A FIGHT FOR LIFE AND A LIFE THROWN AWAY

This is a column about life and death and the inches in between. One story comes from the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the other from a trailer park in Texas.

In the first story, water was the enemy. Nine miners in a place called Quecreek had accidentally burst into an abandoned mine shaft. It was filled with water, 60 million gallons, and the water was rushing at them, rising to their necks, stealing their oxygen.

It was a matter of inches. A few more, and the miners would have drowned. Instead, they stood back to back on the highest ground they could find, gulping air and praying for the rescuers 240 feet above to save them.

It took days. They had little food and even less hope. They had only one another for moral support, and when one felt despair, the others tried to be encouraging.

“At one point,” Blaine Mayhugh, one of the miners, would later say, “the water started rising. . . . I asked the boss if we had a pen, and he knew what for. I wanted to write my wife and kids and tell them that I love them.”

The others did the same. They took their notes and put them in a lunch pail. The pail, they hoped, would survive the very waters that would kill them.

And they waited.

And they waited.

And, miraculously, they were saved. By a combination of luck, perseverance and, who knows, maybe prayer, the rescue team burst through just 50 feet from where the miners were huddled. And one by one, early Sunday morning, they were pulled from the dark, deadly cavern and up into the light.

Beyond reason

That same night, in a place called Godley, Texas, two men were out drinking. One was only 20, the other 21. They went from bar to bar in the Ft. Worth area, and finally, very late, they went back to a trailer park where one of them lived.

The enemy in this story was a shotgun. Unlike the water, it did not rush the two men or chase them or steal their breath. It rested there quietly, somewhere in the trailer, as Clayton Stoker and Johnny Joslin sat at a table and got into an argument.

The argument was about who would go to heaven and who would go to hell.

Witnesses say the yelling got heated. Finally, Stoker got up, put three rounds of ammunition in his shotgun, then said something like, “Let’s see who’s going to heaven” and put the barrel in his mouth.

Joslin pulled the shotgun away. He reportedly said, “If you have to shoot someone, shoot me.”

Stoker did. Right through the chest. Maybe intentional. Maybe an accident. Maybe we’ll never know. It’s a matter of inches from one man’s mouth to another man’s chest. Johnny Joslin crumbled and died. And that was the end of that argument.

No debate

Certain things are a matter of opinion. Certain things are a matter of taste. But certain things, like the value of life, should not be so random or subject to capricious fate.

How can nine men, under the cruelest of conditions, cling to life and fight for life and pray for life with everything they have, while two men, in the most foolish of arguments, simply give it away?

You couldn’t go near a TV last Sunday and not see the blessed relief on the miners’ faces, their tears, their hugs, their sheer joy at escaping death. You wonder what they would say to Stoker, who is sitting in a jail cell facing first-degree murder charges because he couldn’t make his point without a bullet.

Some will say that’s what happens when you drink. Some will say that’s what happens when you keep guns.

Most will say there’s no accounting for stupidity, and although that may be the most accurate answer, it is hardly satisfying. A matter of inches between life and death.

You wonder, sometimes, if we’re all living in the same world.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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