Bill, Benny, and The Shooting Man
Your comments about this column are welcome ~ e-mail Frank at
The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
A place for intelligent writers
A place for intelligent readers
 by Frank Shortt
2015 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
        During the 1950’s and 1960’s there were many independent truck mines throughout the Southeast. If a man knew mining as well as good business practices, he could earn a decent living working the coal seams known as Red Ash, Widow Kennedy, Jawbone, and Big Banner. Mountaintops produced the Big Banner seam. Below that was the Widow Kennedy seam. Next was the Red Ash seam which was the largest producer of coal at that time. Below that was the Jawbone seam which was a lesser grade of coal. Larger coal corporations favored the seams of coal deep beneath the earth which required the process of ‘shaft’ mining. A small mine owner used every means to get his product to market and this required using family members who were strong enough to do a decent days work.
        Bill and Benny grew up in Buchanan County Virginia known as the southwestern region. Black gold, better known as coal, was plentiful, and still is, sometimes protruding out of the ground at grotesque angles. Ancient upheavals in the earth produced these sculptures as the earth was forming itself into what we see today.
        Cleve, father to Bill and Benny, was a mine owner. He had owned several mines around the county and, for some reason he always wanted Edd Shortt, known as the ‘shooting man’ to be in charge of the men as well as planting the dynamite to pull the pillars of coal. Cleve knew Edd to be a very honest man, always as good as his word. Edd always gave him an honest day’s work and was able to produce the coal needed to fill the large tipple. Edd also made sure that the other workers did their jobs and that these men were always treated fairly.
        When summer came, and Bill and Benny were not in school, Cleve allowed them to work around the outside of the mine. Their job was to keep coal droppings cleaned up, make sure the men had fresh water when they came out of the dark mine, and also kept the slate pushed over into the adjoining hollow. Slate is the rock encasing the coal on the top and bottom of the mine. They also had to answer to Edd as well as did all the other men. Cleve was not always around to make sure things ran smoothly, as he had other things to do, so the lot of making sure the boys did not hurt themselves or sleep too much on the job, fell to Edd.
        Edd had a way of working with men that most mine bosses did not possess. He had no formal education, as such, but had learned mining from the ‘ground up’. He taught by example. He would not ask any man to do a job that he was not willing to do himself. Bill and Benny benefitted from Edd’s example, both spiritually and physically. Edd was the father of ten children and had learned a thing or two about raising boys. He kept Bill and Benny very busy while working with him.
        Before coal can be pulled with dynamite, there is a process involved. First, holes are bored deep into the pillars at angles with a drill and large augers. This was before the days of modern machinery for pulling the pillars. Secondly, sticks of dynamite were tamped into the holes with the fuses continuing to play out to the face of the coal. Dummy bags, filled with plain dirt, were then tamped into the holes to prevent the dynamite from backfiring to the face thereby wasting the charge. Preparation, done properly, produced a clean pulling of the coal with the least amount of damage to the overhead capping of slate rock. Edd kept Bill and Benny busy most of the hot, sultry Virginia afternoons filling the dummy bags with dirt from the surrounding hillsides, as well as their other duties.
         What coal loaders hate most is to enter into the face of a mine and have to move slate all morning before the coal can be loaded into the one-ton mining cars. It is difficult enough to have to lie down to load coal in one of these ‘drift mines’! When slate falls with the coal, which sometimes happens because the strata was loose to begin with, then the mine owner as well as the loaders lose time and money. Edd had a reputation, among the miners of Buchanan County, for producing the most coal with the least amount of slate, thus the title ‘shooting man’.
         Bill and Benny worked these mine jobs from early teenage years all the way through high school and even after entering college they would sometimes return to help out at the mine during summer breaks. These two boys were very involved in sports in high school as well as college. Benny would have become a very fine professional quarterback had he not hurt his knee playing for the New England Patriots.
        Their father, Cleve, earned a good living as a mine owner as well as running a small country store. He taught Bill and Benny the ethics of working hard at whatever one chooses to do. Their mother, Cutie, was also instrumental in teaching them, as she helped to run the business, staying involved in their sporting events, and remaining a wonderful mother all her life.
        These two boys went on to become perfect examples of Americans who through hard work and perseverance are able to pursue the American Dream. Both are retired now from being public servants and I am sure that each would like to remember the man who was a wonderful example of how to handle men, how to shoot coal, and how to stick with a job until it was finished. We could all benefit from that kind of teaching.