Underground

By Axel Eichenberg, February 2022

The four-hammer signal sounds for the descent to level 8 at a depth of 826 metres. Three times twelve miners descend at a rate of nine metres per second.

Axel Eichenberg

On the stairs to the second floor of the pithead the blood pulsates, throbs under the tongue, takes on the rhythm of the hammer chimes at the pit cage. Groundless? Over there, the sorting conveyor, but without Heiner? Heiner is always the first to stand at the conveyor belt, groaning as he separates fist-sized mountains from the coal. Heiner, 40 years old, presents the image of a battered asthmatic octogenarian. Where’s Heiner? “Silicosis”, I hear Jupp say, “not asthma.” I just don’t see it – Jupp makes a cross with his eyes. Silence follows, no questions. Then we arrive down below.

For months the repetitive ritual in silence. Here, too, silence as the toolkit is carefully checked and even deeper silence at the examination, tapping of the rock. We are to secure a mountain fault in the head section (the upper end of a longwall) and consolidate it for further use without danger. (The layer of rock probably cracked when the mountains folded).

A gap one metre wide and three metres high opened up when the track was built.

Jupp puts up a ladder and climbs into the gap, pauses for a moment, comes back, sits down and says: “Butter”. That was new to me. Jupp unwraps a butty, two bites are enough for him right then, stows the bread, stands up, looks into the mountain, scans it with his eyes and says to the mountain “Good luck” and to me: “Three palisades, one prop, as you know, so good luck.” Then he climbs into the gap. I have to wait for his instructions. They are short:

“Give me the hatchet.” – “Palisade, no, the other.” – “Palisade, three foot, two fingers.” – “Prop, three foot, four fingers.” The sizes have to be exact to the millimetre and the they are exact after months of practice and working with each other.

Jupp moves hand over hand in the mountain with his left foot on the rung of the ladder and me at the bottom, standing on damp ground, treading the centre of the earth with every step. Firmly supported.

On my back, the shoulder blades, I sense the mountain, the mountain range, the stone. It speaks, the mountains speak, speak in me and I scream, scream it out, scream: “Jupp – the mountain, the stone is breaking.” Jupp is startled, jumps down from a height of about two and a half metres, picks himself up, stands opposite me, wants to say something, can’t get a sound out. One minute, two minutes, endless time. We look each other in the eye, wait, remain silent. At last, the mountain creaks into the soundlessness, into the silence. And again there is silence. I hear three deep, liberated breaths from my mate and suddenly the mountain roars, it roars as it crashes, dislodging a coffin lid (large slab of rock) from the hanging wall (overlying rock layer). The dust cloud blocks the view for minutes. We close the section to all traffic and end the shift early.

We don’t take the railway to the shaft for our ascent but drive the one and a half kilometres on foot. Yes, a miner doesn’t walk underground, he drives.

After two minutes we arrive: above ground.

Who saved us? Did the mountain spirit speak? The guardian angel have our back?

The mountain has released us into the light of day, the sun and also into the light of the night sky.

Jupp invited me to his house the next day. And in his family I was privileged to get to know a completely different Jupp. This silent man in the mountain is a bundle of laughs by day.

About the author: Axel Eichenberg, former miner und chief executive of a Waldorf educational establishment, is an actor.

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