My father, the Scoutmaster, has a friend who is a coal miner, someone, he says, who will teach all of us Scouts to straighten up and fly right with an hour underground.
First thing, the miner says, no bunching up, no wandering off, your helmet lamps stay on. We follow in a stooped, single file of swaying light, poking each other like we’ve been in a place like this before. Like no way are we scared. Like we are classroom clowning during our monthly fire drills.
But when Joey Rask flicks his light off, then on, then off, saying SOS to laughter, I am embarrassed for my father’s “shhh,” how he holds his position at line’s end like some elderly substitute teacher afraid to challenge boys. Twice more, that “shhh,” while his friend steers us through a corridor, then another, stops and says, “All lights out,” orders we welcome, our hands turning into spiders upon necks and faces, hysterical until that miner says our neighborhood river runs so close we can hear it through the wall.
We listen. We hold our breath and feel for that wall behind us while the darkness settles into something like a prison. That guide says an upstream mine flooded once, the river breaking through a wall like this, drowning twenty-eight miners like a sack of puppies because someone who worked aboveground had decided a wall just like the one we are next to was thick enough.
No lights, he says, absolutely none, his voice steady as a newscaster’s. Remember, he says, how much the river has risen with all the recent rain. Now, he nearly whispers, listen with your hands. Which we do, one, then two, then three boys crying as if they can hear the heavy bass beat of the water’s music like the deaf. From what seems far away, the miner says, “Your future, boys, is made by strangers.”
Later, inside our car, my father holds me hostage with his silence, and I do nothing but notice the sky empty rain as we follow the swollen river home. When we turn, when we leave that river behind, the mine on the other side like an encamped army, he says, “Angry enough, a man can become a god.” As if disobeying deserves terror. As if all along he had planned to have his friend become outraged and assault thirteen boys with tragedy until he taught the simple alphabet of light and dark, all of us confessing helplessness in order to resurface into the natural world, into air.