Andy White reflects on his coal mining days with Dan Whittle at Azalea Court. Photo courtesy of Dan Whittle
What if Loretta Lynn had written about a coal miner’s son instead of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – a song she penned and performed in 1970 that helped launch her to international stardom as a country music singer?
It could have happened if she had known Smyrna resident Aaron Andrew “Andy” White, who before moving to Tennessee, worked in the dangerous coal mines of Virginia.
White, 65, recalls seeing death up close resulting from coal mining accidents during his five years of working up to 1,525-feet down in the darkest depths of mine shafts.
“I witnessed the operator on what we called an amuck truck used in transporting coal in and out of the shafts of the mines,” Andy recalled. “It was dangerous work anywhere you worked in a mine.
“The amuck trucks looked like backward transport wagons, with the seat and steering wheel facing the rear,” Andy detailed. “To work properly, the amuck truck had to be driven fast in order to trip the bin loaded with coal when it slammed into the box car or whatever was being used to haul coal away from the mine. And in reverse, the vehicle had to be driven fast to trip the bin back down when re-entering the mining shaft.
“Well, this day, the driver drove too close to the river’s edge, and the truck rolled over on him, killing him down there in the water,” Andy recalled.
And Andy recalls one fatal accident he described caused by “being stupid.”
“I was on duty in another part of a mine shaft, when two workers burned to death,” Andy recalled. “The workers had slipped cigarettes past the designated mine ‘fire boss” who had safety jurisdiction over all mining activities. But sometimes, the ‘fire bosses’ would miss cigarettes that could be hidden in clothing, socks or shoes. When these two lit up their cigarettes, it was too late. The resulting explosion, from gas down in the mining shaft, killed them instantly.”
Like father, like son?
“Yes, I followed my father (the late Thomas Edward White) down into the mines,” Andy confirmed.
And he followed his father’s footsteps out of the coal mines that operated in and near Bishop, Va.
“To get out of the mines, Dad became a policeman there at Bishop,” Andy shared. “And after I got worried about contracting black lung disease that’s killed thousands of miners down through the centuries, I too became a policeman at Bishop. I left the coal mines at around age 25.”
He recalls the constant dangers of coal mining.
“I never worked in the same section of a coal mine shaft with my father, but we faced the same dangers every shift we worked,” Andy added. “I was a ‘pin topper,’ which meant I was in charge of a six-foot long drill bit used to place the explosives up into the small shaft.”
Andy became an ordained Pentecostal preacher after his mining experience.
“You routinely pray for your safety … praying comes naturally for a coal miner, at least the ones I knew,” the Rev. White shared searchingly back to his youthful days. “I don’t recall any non-believers in a mine.”
There was more than one source of danger, however.
“Before getting to the point of triggering the explosive, a 50-ton chunk of sandstone can come crashing down on you at any time,” Andy confirmed. “That’s one way to die instantly.
“But, we constantly shined our head light beams from our caps, shining upward in that small drilled hole where the explosive was to go, and when we saw dust forming, we knew to run for our lives … As I said, you pray a lot down in a mine!
“If the heavy sand stone slab didn’t fall on you, the gas could kill you too,” Andy described.
He recalls the importance of mine safety inspectors.
“When we saw the dust forming, we moved out, pronto,” Andy detailed. “The importance of fire bosses (mine safety inspector) was crucial to everyone’s survival. The fire bosses had the responsibility of making 10- to 12-rounds per day or night shift. And we stayed outside the mine shaft, until given the ‘all clear’ from the fire bosses, after all the mine dust from the sandstone had cleared out.”
After five years of coal mining dangers, Andy followed his father into law enforcement.
“I knew a man could get killed from lead poisoning (bullets) as a police officer, but I felt being a policeman in a small town like Bishop was safer than going down nearly 2,000 feet in a mine shaft,” Andy noted. “Thankfully, I never got hurt as a police officer.”
Like father, like daughter?
“My daughter (Andrea White) is director of dispatchers at the La Vergne Police Department,” Andy noted.
His father died of a heart attack as a police officer. The family doesn’t know if coal mining dust contributed to his fatal heart attack.
“Dad’s heart burst,” Andy recalled. “I was age 11 when Dad died. He was a good man … always worked hard to provide for his family, and worked to serve as a police officer to protect his fellow citizens. We’ll never know if the years in the coal mine shortened his life.”
Born one of four children, Andy recalls how his “brave Mother” stepped up to take care of her three sons and daughter.
“Mom was named Lila Mae, a real good cook and parent,” Andy shared. “When Dad died, to shoulder the financial load of providing for four children, Mother attended nursing school and served as a nurse until we were grown.”
It was a brother, John Ray White (now deceased), whom Andy followed to Middle Tennessee.
“Before coming to Tennessee and after serving as a police officer, I worked a few years for Ford and Chevrolet in making cars,” Andy recalled. “After moving to Smyrna, I worked 18 years as a mechanic at the old Cumberland-Swann plant. When a conveyer belt or motor would go down, it was my job to fix the problem.”
But, a series of health problems ended his employment years, thus triggering his need to move into the Smyrna-based Azalea Court assisting living facility.
“I’d rather be working today, but I had a series of mini strokes,” Andy diagnosed. “Some of the mini strokes would cause me to black out, so doctors wanted me away from the machinery. That ultimately caused me to leave my job.
“I’ve also had two hip replacements, and I have palsy that causes my hands to tremble, more some days than others,” Andy added.
He’s described as a popular resident of Azalea Court.
“Andy is probably the most sociable resident we have here,” noted Azalea Court Administrator Loretta Bennett Jones. “We would like to invite teen youth groups to come and visit our residents.”
(Writer’s Note: As an amateur photographer, I’m blessed to occasionally being asked to show my wildlife pictures at nursing homes and medical care centers. It was while recently showing my pictures at Azalea Court that I ran into this very interesting man who survived working in the dangerous depths of a coal mine back in the mountains of Virginia.)