I started working in the iron ore mines of Northeast Minnesota back in the early seventies, at about the same time wives and mothers and sisters were trading in their aprons for hard-hats and safety glasses, and showing up in all walks of the male-dominated mining industry. They were soon to become a familiar sight in the pit, but it didn’t happen overnight and there were a few bumps along the way.
You see, mining had traditionally been “men’s work” for generations, and many of the old-timers thought it should remain so. After all, mining was hard, dirty, and notoriously dangerous. OSHA had only recently been founded, and changes for the sake of safety were slow in coming. In fact, a certain number of mining fatalities was not only tolerated, but expected, and there were duly compensated widows all across the range. Hell, in the annals of mining lore, a death in the family in the service of the company might be looked at as down-right respectable. And we miners aimed to be respectable.
Sometimes the stories about these “bumps in the road” were sad, and sometimes they were amusing. This is one of the latter, and it all started that beautiful Minnesota summer morning when a gal named Barb Thorson showed up as the new Car Rider.
Now, I know Car Rider sounds all glamorous, and one might assume it had something to do with a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive in the country, but it was, in fact, one of the dirtiest jobs in mining. Especially in red ore mines. When you worked in a natural iron ore mine, everything you came in contact with soon took on a rusty hue, from your car seats to your beard. And what did car riders make, putting their lives on the line daily? The lowest base earnings paid by the mines. So it was.
It took three car riders and a car loader to handle the job of loading railroad cars: two top riders to bring down empties in groups of five, and pitch hay in the cars that were to be loaded with fine ore, as it had the consistency (and color) of spaghetti sauce, and a “leaker” could temporarily shut down the whole process. So my partner Breeze (the other top rider) and I tried to keep ahead of the game. We had to work hard sometimes, hauling air hoses all over and pitching hay, but we never actually rode any cars, and if we were very careful, we could usually keep the soupy ore from spilling over the tops of our tall rubber boots.
The bottom rider was not so fortunate, and only he (or she) alone could claim the title of Most Dangerous Job. The bottom rider’s job was to actually mount the five loaded cars under the pocket, and ride them down the steep grade until they smashed into and knuckled up with the string of loaded cars at the bottom. On the trip down, the rider was supposed to tighten the ancient, rusted hand-brake on the top of a car to lessen the impact, but everyone knew the old brakes were useless, and often the rider had to just dismount and let ’em go. The greenhorn always got bottom rider.
Like I said, we miners aimed to be a respectable lot, so we always gave the newbies important advice: first of all, try to find a position in the string that has two brakes together, as they may or may not work. If they both fail, jump down, gallop alongside the 400 ton free-wheeling metal monster until you can climb up on another car. Also, jump off right before they impact, because if you don’t, a torrent of spaghetti sauce will crash into your face and drench you right down to your spaghetti core. Only we didn’t tell them about that last part the first time they went down; we considered it an initiation. I did say we aimed to be respectable.
So when the young, fragile waif of a gal Barb Thorson reported as bottom car rider that day, I was afraid that the ore bath might be a little too much. Macho guys were our usual target. I went up to the pocket to have a word with our nasty but efficient car loader, Ol’ Kotsy. As I entered, he was just putting on his pink bunny slippers for the shift. Yes, pink bunny slippers. You see, Kotsy was a pink bunny slipper-wearing asshole. He had put in his time playing in the mud, and now that he had a “dry” job up in the loading pocket, he really enjoyed rubbing it in our faces by wearing his wife’s old slippers instead of the steel-toed rubber boots issued by the company. Someone got their revenge one day by spray-painting Kotsy’s helmet pink to match the slippers, but Ol’ Kotsy couldn’t have cared less. He liked it pink just because it was against the rules. He never wore his safety glasses either, something he’d never get away with in any other part of mining.
“Hey Kots,” I said, trying to appeal to his better nature, “that new girl sure looks too small for her helmet. Maybe you should load this first one light, give her a break, y’know, so you don’t drown her.” I had forgotten that Kotsy had no better nature.
“She should be at home making sandwiches if she can’t handle the job! Damn women, taking our jobs!” Did I mention that he was also the ideal caricature of the male chauvinist pig so prevalent in the era? Even Breeze was getting pissed at such talk, and Breeze was a hard guy to piss off.
I watched him as he started loading the first string of cars. The first car was filled to the usual limit; yet he held the chute open as I looked on helplessly. All I saw was an idiot with serious issues, and I secretly wondered if there was an uncle or neighbor somewhere to blame.
In his eagerness, he loaded the car so full, the ore flooded over and onto the tracks. “Shit! We’re stuck, Zoner. Get down there and show the princess how to use the tugger.” I had to come up with something quick before disaster struck, and it looked like this was my opportunity. We hooked up the tugger, and got the cars rolling again. Ol’ Kotsy resumed loading like a fiend. He was going to personally see to it that women knew their place, and that place was not in the mines.
Suddenly, someone yelled, “White hats!” to which Kotsy added, “Oh shit.” White hats usually meant the company’s stockholders were coming through, sniffing around just because they could. Breeze started ditching his weed, and Kotsy leaned back into the shadows, but it turned out that day the visitors were a couple of reporters from the local newspaper. They were looking for a photo-op; they wanted a picture of a woman doing the dirtiest, most dangerous job we had for an article in their “Women in Mining” column.
As the woman reporter and her cameraman slid around awkwardly in the mud, so out of place with hard-hats, plastic safety glasses, and tall rubber boots, Kotsy smiled to himself. Like a wolf circling its prey, he began loading with a renewed vigor.
The reporter called up to him, “Is this a good place for a picture of Barb working?”
He purposely waited a minute or two before answering. “Well, you’d probably get the best picture down at the bottom when she hooks her cars onto the string.” I told you he was an asshole. Then he stuck his pink helmeted head out the window, and added, “And while you’re down there, why don’t you tell her to go home where she belongs! Women! The only place in the mine a woman should be is in the kitchen making over-time lunches for us men! You can put that in your fool paper!”
The reporter’s eyes glared at him through over-sized safety lenses; she’d met his kind before. She talked to the cameraman, and they gathered their equipment and headed down the tracks.
Finally, the last car was (over)loaded, and Barb went to work, first bleeding off the air from the cars, and then, when they began to roll, climbing up on one to the hand-brake on top. The reporter could see her now, head and shoulders above the cars, and she signaled her cameraman to get ready.
Sure enough, that brake wouldn’t budge, and she had to jump to another car. She reefed frantically on that brake too, but it proved useless as well, and soon the merry train was hurtling at break-neck speed toward the others, and Barb had all she could do to hold on. They slammed into the loaded string so hard, that a huge red wave of iron ore erupted violently from each car, completely washing over everything. When it was over, there was no sign of Barb.
I started running toward her yelling, “Barb! Are you alright?” No answer.
Suddenly Ol’ Kotsy started panicking, thinking he might have killed her. He came flying down the steps, and started sprinting toward us right through the knee-deep red mud in his pink helmet and bunny slippers. It was a sight to behold. “Barb, are you hurt?” he gasped, choking and coughing.
What he found when he made his way around the car, was Barb and I having a good laugh at his expense; I had warned her when we used the tugger to duck under the lip of the car at the last second to avoid the deluge, hang on tight, and remain silent. He got so mad, his face turned iron ore red, and he kicked at the mud. This made him lose his footing and down he went, face first in the slop. We couldn’t stop laughing to see him there, covered from head to toe in mud with a pink helmet and, of course, his pink bunny slippers!
Barb was starting to feel kind of bad about it, her first day and all, so she walked over and offered Kotsy a hand getting up. With all the commotion, nobody heard the click of the camera.
Yea, Ol’ Kotsy was sure surprised that day when Barb Thorson came to work. But not nearly as surprised as his wife was when she flipped open the paper the next day, and there, under the “Women in Mining” column, was a picture of her husband being helped to his feet by a female co-worker while wearing a pink helmet and HER pink bunny slippers. The caption read: A Woman’s Place in Mining.