I grew up in Charleston, not far from the coalfields, but the mines could have been on another continent for all I saw or heard of them.
As a college student at Virginia Tech, I wound up in a writing class with a student from one of West Virginia's southern counties.
I still recall the hush that fell over the class as the professor read aloud that student's essay about her father's job.
He was a roof bolter in a coal mine. She had written what she knew, a gripping, detailed account of the danger her dad faced every day.
This week I was able to see for myself what a roof bolter does. I watched the first episode of "Coal," the documentary series on the SpikeTV channel.
The series focuses on a small mine in McDowell County, and its roof bolters express no uncertainty about the risks. Their daily mission is to protect the lives of their fellow miners.
After a section of earth has been reamed out by the grinding continuous mining machine, the roof bolters step in. They drill into the newly exposed rock ceiling and insert long vertical bolts that will hold it in place as the crew continues to move back and forth beneath.
The filmmakers captured the deadly hazard of an unsecured roof. The camera is there as a chunk of slate falls from a section of the mine that had not yet been bolted. It wasn't a big collapse, perhaps only half a ton of hard, solid rock.
However, it was more than enough to have killed someone, and a miner had been in that spot only seconds earlier.
There are other real-life heroes in the show. This week's star was Andy Christian Sr., the day shift operator of the continuous mining machine.
The development of that piece of equipment dramatically changed the industry in terms of productivity, but running it is no piece of cake. Andy is revered by his fellow miners and the company owners.
He uses every sense to guide the machine as it crunches into the undulating coal seam. He can hear the instant it meets rock rather than coal, and he has the split-second hand-eye coordination necessary to slow down, stop or move the blades at just the right moment.
This is vital to protecting both men and expensive equipment.
As the gaunt, grimy Andy prepares to leave work after a hard day, mine owner Tom Roberts expresses a desire to clone him. Operators of his caliber are hard to come by.
One day during the shooting Andy was ill and couldn't come to work. The show conveys the pressure felt by Andy's protege, his own son, to operate the continuous miner competently.