little roadside diner was called the Red Rooster; turned out that it was UMW Central, at least as far as this little disturbance was concerned. Coal miners are usually depicted as big, dumb, hulking brutes; these guys looked to be no exception. I was in favor of leaving right there and then, but Bill, the fellow engineer I was traveling with, insisted that he was hungry, and By God, he was going to have something to eat.
We had just placed an order for hamburgers, which looked to be the least disgusting thing on the menu, when Bill saw two guys near the doorway, reading what a third guy had just tacked up on a bulletin board. I'll say one thing for Bill -- cats have nothing on him in the curiosity department. So before I could grab him to pull him back down in his chair, he grabbed me by the arm and as he was pulling me over toward the bulletin board said, "C'mon, Rich, let's go see what's going on."
With a great sense of dread I followed him, if only to be a little closer to the door. Bill, though, knew no fear. The object of interest on the bulletin board turned out to be some newspaper clipping that was sympathetic to the UMW, which had previously lodged complaints about importing coal from non-union mines into an area where union miners were being laid off. There was a big placard, in fact, right next to the clipping that read "This Is a Union County." As Bill read the clipping, he started chuckling to himself, undoubtedly about how unbiased local reporters and editors had become lately. He didn't seem to realize that all the while, his antics were starting to draw attention from some of the miners who heretofore had been pretty much minding their own business. Finally, two of the bigger fellows seated not too far away put down whatever delicacies they were eating, looked at each other, looked at us, then started easing their chairs back from their table a bit, as if they were getting ready to get up, come over, and check us out to see just what was so funny. It was obviously time to take some drastic action, so I turned and gave them what I hoped was my broadest, friendliest smile while talking to Bill out of the side of my mouth: "Okay, Bill, let's get ou-u-u-t-ta he-e-e-re!"
It was very soon indeed after that we were back in the Millennium Pinto and headed for the plant. Bill groused a little about not being able to eat his lunch, but didn't have an answer when I pointed out that two big guys almost had us for lunch. As we approached the plant, signs of labor unrest were more obvious -- groups of people, some carrying 'On Strike' placards hanging around the plant entrance highway, a state police car or two watching the situation, and a big coal-haul truck by the side of the highway without a windshield (the cop said it had been shot out). Somewhere, about halfway down the plant entrance highway, we decided we didn't really need to stay overnight in the area, after all, so we just dropped off the equipment we had brought with us, turned around, and headed for home. It wasn't until we had gotten all the way to the county line that Bill laughed, turned to me and said, "Well, Richard, you've just been to Paradise."
And you know, we never did get anything to eat that afternoon.
# # # #
But wait! There's more...
I had originally intended to end this article here, but I find that I can't yet. I've lost count, but after that first trip to the Paradise Power Plant, I must have returned there maybe a hundred times more. And each time I returned, I found out there was something new and interesting about the place I'd previously missed. There's lots more to tell about it. For instance, there's how it got its name...
Old-timers at the plant told me that once, maybe thirty or forty years ago, this part of Kentucky was indeed a wonderful place, with hills and valleys, beautiful forests everywhere, and the Green River as a source of water and transportation. It was off the beaten path, and relatively undisturbed. Right on the Green River there was a town named Paradise that had been settled by the deliberate, slow-talking kind of people that still live in that neck of the woods. There's still enough wilderness around there that I can imagine what it must have been like; the original settlers must have thought they'd found their equivalent of the Promised Land. Then, back when the nation was in a period where new energy reserves were needed for the war effort and ensuing population explosion afterward, some mining geologists from the Peabody Coal Company discovered there were large coal reserves in that part of the state. So the coal company moved in and bought up all the land, then moved everybody out, razed the town, and strip mined the land for the coal. A songwriter named John Prine even wrote a song about it:
Once, I was in the right place at the right time to be invited to visit the world's largest shovel referred to above. It was used to remove the 170-or-so feet of what is euphemistically called 'overburden' so that the eight foot thick seam of coal could be mined. The result was one of the largest holes in the ground I've ever seen. It was so large, in fact, that the first time I went to the mine, I didn't grasp the scale of the place until I saw a tiny section of rock at the lip of the mine fall lazily in slow motion to the bottom. Only it wasn't really in slow motion; the depth of the mine and the distance of the fall only made it seem so. Once the true perspective snapped in, I could see little toy vehicles down on the floor of the mine that were actually bulldozers the size of a bus.
The shovel itself had to be one of the mechanized wonders of the world; it was taller than a 20-story building, as wide as an eight-lane highway, and could remove 115 cubic yards in one scoop. One gulp from that monster, and your whole front yard is gone. Another, and your house disappears, too. When I got inside, I was astonished to find that it was controlled by a single operator, located in a cupola about five stories up. When we got to the 'roof' of the cab, at about the ten-story level, it was like being on a ship in a storm from the constant back-and-forth motion of the shovel while it continued to remove dirt and rock. I was told that if I had been crazy enough to climb all the way out to the end of the shovel boom, I would have experienced about one-and-a-half gravity centrifugal force as the boom swung round.
It was the mightiest machine -- the largest self-powered mobile land machine ever built. And it doesn't exist any more. About three years ago, the strip mine finally ran out of a usable coal supply, after some 30 years of production. The big shovel was such a dinosaur that it was cost-prohibitive to move it to another mine. So they just salvaged all the electrical parts that were of any value, lowered the big boom one last time, and covered the whole thing over when they filled in the pit. I can imagine that some far-future paleontologist will think that metal monsters once roamed the earth, when the metal bones of this behemoth are uncovered again someday.
There was also an underground coal mine in addition to the strip mine in the vicinity around Paradise; the place is very rich with coal. And, with some trepidation, I and a couple of co-workers took a trip down there. I don't think I could ever be a miner. I wasn't particularly scared up on top of the big shovel; just awe-struck from its immense scale. Down underground, I couldn't help wonder in that particular section of rock ceiling was just about ready to come down, right on top of me. And the miners seemed to take particular pains to point out parts of the ceiling where there had been rock falls. I guess they found it an instant cure for visitor cockiness.
The trip down there was pretty eventful in itself. I guess I had expected something safe and boring like an elevator, or at least a walkway. Instead, we got the tram ride from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I kid you not; there were enough twists and turns, low ceilings, and stomach-churning drops to put any amusement park ride to shame; they should have sold tickets for that thing. When we got down there, we found that the depth of the coal seam being mined was only five feet. This meant that six-foot people like me had to adopt to a new way of walking around -- like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, we grasped our hands behind our back, bent over forward slightly with our chins jutting out, and did a sort-of bent-knee waddle. The only things missing were bushy eyebrows, horn-rimmed glasses, and cigars. Dave, one of my co-workers, later asked me if he looked as foolish down there as I did to him.
And speaking of foolish, it always seemed that whenever something bizarre or surreal happened while I was at Paradise, Dave, Bill, or Dave and Bill were somehow also involved. Like the time we were snowed in there one weekend. Dave was driving around a rental front-wheel drive Toyota, and was surprised at how easily it got through even the deep, packed snow that snowplows throw into the front of driveways. The car was making it look so easy that Dave was losing all fear of getting stuck. So of course, we were.
Bill was staying at a place a few miles from our hotel, and we were to meet him for dinner, since his place had a kitchenette and ours didn't. By the time we reached the parking area in front of Bill's motel room, Dave was of the impression that there was nothing this car couldn't do. I guess we should have been suspicious of the lack of tire tracks in the white snowy expanse of the parking lot, but we weren't, and Dave blithely pulled the car straight in. Or tried to, that is. We got within about 15 feet of what looked to be the curb when the car suddenly sunk about six inches, followed by a noisy crunching sound. And it wouldn't go any farther. When we got out, we discovered that there was at least one thing that car couldn't do -- it couldn't swim. The parking area turned out to have such poor drainage (Bill had forgotten to tell us) that it wasn't unusual for several inches of water to accumulate. Dave's car had just broken through the icy crust under the snow, and had sunk down to where its bottom was flush against the ice. We had to wade through five-inch-deep icy slush to make it to shore.
Getting the car free was just as exciting. We wanted to call for a tow truck right then and there, but Dave wanted to give it one good try to free it by muscle-power before we gave it up. So, with much apprehension and fortified with three new pairs of tall rubber boots, we waded out to the car to give it our best shot. Bill claimed the driver's spot, since he had played no active part in getting us into this mess. Dave and I stationed ourselves at the front of the car at each headlamp; we would do our best to push the car out, while Bill kept a steady foot on the accelerator with the car in reverse gear. It was probably one of the most hopeless plans we had ever come up with, seeing as how the car was completely bottomed-out; yet it just might have worked except for one thing we didn't know about.
After being immersed in icy water in sub-freezing temperature for an hour or so, the right front wheel -- the one I was stationed in front of -- was frozen solid. All the engine's torque was going to the other front wheel, where Dave was. The result was predictable: when Dave gave Bill the signal to press down on the accelerator e-e-easy now, Bill naturally stood on it with both feet. And as Dave bent his shoulder to the front of the car in one last valiant attempt to push it free, all that torque applied to the one free drive wheel spun it so fast that it shot a geyser of ice-cold water twenty feet in the air.
And Dave, poor Dave, was standing right in the middle of it. It was quite a while before he in good humor again.
# # # #
But wait! There's still more...
After eight years of working in the area, the sights and sounds of the place don't want to go away very quickly. A co-worker once told me as we passed the county line on the way home that one of the greatest sights in the world was seeing the Muhlenberg County sign in your car's rear-view mirror; the dirt and filth from coal mining and the obvious signs of poverty in the area just tend to wear you down after a while. Even poverty itself seemed to fit the paradoxical nature of the area; whole families lived in shacks so run down and decrepit you'd feel guilty about keeping livestock in them, yet they would have a satellite dish antenna in their yard and a bright new four-by-four pickup truck in the driveway.
There were the trips to little beer and liquor package stores just across the county line (Muhlenberg County was dry) -- on one of them we had an Indian visitor with us; when we ran into what looked to be a group of backwoods redneck woodsmen at a beer store I had a terrible sinking feeling that one of them would say something about the visitor that would lead to a complex series of events that could only end with someone beating the crap out of me (luckily, they didn't). There was the Noah's Ark of hardware stores in a nearby village, that had in its cluttered aisles just two of practically anything you might ever need. There was a parade of all sorts of memorable characters, places, and events. In fact, one reason why this article has been kicking around inside me for about five years is that I couldn't decide what things were memorable enough to write about.
Like the Polish visitor we had not long after the Solidarity union had been outlawed. He was here to learn about new advances in coal technology; I hosted him for a day in Kentucky, then drove him back to the TVA Office of Power headquarters in Chattanooga. He was outspoken about his concerns for his family and friends, some of which were union supporters, but he was still interested in the rolling hills of the countryside that were passing by in front of him. Not far from the plant, we passed through the one remaining grove of trees that somehow had escaped the strip mining from years before. It was where part of the town once stood. I explained to him that here it was still possible to see hawks hunting rodents, and even catch an occasional glimpse of a deer. He turned to me in wonderment and asked, "What is this place called?"
And I just smiled. "This place here?" I said. "This is Paradise."
All illustrations by Charlie Williams