We sat in a dorm room at the National Mine Academy and shared stories of our lives. We talked about what brought us to mining, mine safety, our families and relationships. There was a woman in his history that I reminded him of. I could tell he loved her dearly. He felt an immediate connection to me and I to him. We were comfortable enough to share some of the most intimate details of our lives after having only just met. Up to that point, I had never met a miner that was so deep and passionate about his personal connections, his family and work.
I fell in love with Joel Tankersley that first meeting; not in a romantic way. It was purely intellectual with a deep mutual respect. Being with him was an educational and fun experience. Tank would write funny little poems about me and give them to me on slips of scrap paper.
It was 2004 and we were in West Virginia for training; both members of the Metal/Nonmetal National Mine Rescue team. I learned more from Tank than I did our trainers. My passion for mine rescue grew because of his teachings and stories. I trusted him.
Although we lived many miles apart; he in Wyoming and I in California, we stayed connected. Emails with a poem would show up in my inbox periodically which always brightened my day. Random text messages of the goings-on in our respective work environments. Phone calls about historical landmarks and their mining history.
I went to the Southwest Wyoming Regional Mine Rescue Contest one year in Rock Springs. Although the days were busy, Tank and I got to hang out a little. He showed me some of his favorite places and took me home to meet his family and he showed me some of his work.
The same was true for visits to the Silver Valley in Idaho for Central Mine Rescue’s annual competition. Tank showed me all the local lore after having worked in the Valley during his mining days. We paid our respects each visit to the Sunshine Miner’s Memorial.
In 2006 we traveled to China with the team to compete in the 5th International Coal Mine Rescue Contest in Pingdingshan. Yes, coal. After the Sago Mine Disaster in January of 2006, the national coal team members were embroiled in investigations and hearings. The Agency decided to send a select few of us from the Metal/Nonmetal team to China and we embarked on a crash course at the Mine Academy. Having never worked in coal, we worked hard for several weeks of training.
The trip to China was amazing. We came home with a trophy; although it was not the one I was hoping for. Tank warned me in the beginning it would be the trophy the host country wanted us to have. He was right. When we first arrived his luggage did not make it. I loaned him my team uniform so he would look like the rest of the us. The host hotel served meals daily. Competition Teams were seated at large round tables that fit about 10 chairs. There was a lazy-susan serving platter in the center of each table with plates of food. The men would spin the platter looking for food they recognized to put on their empty plates. “Mystery Meat” they would call it. Tank ate the cakes and cookies but we all would slip out to a McDonalds down the street for familiar grub.
Once we returned from China, I received a promotion and had to resign from the team. I was assigned First Aid Coordinator for the National Contest two years prior so I stayed deeply involved in mine rescue. I got to see my friend at all the contests I attended.
Tank was assigned to work in Elko Nevada for a short stint which brought us closer in proximity. I found myself in Elko often those days working on cases or providing training to the industry. While on duty there, Tank lived in a small duplex filled to the brim with his art. He had been dabbling in acrylics and showed me his beautiful paintings; some finished, some in progress. Most all were mining related.
Over the years we shared stories of our travels. When my sister was diagnosed with lung cancer, he drove all the way from Green River Wyoming to Reno to see me, give me a hug and brought me some of his art. A carving of his father, he told me. He asked me to keep it; whether I liked it or not. I treasure that carving because it looks like him. During that trip he wore a western vest he recently received. I told him how handsome he was in that vest; that he should never take it off because I’d steal it. I noticed he continued to wear that vest frequently. I wish I had it today, tattered and worn I’m sure it is.
In 2019; we both retired; he left a few months before me. Tank gave me the absolute best advice when I told him I was leaving my career. “Leave it at the door,” he said. I did just that.
In September of 2021, I traveled by RV to Ouray Colorado to officiate my niece’s wedding. When I told Tank where I was, I received a series of text messages over three days (about a mile long) on anything and everything about Ouray and the surrounding area; what to see; all the mines in the district; all the history about the mines and stories of miners in days past. What a wealth of knowledge! He knew more about the area than most locals. I could only hope that in the past 19 years of friendship, I taught him a fraction of what I learned from Tank.
Miners are a unique brotherhood unlike any workforce in the world. American miners stand out above all others. It’s a small community of hardworking, dedicated miners that devote themselves to mine rescue. Tank was one that gave his all and shared his knowledge with anyone who would listen.
My friend passed suddenly a week ago on February 25. He was 63 years old, same as me. Many others lost a friend, brother, father, miner, artist, poet, historian, rescuer, and one of the best men many of us have ever known. Love and light to us all. We will miss him. I’m grateful to have so many memories, poems and several pieces of Joel Tankersley’s art collection. Rest in Love and Peace, my friend.
Diane M Watson