The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Love 9 miles underground: Female UBB miner treasures fiancé



For Bobbie Pauley and Upper Big Branch victim Howard Daniel “Boone” Payne Jr. love often took the form of an extra set of roof bolts.

Payne, a roof bolter, would pinpoint the work site for his fiancee, Pauley, the only female underground miner at UBB.

He would say, “I put extra bolts in that rib where you’ll be standing — you stand under those pie pans, you stay under those bolts.”

It was beneath those roof bolts, deep below the earth in UBB, that Payne and Pauley met and fell in love. They had planned to marry in 2012. Pauley was off from work the day the explosion took Payne’s life.

“It took me over 40 years to find out what true love was, and I found it in a coal mine. In a dirty, black coal mine, 9 miles underground,” said Pauley. “But I found it, and I am so grateful I finally did.”

As she reflected on who Payne was, Pauley emphasized how much he valued the lives of all of his fellow miners — especially knowing that, as a roof bolter, he often literally held the lives of his friends in his hands.

“He used to tell me, ‘If something would happen and there would be a fall, I would want to know in my heart that I bolted ... as best as they could have been bolted.’”

Payne knew the dangers well: one time he had to rescue a fellow miner who had been killed.

“He was forever just so safety-oriented, and he instilled a lot of that in me,” explained Pauley.

“He’d say, ‘Let me tell you something’ — and when he was serious, he’d always say, ‘Look me in the eye.’ I’d look at him. He’d say ‘When you go in the mine, you leave your outside stuff outside. The only thing you should be thinking about when you’re underground is watching the roof, watching the ribs, being safe, and mining coal.’”

“You know what, I still hear him say that.”

As Pauley told the love story she shared with Payne, the raw and deep pain of losing him intermingled with an equally deep wonder that their lives brought the two of them together. By telling the story, she said, she hopes to honor her fiance’s life.

Born Dec. 17, 1956, Howard Daniel “Boone” Payne Jr. earned his nickname through his love of the outdoors.

“He used to tell me that they’d go up in the mountains and play all day, and he was forever outside,” said Pauley.

Boone was reportedly close to mother, who passed away — a self-described “Mama’s boy” and a natural redhead like her.

“I would always say that he inherited his mother’s spirit,” said Pauley. “I would say also he inherited his father’s sense of humor.”

While he had two older sisters and was the “baby boy” of the family, Payne could fill a doorway with his 6’5” frame.

“You just looked at him and saw strength,” Pauley said.

The two just barely missing meeting each other as teenagers. Payne played basketball for East Bank High School when he was a senior; Pauley was a freshman cheerleader for Collins (now Oak Hill) High School.

Once they met, decades later, at UBB, the two were amazed to discover how many people they knew in common — and how they even remembered a game at East Bank where Pauley had traveled with the Collins team as a cheerleader.

“He would say, ‘I can’t believe that our paths have never crossed,’” said Pauley. However, even stranger twists of fate finally did force their paths to cross.

After graduation, Pauley spent 17 years in Florida as a circuit events coordinator for a major sponsor of NASCAR. She finally returned to West Virginia in 2006.

Struggling to find a job to support her teenage son, Pauley finally decided to become a coal miner — despite knowing the challenges that woman miners face.

“I said, ‘You know, if it has to be, it has to be’ … I didn’t want [my son ]Dakota to do without.”

Pauley graduated first in her class from United Mine Workers Academy in Beckley and started with Harris No. 1 Peabody in Wharton, cleaning up after a bad roof fall. The work was so exhausting she crawled upstairs to bed every night — and by the time crew finished the job, she was one of only three miners who hadn’t quit.

“It broke me in the hard way,” Pauley remembered.

Before she was transferred to UBB, Pauley learned that her fellow miners had been placing bets over when she would quit.

“The guys told me later on, ‘Do you know the money that was lost on you in bets?’” Pauley said.

She entered Upper Big Branch wary of men who would disrespect her; she even invented an imaginary boyfriend so that no one would see her as dating material.

“I didn’t want to deal with that,” said Pauley. “I wanted to come to work, provide for Dakota, get my black hat.”

With Payne, there was no love at first sight. Pauley was already on her guard, and Payne rubbed her the wrong way — always loud, always cursing.

“You’d hear him before you’d see his mantrip,” she remembered.

At first, Pauley kept her distance.

“My first impression was that he maybe was one of those men who didn’t think women belong underground.” She worried he’d make a comment — and that she’d retaliate

“I didn’t want to get into it with Boone because he had more mouth than I did,” Pauley laughed.

The turning point came when Payne finally did mock her — in a falsetto imitation of her greeting a fellow miner. The next day, she mocked him right back in her own falsetto voice: “Hiiiii, Boone.” The miners on his mantrip collapsed with laughter.

“The guys told me … that Boone has a big mouth, but that afternoon he didn’t have a word to say,” smiled Pauley.

The joke broke the ice, and the two started up a light friendship.

“He’d come out and say ‘How’s my red hat?’” Pauley remembered.

Eventually Payne became the one she turned to for coal mining advice.

“I would always say that Boone Payne has taught me more about coal mining than anybody has ever taught me,” she said.

As Payne and Pauley started talking on the phone and work conversations blended into personal topics, Pauley finally admitted she had only invented her “boyfriend.” After that it was only a matter of time before Payne asked her out, and after a few months they began to date seriously.

In a quiet way, the relationship grew even stronger underground.

“He became protective of me, and I guess that’s natural for him,” said Pauley. “Lots of time we would pass each other underground. I remember that he would get out of his mantrip, and he would stand at the track, waiting for my mantrip to pass through.”

He would warn her which sections were less safe, advise her on where to stand — and even ask his friends to check up on her throughout the day. Once, when two pieces of rock did fall from the roof and knock her down, Boone had already crossed the mountain from Cabin Creek to be waiting outside when she got out of the mine, to drive her to the hospital.

“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Pauley said.

Pauley also turned to Payne when she would despair of ever winning the respect of all of the male miners.

“I’d say, ‘You know, Boone, I get so tired. I’m so tired of fighting this fight. I decided they’re not ever going to accept me. It doesn’t matter how hard I work … there’s always someone that thinks he’s gonna break you. They just don’t realize I’m just there to make a living for my son.’”

“He’d say, ‘Look at me, don’t you let anybody discourage you. You are strong. You have as much a right to make a living for Dakota as anyone there … I know what you’re made of — you can do this. Don’t you dare give up; that’s what they want. Don’t you dare give up,’” said Pauley.

“He was a constant source of strength.”

Outside the mine, Pauley and Payne shared a warm, busy relationship. They loved redecorating and remodeling projects — the bathroom at Payne’s house was next on the list for summer 2010. Pauley remembered how the loud, gruff Payne at the mines often transformed back at home.

“He was a hopeless romantic … I’d come home from work — I’d come in just as black as a pot — and every candle in the entire house would be lit. The whole house would be illuminated. And he’d kiss me and I’d say, ‘You’re gonna get coal dirt all over your face,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t care about no coal dirt.’”

“He’d say, ‘Your towel’s laid out. Go get and shower. I have your dinner ready.”

An excellent cook, Payne learned to make his mother’s old-fashioned, made-from-scratch recipes when he became a bachelor. His specialties included chili, chicken and dumplings, and “the best steak you’ve ever tasted.”

At 53, Payne worked out in his home gym and still played basketball — even taking on the neighborhood boys when they called him an old man.

“He said to me, ‘You can stand at the kitchen window and watch this old man dot their i’s,’” said Pauley.

The couple danced at the Moose Club together, and each would leave their cars unlocked at the mines so the other could slip in a romantic “mush” card.

The two planned to marry after her youngest son graduated high school, in 2012 — on  a Sunday, so that all their coal miner friends could attend.

“He used to say, ‘I wonder what we’ll be like when I’m 90 and you’re 85 … I’ll be chasing you around the house with a cane,’” recalled Pauley. “And I’d say, ‘I’ll be pushing you out on the porch in a wheelchair to get some sunshine, and if you misbehave, I’ll push you down the stairs, into the yard.’”

Then, the future had seemed to stretch on and on, Pauley described. “The more time we spent together, the deeper our love grew.”

For a fleeting moment, the paths that took so long to cross finally came together.

“He used to say to me, ‘I truly believe God brought us together.’ He’d say, ‘Think about it. Here you are, 750 miles away in Florida … what are the odds of you ending up 9 miles underground in a coal mine and meeting me?’” said Pauley.

“I’d say, ‘You know what, I think you’re right. Because that just doesn’t happen.’”

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