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Fifty Years of My Life (1939 - 1990)
A Memoir by Jeff R. Noordermeer

Working in the Dutch coal mines

In 1951 I started working full-time in the underground coal mines. The mining company had given us three years of an easy job with good pay, and they wanted something in return. There were about 50 of us who were 18 years old and leaving training school. After a ceremonial day with all kinds of pictures taken, we were ready to start making that big money underground. My working hours were from 6 o'clock in the morning until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. A day's work would start by leaving at 5 o'clock in the morning on the bicycle. Once I got to the coal mines there was a parking place inside the building for all those bikes. Inside the building was even a bicycle repair shop. In case you needed some repair done on your bike you could leave it and after you had finished work, it was always fixed to pedal home again.

Dutch Coal Mines
Coal mining is dirty, tiring, and dangerous

Every worker in the coal mine had a number. Mine was No. 1065. Whatever you needed, information about your pay, or any kind of tools you needed at work, you always had to call your number first. When you got to the office you called your number, and the time card clerk would punch your time card. Then you had to report to the manager who was in charge of an underground coal strip. There were so many of them and in different sizes, from two feet to six feet high. Each coal strip was numbered. We worked a half a day on Saturday. At the end of every week there would be a list on the bulletin board with your name and the coal strip number, so you knew for the following week which manager to report to. After you had reported to the coal strip manager, and he had explained what your work duties would be, you went to the dressing room. It was a large open room with benches and no lockers, but many shower-rooms. The mining company provided special work-clothes and it was paid for by small deductions from our pay-check. All of our dirty clothes were taken home at the end of the week to be washed. After you had changed into your work-clothes, you hung your street clothes on a chain which you could pull far up to the railing. You locked it, and there was no way of stealing. It was just too high to reach for anything. Also it was very sanitary for rodent control. Then we were ready to go underground. Before that we had to pick up a lamp.

My first year in the coal mine, I always had to carry a heavy gas lamp. They were very clumsy to work with. As I progressed in my mining work I was later on given an electric headlight. Those electric headlights were much lighter, and much easier to work with. Then we had to walk to the elevator. There was always a long line of men waiting. The elevator took us 1500 feet underground. As the morning shift was going down, the night shift was coming up. Once we were underground, there were, all kinds of tunnels going in all kinds of, directions. Most of those large tunnels had rails with electric or small diesel trains, which pulled small coal wagons to the elevator. They would push four filled coal wagons to the elevator, sent them to the surface. There they were emptied, cleaned, and sent down again to be refilled. Before we would reach those coal strips, we had to walk for at least a half hour through those tunnels. Walking through those tunnels where the trains were riding was easy, but the closer you came to the coal strips the lower and smaller the walking space was. There were many days that you had to crawl on your knees to get to the coal strip. The further you went into the mines, the thinner the air became. On the surface there were two large turbofans. In one shaft the fresh air was blown in, and in the other shaft the dirty air was sucked to the surface. Most of the coal strips were far away from the elevator, so the air was always thin. With a lot of coal dust around and less air to breathe, it was always very hot around a coal strip. I always carried a gallon of cold tea or coffee along, but once you started working in the coal strip, you perspired so much that a gallon of drink didn't last long.

When we first started to work underground on the coal strips, for some time we had instructors working alongside to teach us the tricks of the trade. All of the coal work was paid by group piece work, and the amount of coal that was taken out by the morning and afternoon shift. Since we were young and just starting, we were getting only 80% of the full amount of the wages. To get paid a 100% wage, you needed to have several years of working experience on a coal strip, and then work for a half year under supervision of government inspectors to qualify. Then you had to take a strict exam to be a certified miner. For six years I worked on coal strips. In the year 1951 to 1952 I was getting paid 80% of the full amount of our work wages. Then a year later I was getting paid 85%. The following year 90%, and then a year later 95%. In 1957 I took my government miners exam, and passed with a B average. Finally, I was a certified miner and getting paid what I deserved - the full paid wage, 100%. Those six years had taken a lot of cruel hard work out of my body. But I never dared to complain to my parents about my work, how tough and uneasy the job was, we always did what we were told to do. All of my young life I had shores of work to do, and we were very disciplined. All those years I was home and worked in the coal mines, I never kept one pay-check for myself. When I was paid, I gave the money to my mother, and whatever she could afford, I was getting for my pocket money. I did go into the coal mines to help my family financially. All those years I worked in the coal mines, I made good money and it helped my family a great deal. After the war we needed so many new things around the house, and financially things started to look much brighter. I had always told my family they could not depend on me forever, as the day would come that I had to leave them, so I could make some decisions about my own future. But I didn't know exactly what day or year this would be.

CONTINUED: Digging coal and drinking beer
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© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora

- Foreword
- Old Rotterdam
- World War II
- After the War
- Coming to America
- Washington, D.C.
- Southeast Asia
- Philosophy of Life

- Book Index