We Dug Coal Together, And I’m Glad We Did


I know I’ve been hammering this “small world” theme the last couple of days, but I experienced something yesterday morning that is on my mind, and makes me want to talk about it one more day.

I had dropped by a bulletin board for a website called Techsideline.com. I used to be a regular there for a couple of years, but lost interest two years ago. I had written this story Thursday, and since Cindy and Jean Farmer were probably well known to many there, I thought I would post the story for all to see.

There were replies to the story, which brought back more memories, which sparked more replies from me, which brought back more memories. After an hour or two, I realized I was having conversations with 15 to 20 people who I’d never met, whose real names I’ll never know, yet people who shared mutual friends with people I’ve known all my life. They even shared memories of some of the very things I remember warmly, and even one mentioned I was the Resident Advisor in his dorm.

Small world, indeed.

It kind of reminded me of the television show “Justified” (no, we didn’t shoot each other) that was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard two decades ago called “Fire In The Hole.” If you haven’t watched the series, it went on for years and was very enjoyable. It chronicled the exploits of Raylan Givens (the good guy) and Boyd Crowder (the bad guy).

The short story’s first sentence is “they had dug coal together as young men…” and the book launches into a fast-paced adventure where each tries to kill the other. Despite that, they still sort of remained friends, something that boggled the minds of every other character in the story and television show.

On the book’s last page, one character asks Raylan why that is. He answers with the final words of the story: “I thought I explained it to you. Boyd and I dug coal together.”

Chatting with these nameless, faceless strangers Saturday morning reminded me of that line. I may not know them, but we really did know each other’s experiences. If you lived in Southwest Virginia in the 70s and 80s, there was a richness to the relationships you had with other people because – and I’m not saying this as a negative – there was nothing to do in Southwest Virginia in the 70s and 80s.

Back then, you did not entertain yourself with social media, things on the internet, texting on your cell phone, or watching Netflix, since they didn’t exist. Your entertainment was other people. You talked to folks you met face to face, went to ball games with them, played golf with them, ate meals with them, and became friends with them.

You dug coal together.

It’s because of that, the first guy I met when I moved into the Pritchard dormitory in 1974 – a total stranger from Richmond named Doug – is my closest friend 47 years later. There are probably a dozen people from that time frame that I stay in touch with regularly, and I view them as part of my family.

There were apparently another dozen or two who share many of those same memories as I do on the Techsideline board Saturday, and if they lived nearby, we’d probably be good friends too. One poster, in fact, moved from Blacksburg to Ashburn a year ago, and to welcome her to the neighborhood, I went over to her house, helped fix up a few things and we had lunch together. Within 5 minutes, we became immediate friends because of the similarity of those life experiences.

We, too, had apparently dug coal together.

She also makes wonderful chocolate chip macadamia cookies that are apparently legendary Virginia Tech announcer Bill Roth’s kryptonite. But they have nothing to do with the instant friendship.

I contrast this with several young people I know, including my own daughter. They don’t seem to have this support system, at least not up here in Northern Virginia. People come in and out of their lives every year, and few stay. I’ve asked a couple of young people of all the friends they have, how many are people they still keep in touch with they’ve known over half their lives.

The answer is very few, and I’m not being one of those old geezers bashing millennials. It’s a genuine concern to me that younger people don’t have the support system in place of people who knew them when they were kids and can offer comfort based on years of warm memories. I’ve got a boatload of them, and several really close friends I can talk to about anything.

Most young people don’t.

So I found myself this morning feeling blessed after spending a couple of hours talking to people I’ve never met, whose names I will never know, living in places I have no idea of where. But we share the bond of a love of sports, living in small towns in Southwest Virginia, being involved with Virginia Tech, and having mutual friends we met along the way.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, but every day I seem to appreciate more and more those days back in the 70s and the people I met who have impacted me the rest of my life. Saturday morning was just one more reminder of that, as I realize that up here in busy Northern Virginia, people tend to just come and go into your life.

But In Southwest Virginia back in the 70s, that wasn’t the case. They stayed.

Which I’m pretty thankful for. 


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