RICHARD TRUMKA drives slowly up a hill called "Bosses Row," recalling his first encounter with disaster at the coal mines in the valley below. "Have you ever felt a dead man's blood?" he asks. "Feel his warm flesh? Put him in a bag? You don't forget."

Then he points toward two-story houses that once were management's mansions in the tiny company town of Nemacolin, his birthplace and home in southwestern Pennsylvania. "Bosses Row" is not Trumka's turf. He comes from the other side of town, where you grew up with a sense of boundaries not to cross, where many a coal miner's kid tries to scram to the big city as fast as possible.

Trumka left, too. He went first to Penn State. But he came back every other semester to work in the coal mines, where two men died in one week during his freshman year. He went on to law school at Villanova, and he came back every other semester to work in the mines. And after the Phi Betta Kappa key and the law degree and two stints as an attorney in Washington, he came back again.

It was a tribal instinct and a frustration with the tribe's institution -- the United Mine Workers of America -- that drove him to become a UMW attorney and a troubleshooter in Washington and then a member of the union's executive board from his corner of Pennsylvania.

Once the nation's largest, surliest union, the UMW has had little but headaches since the passing of the days when John L. Lewis took on anybody, cut deals with anybody, to press the miners' case, the days when coal was king. The problems since have been myriad: dwindling jobs and growing nonunion mines, deaths in the fields, murder in union politics, a scandal over a UMW-founded bank in Washington, to name some.

So at the tender age of 33, pin-striped Rich Trumka wants to become boss of one of the roughest bunch of workers in America. He wants to bring coal miners into the era of giant corporations gobbling up the mines, of complex legislation and litigation, of transformed energy markets, and of traditional goals he feels have been betrayed. This new- fangled kid from nowhere wants the presidency of the UMW -- and the way things are going, don't bet against him. If he wins, he will be a totally new kind of American labor leader and the youngest head of any major U.S. union.

Trumka's target is a combative chunk of a man named Sam Church Jr., who was appointed UMW president three years ago and is himself making his first race for a full five- year term. There are other candidates, including Arnold Miller, a former union president who went from nationally heralded reformer to abused bumbler in a few short years. But the smart money is on Church or the kid from nowhere -- especially since last week.

That's when the voting ended in the UMW's presidential nominating process. With the union's 900 locals each picking one candidate, contenders have to win at least 25 locals to get on the ballot for the final election showdown in November. Though the count won't be completed for a week, the word is out that the kid from nowhere did all right, to put it mildly: Trumka reportedly took half or more of the locals.

Watch out for Rich Trumka.

A maroon gob of saliva and chewing tobacco spouts from the mouth of Sam Church and descends into a waste basket. He bows his massive, bearded head for 30 seconds, then raises it.

The president of the UMW, all 230 pounds of him, has just been offered a prospective, partial description of himself. It goes like this:

"Huge, generally amiable, resembles a glowering bear, sings union songs, likes to spit Red Man chewing tobacco into a waste basket, largely ineffective as union vice president in areas of responsibility (organizing and safety), adeptly ran union's convention as president in 1979, clobbered staffer Rick Bank for alledgedly leaking a story to Jack Anderson, struck secretary-treasurer Bill Esselstyn, fought safety director Everett Acord on the street outside the Washington, D.C., headquarters, and is thus deemed a bully by some."

"Well," says Church with a grin, a pause, and a delicate grab for his pouch of Red Man, "I don't consider myself a bully. But the rest of that doesn't bother me too much."

Church clearly is not one to take challenges lightly. He has not been doing so in the case of Rich Trumka, who's been charging Church with being inept, out of touch with the times, beholden to outside forces and a lot else.

Church will imply to you that Trumka is part of a left-wing, near-commie plot against him. He says a columnist recently suggested that the Soviets, stung by their problems in Poland, have told "the few thousand communists within most labor organizations" here to "step up their activities to create problems to sort of offset what's happening to the labor unions there." Does he really buy that? "I think he could very possibly be right," Church says.

Church also has certain benefits of incumbency. It's an intriguing coincidence, for example, that he's had Trumka tromping regularly for over a year to Oklahoma -- far from the main UMW campaign circuits in Appalachia and the Midwest -- to handle a bitter UMW strike out there. Church's men will tell you that Trumka's talents are needed in that fight between 160 UMW workers and Garland Coal and Mining. Oh, sure, it also makes fund-raising harder for the kid.

No question, Church has a large leg up on money. Not long ago, for example, Church held a $200-a-ticket cocktail party at Washington's Sheraton Carleton Hotel, with cash coming from some unusual places, including other unions. The United Food and Commercial Workers, for one, forked over a check for $5,600.

The same day Trumka was having a $4-a-ticket fund-raiser at a Croatian fraternal hall in Pennsylvania. That's his usual modus operandi: traveling in rented campers, often covering 1,000 miles in a weekend, speaking to coal miners at schools or mine entrances or VFW halls, accepting small donations from them. He refuses to take cash from anybody else.

Church's advantages, though, don't seem to have dented Trumka's armor so far, as indicated by the nomination voting. While getting local nominations doesn't mean you automatically win final elections, it does tell you that money and incumbency and red-baiting are no sure tickets to success either.

Nor, evidently, is the support of the powers that be, which Church has. The 16 million- member AFL-CIO and the coal companies are both inclined toward him.

Says an AFL-CIO official of the 45-year- old Church: "He may not be a super-sophisticate, but he's a solid trade unionist, and everybody from (AFL-- CIO president) Lane Kirkland on down likes him. He's brought a certain stability to the union, as well as support of our programs."

Church surely has had some pluses. He has, for example, successfully fought Reagan administration moves to freeze mine inspector hiring and to tighten eligibility requirements for federal black lung benefits.

But he also suffered a humiliating setback negotiating the 1981 national coal contract. He reached a tentative accord with the companies and then saw himself vilified as "Sellout Sam" by members who overwhelmingly rejected the agreement. After a 72-day strike, the final pact brought heftier wage and benefit hikes, but labor lawyers believe it also further opened the door to more nonunion operations and emasculation of a multiemployer pension plan.

Beyond this, Church has been tarnished by involvement with the UMW-founded National Bank of Washington, the capital's third-largest bank, whose suspect loan practices prompted the government to end union control. While Church staunchly denies wrongdoing, the episode has raised questions in some people's minds, and Rich Trumka tries his best not to let them forget it. (One of Church's two campaign co-chairman also happens to be a man who was once convicted of misusing the union's funds.)

To the coal companies, Church is a known quantity and, at least in bargaining with them, relatively moderate. As for Trumka, they don't really know quite what to make of him.

"Miners are a naturally dissatisfied lot, and despite what the Church people may think, this will be a horse race," says a concerned top management source.

You can confirm that by listening to Charles Heflin, a stout, 43-year-old miner doffing a baseball cap as he entered a Carrier Mills, Ill., high school to hear Trumka talk in the spring. "Well, it's like this," he said."I've never heard or seen this man. But I do know one thing. If you've got a stove and it ain't givin' out no heat, you gotta get another one."

Watch out for Rich Trumka.

Trumka's task is not merely articulating miner dissatisfaction but bridging generations. He'll need all the help he can get from both retired and active miners (245,000 of whom are eligible to vote), and chatting with those who do know him or have listened to him talk suggests why he's been scoring points with both groups.

Start with the elderly, with 72-year-old Biondi Vecchiolla, who heads a UMW pensioners' group in Trumka's neck of the Pennsylvania woods. Trumka, it turns out, has been running what amounts to his own free legal clinic there for anyone affiliated with the union.

"He helped me get my black lung benefits," Vecchiolla says. "Everybody with problems he'd help. He'd come to their house, listen to us explain our problems all evening, and help us fill out our forms. A lot of these attorneys here were socking our people with big fees. Rich took these cases himself and did it for nothing. He never turned any of our people down."

Or, on a rainy night in Canton, Ill., listen to Trumka, clad in gray suit, white shirt and burgundy pin-dot necktie, address a gathering of 150, primarily pensioners.

He starts with tragedies that bind the generations, with memories of the more than 100,000 miners who have died in accidents in this century: "I've worked as a deep miner for seven years. I laid track, laid pipe, ran a shuttle car, ran the continuous miner, was a timberman and roof bolter. I witnessed death and injury. One of my best friends was a helper on the continuous miner and was in an accident and was killed before my eyes."

He goes on to bemoan UMW problems, says he won't cooperate with the companies like Church, discusses pension troubles, health and safety issues, the share of coal from nonunion mines growing from 25 to 50 percent in 10 years. There's loud applause, and a pensioner with a cane is touched: This kid seems a lot smarter than "that fat fellow Church," he says.

That's no small gain for Trumka, since pensioners traditionally are counted in the column of the incumbent.

Nearby stands a rugged, handsome young man in down jacket and blue jeans. He's a 24- year-old high school graduate named Darrell McCombs who'll earn $40,000 this year working above ground at one of the strip mines that increasingly dominate America's coal fields. McCombs, too, is impressed.

"He speaks real well and stressed the things that are important to young people like me, like safety," he says.

Young people like him are also critical to Trumka. Young people like him have been jumping into coal miners' ranks in growing numbers, particularly since the 1970s energy crisis made coal a prized commodity again. In 1965 a mere 11.7 percent of the union's membership was 34 years old or younger. Today, 52.7 percent is 34 or younger.

"The younger miner is in many instances newly married, in the process of buying a house," says Trumka back in his camper. "They're a lot more educated in some aspects than the older men. We have miners with masters degrees in business, engineering and teaching. The older miners were required to fight to get a union in. The newer miners haven't had that same struggle. Their fights are shifting into different areas. They're forced to battle through the grievance procedure, through the courts, through legislahe union'tion."

In the camper he's surrounded by this new kind of union. The seven staffers and running mates on this trip are all miners, nearly all college educated and with one exception (John Banovic, head of the union's 20,000- member Illinois district) 35 or younger.

A couple, like Trumka's vice presidential running mate, Cecil Roberts, are Vietnam veterans, and they get particularly angry with any red-baiting by Church people. At one steamy, emotional meeting at a Du Quoin, Ill., VFW Hall, Roberts shouts, "The only communist I ever saw had black pajamas, and he tried to kill me and I tried to kill him!"

Watch out for Rich Trumka's guys.

Rich Trumka didn't start out to be in union politics. His mother recalls him sitting near the Monongahelia River with her father, spending hours listening to accounts of the union's history. In 8th grade Rich asked his grandfather how to best devote himself to miners. Politics? No, said his grandfather. Become a lawyer.

When he did, Trumka joined the UMW staff in Washington, at a time when the mine workers were recovering from the turmoil that followed the 1963 ascent of W.A. "Tony" Boyle to the UMW presidency. Boyle had blatantly misused union funds and, running as a convicted felon in 1968, arranged the murder of a reform-minded opponent, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, and Yablonski's wife and daughter.

When the government ordered a new election, Boyle was defeated by Arnold Miller and was soon sent to federal prison for ordering the Yablonski killings.

A retired miner, Miller galvanized two separate forces spreading about the coal fields -- one for greater democracy, one for legislation to compensate black lung victims. These drives lured a flock of activists, including VISTA volunteers, college professors, journalists, former seminarians and recent U.S. Supreme Court law clerks, to the UMW. One who came was Rich Trumke.

Miller turned out to be a leader woefully lacking in administrative skills and ridden with anxiety -- some say paranoia -- about conspiracies being hatched around him. He even had the door from his personal secretary's office removed. Before long the newly attracted intellectuals started leaving, one by one. But not Trumke.

A former member the Miller inner circle, now practicing law in Washington, recalls: "Rich was different from the rest of us. We always knew we had different choices, always knew we could leave. It was different with Rich. He always had one foot in the mines."

Miller was reelected in 1977, but the end was near for him. Among other things, his health deteriorated, and in 1979 he quit. Church, then a vice president and onetime Boyle ally, was appointed Miller's replacement.

Trumka served the early Church administration in Washington. He was versatile, and they knew it. Though young, he was savvy enough to be a political troubleshooter in the fields and a crack litigator in court. Church men could badmouth the "egghead" Eastern liberals Miller had brought in -- the left-wing schemers Church sees -- but not Trumka.

Their miner-lawyer hybrid, however, became frustrated. A friend recalls Trumka in his office, for example, cursing the union for not using the law to its advantage. He wanted to sue the companies more, especially on safety matters, rather than always be on the defensive.

"I thought our position was foolhardy," Trumka says.

He also felt Church was limited, didn't like his violent streak, and objected to his reliance on aides -- his publicist, his key outside consultant and fund-raiser -- who weren't union members.

It wasn't long before he concluded then that to make a real difference, to bring the UMW into the new era he sees, he had to be an elected official himself. So Rich Trumka went home again to the mines of southwest Pennsylvania, and he ran for his district's seat to the union executive board. he was the underdog--and he won.

Now he's running again, with far more at stake, and he's still the underdog. He's very young, up against an established machine, short on funds, often exhausted as his rented campiagn camper rumbles down pitch-dark country roads with a dying alternator and failing lights.

Is is all worth it? With most of his campaign crew asleep, he muses about the time, the effort, the obstacles, his weariness, his girlfriend, his hopes to marry and sttle down. But he keeps heading for the next stop, the next talk, the next vote, in November.

Watch out for Rich Trumka.