The Men of the Deeps

They’re all coal miners – active or retired – on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. They sing of their lives. Dressed in overalls, they walk onstage in the dark, their way lit only by the lamps of their helmets.

I’ve never known this life of heat, claustrophobia and exhaustion. Teaching exercises the mind, not the biceps. And the classroom isn’t a health hazard. Conditions in the mine, however, often led to “black lung”:

I have it very bad. My dad died of it actually and I can barely walk up the stairs or anything because it really stops me from any physical activity at all.

The Men of the Deeps sing many songs of the miner’s life. My favourite is Working Man:

It’s a working man l am
And I’ve been down under ground
And I swear to God if l ever see the sun
Or for any length of time
I can hold it in my mind
I never again will go down under ground

In the dark recess of the mines
Where you age before your time
And the coal dust lies heavy on your lungs

The choir’s director captures the impact that these men have:

When you look out from the stage and see grown men crying, you realize that our story in this small corner of the world is not only our story – you could take this story to England, to West Virginia, to Saskatchewan. There are coal mines all over the world and that makes our story relatable.

I pray that audiences continue to relate to these working men, and to anyone who suffers in body and mind to feed their family.


As I was driving north towards London this afternoon, I noticed a black mushroom cloud rising above the trees to the northwest, trailed by a yellowish mass of something against the blue sky.

Mushroom cloud?  I didn’t think of Armageddon, but rather I imagined a horrible traffic accident on the 401, our local freeway.  “Oh my God, please let there be no lives lost.”  As I passed over the 401 fifteen minutes later, the scenario I’d created faded from view.  But the black cloud was huge.  It looked like smoke.

I decided to turn west and investigate.  “What was that about?” I asked of my decision.  Needing to be up close and personal with death and destruction?  No, of course not.  I just wanted to experience the intensity.  Soon I rounded a curve and saw a farmstead about a kilometre away in the middle of a field, with one building fully ablaze.  I pulled Hugo onto the shoulder, opened my window, and looked.

The flames licked well above the roof.  The rolls of black smoke climbed so fast and so high before floating off to the south.  And there was silence.  I was protected from the immediacy of the fire.  Still, I prayed: “Please God, may there be no one in that building!  And may that building be a barn, not the family’s home.”

My eyes were transfixed by the blackness.  Sure, I’d watched such scenes on TV, but this was different.  There was such power rising from the flames.  I was reminded of photos I’d seen of an ash cloud after Mount St. Helens blew its top.  Stunning in a book.  Overwhelming  right now in person.

I saw a road that would get me nearer the farm, and I set off to get close.  This time I was maybe 500 metres away.  When I opened my window, I heard the fire.  I heard things popping.  I saw long streams of water arcing towards the blaze.  And the black smoke roiled and boiled right in front of me.  With the sounds, I pretended it was a nice controlled campfire … “Oh, Bruce.  Wake up.  This is immense.  Lives could be lost.”

I saw ambulances with their lights flashing, but they seemed to be waiting, rather than caring for burn victims.  Maybe everybody was okay.  I sure hope so.  Guess I’ll find out in the paper tomorrow.

Do I need such striking moments to really see what’s important in life?  No, I don’t think that’s true.  I vow to keep my eyes wide open, so that I may experience the defeats and triumphs, large and small, that come upon us all.