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Kentucky by Heart: Thurman Miller’s remarkable story is a compelling look at life in the coal mines

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

Now deceased, Thurman Miller collaborated in 2015 on a powerful book with his son, David, of Lexington. Thurman was in his nineties during the collaboration, and the authentic and compelling nature of the book is due largely due to his amazing memory of details of his younger days. The following is a look at his remarkable story I shared through writing the book’s foreward.

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Thurman Miller with his son, David, on his 97th birthday in 2016. (Photo provided)

Returning home after his exemplary but draining service to his country as a US Marine during World War II, Thurman Miller might justifiably have eased up a bit in the way he tackled life. He survived bombs, bullets, disease, dying buddies, and the constant, demoralizing stress of being smack dab in the middle of the most pivotal battles of America’s war effort. Even after his service ended and he returned to his native West Virginia, he suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder and the lingering effects of jungle-contacted malaria.

Enough is enough, Thurman might have rationalized. Let someone take care of me for a change. But that’s not the way of the benevolent warrior, and he decided that with little thought. There were aging parents to care for and a young family to be raised and nourished. He needed a job to make it happen; mining coal wouldn’t be a first choice, but, alas, it was essentially the only choice. Growing up around this way of life, he knew of the long, dogged man-hours, the poison and discomfort of coal dust, the knowledge that too many people who work underground will never come alive to the surface again.

For Thurman, it was all about duty and integrity. He had another job to do. This time it was as a miner, but it was still war.

In Miner: A Life Underground, Thurman Miller walks us, or should I say, crawls us, through the daily grind of almost forty years of relentlessly chasing after the hard black life source. It’s the mineral created by centuries in nature’s underground pressure cooker. It’s the mineral that keeps the lights on but can drain a person’s body and psyche until they’re running on fumes. Thurman seeks no pity yet helps us feel the unforgiving aches from both stooped and on-the-back labor; getting a few days off is only a small balm for such weariness. Pain will soon return, and probably never leave.

Machinery breaks down, and more often than not, Thurman is the man who figures out how to do the fix—then does it, as a mechanic/electrician. He is amazingly creative, resourceful. He has a strong mind, a strong back, and his hands understand how to tame the magic of electricity. There is a job to do; he is on it, and in meticulous detail he describes the nuts and bolts of machinery and tools that capture the coal, and how miners use them. He has a memory like an elephant…and the tough skin, as well.

The sadness of the human toll didn’t stop when his military service ended. Tragic deaths in mine-related accidents are all too common in Thurman’s second war. And this time he sees the pain in the eyes of his colleagues’ families, their close friends, and, of course, deals with his own sense of loss as he bravely trudges forward, often by inches.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

But Thurman is a coal miner. That is what he does.

His years in the mines lasted from 1945 to 1980. He mustered all the internal forces he could gather to finish the war he commenced fighting in 1939, and perhaps before then while in growing up amongst the hills and scraping out a humble existence—and knowing the mining culture even at a young age.

Fatigue? Fear? Aggravation? Emotional setbacks? Of course, he had them, but the trick is in how, with ironclad will and a sense of purpose, Thurman kept going. We’re all the better for this, his story, which might inspire us to higher acts of character…or, simply make us walk away in profound awe, believing, only, that he is a better man than we would ever hope to be. I’m certain he would prefer the former.

Time seemed to have dimmed neither Thurman’s memory nor his spirit. But there is a story behind Thurman’s story that deserves to be mentioned. For the last quarter-century his son David, of Lexington, has been his editor, proofreader, research assistant, and whatever else needed doing to make Thurman’s five books a reality. David has enjoyed a front-row seat for the retelling of the vivid life experiences of a remarkable father, putting Thurman’s compelling stories on paper and now into cyberspace. I suspect that David understands that he is part and parcel to his own, special version of an elite one percent; such a deep and still growing bond is simply very rare.

The challenge facing a son to live up to the standards of such a father is really no different from the challenge such a story presents to each of us: Given the hand that we each are dealt, how might we replicate such dedication, loyalty, creativity and sense of purpose in our own lives? David and Thurman’s partnership has made available to us a riveting account of how one soul, battered but unbowed, found a way forward from darkness into light.

Now, let that message take wings in us, the readers.

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