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The green hills of West Virginia rise at the steps of St. Zita Parish Church in Masontown and roll away in rounded ranks like men bent at their work in the coal pits. This is the landscape of Nick Helms's memory. These are the comfortable hills of home. Helms grew up here. He learned to play golf here. And on Jan. 2 his father, Terry, was killed in the soft coal heart of these hills. � Terry Helms was among the 13 men trapped in the Sago mining accident. During a thunderstorm a bolt of lightning apparently struck a pocket of methane in a sealed shaft, knocking down a wall near the entrance. Terry, a fire boss, had checked for hazardous gases before the other miners were allowed inside. At age 50, he was a man of compassion and courage who was always willing to help others to the limits of his ability and his wallet. He was the first of the 12 miners to die. � It's now Jan. 10, the day of Terry's funeral, and the utility poles in Masontown are adorned with black bows and ribbons. Inside St. Zita, the Reverend Michael Bransfield, bishop of the diocese of Wheeling- Charleston, presides at the liturgy. Hundreds of mourners sit listening intently. They nod and weep and praise Terry in a ceremony full of testimony and hymn singing. � Nick watches the service from the front pew. When he learned of the cave-in, he was 560 miles away, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., struggling to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer. He drove straight home and hasn't slept much since. The priest calls him to the lectern. Looking frazzled, tired and considerably older than his 25 years, Nick stands for a long moment in the silence of the waiting church. He smooths out a sheet of paper and speaks in a halting, breathless voice, struggling to define his father. A small muscle works in Nick's face each time he mentions Terry.
"I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of my dad," Nick says, checking his tears. "It kind of sums up how my sister, Amber, and I feel about him." Suddenly Kenny Chesney's Who You'd Be Today echoes through the nave of the plain brick church:
Sunny days seem to hurt the most
I wear the pain like a heavy coat
I feel you everywhere I go
I see your smile, I see your face
I hear you laughing in the rain
I still can't believe you're gone.
Less than a year before, Terry had literally kicked his only son out of West Virginia. "My dad worked 12-hour days and came home dog-tired," Nick said after the funeral. "He didn't want me to be a coal miner. He pretty much forbade it. He didn't want me to bust my butt to put food on the table, like he had. He didn't want me to wear down, like he did. He wanted me to have a different life, a better life. When I took my time, he got the point across with a boot in the ass. It hurt like hell too."
Though Nick had never taken a formal golf lesson, was saddled with a childhood disability and hadn't played competitively since high school, Terry encouraged him to move south and give professional golf a shot. "I'd always fantasized about playing against guys I idolized," Nick says. "Dad kept telling me to go for it."