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and another thing . . . Mining it for all it's worth

Sunday, August 04, 2002

A week after Miracle at Quecreek, we're already rolling toward its unreality. Every major news event has two phases: its reality, and, once it's forced down the row of funhouse mirrors we call media culture, its unreality.

This time, the transition will be, with nine coal miners aboard, torturous. It will be hard to watch, and for one awfully good reason.

Nobody's more real than coal miners. They are humanity's blunt instrument. What was lifted out of the earth in Somerset County last weekend was nothing less than what had gone into it. Nine real men. The kind not too excited about hearing themselves talk. Not much for news conferences, Katie Couric, or caring much about the tentative "treatments" already turning up in Hollywood.

Theirs is a uniquely intense authenticity. Their lives, and often their deaths, are defined by the mines. It's the ultimate "Real World," and everybody in their emotional circle gets sucked in.

My grandfathers were miners. My great-grandfather went to work in the mine one day in 1927 and didn't come home. Cave-in. He had 13 kids and one on the way. The mines in that hard coal region that got worked by conventional death-defying methods started closing after World War II, but until they disappeared in the '60s, any quiet day or night could be shattered by the heart-stopping whistle that signaled an accident.

Women packed lunch pails and feared the whistle.

"Don't gimme that lunchmeat ya gamme yesterday," my grandfather would admonish my grandmother.

"Why? Ain't nothin' wrong with it," she'd say."

"I tried givin' it to the rats; they wouldn't eat it."

Right. He was going to spend most of his waking hours in a black hole with rats and coal gas and back-breaking labor. It was a good day when he didn't die.

Now, into that world, walk the postmodern media.

Everybody loved the story of the Quecreek Nine. It was universally accessible. Trapped men in the bluest of blue collars. Exhausted rescuers. Race against time. Life and death in all its most urgent reality.

And the big Hollywood nine-for-nine finish. The best big Hollywood finishes are the ones Hollywood has nothing to do with. Everybody loved it just the way it was, and now we're going to love it to death, just the way it wasn't.

Quecreek the book, Quecreek the movie and Quecreek the video game are all but certainties. I don't know how they'll work it into a fast-food promotion but I'm sure somebody's on it. Some top media dogs have already fought over the thing. In his "Media Mix" column in USA Hooray this week, Peter Johnson detailed a blowup between Today anchor Couric and a producer over rescued miner Dennis Hall's turning up on "Good Morning America" instead.

Johnson quoted Hall as saying, with classical miners' stoicism, "I guess I could do one [interview]," but further quoted Couric's producer Jonathan Wald: "If anybody was frustrated, it was me. I admit not liking it when a guest backs out."

And thus the warping begins; the march toward unreality. Dennis Hall went to work two Wednesdays ago a coal miner. Now he's the guy who allegedly backed out on a $15 million-a-year anchor. Thank God no one offended Geraldo or Greta Van Facelift.

How brutal the remaining unreality will be for the Quecreek Nine one can only guess. Between now and the movie, I hope they can keep their heads. The forces of unreality are unrelenting.

You can almost see the trailers for "Miracle at Quecreek," starring George Clooney, Antonio Banderas, Tom Cruise, Pierce Brosnan, Matthew McConaughey, Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and hip-hop sensation Ice Tray. Unreal.

It's been more than 50 years since Hollywood made a good movie about a mine, so I don't like its chances this time. In "The Big Carnival" (1951), Kirk Douglas plays a reporter writing about a man trapped in a mine. Douglas helps delay his rescue to keep the story hot, or at least as hot as Jan Sterling, the miner's wife.

Reassuring, isn't it?

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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