My Coal Childhood
There are things in our childhood that implant themselves so strongly that no amount of subsequent adult rational reconsideration can completely remove them. Let me give you an example:
When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1940s I lived with my family in a house that was heated (as were most houses in the Northeast then) with coal. In those innocent days coal was not an environmental issue. There was soft coal (bituminous), which burned dirty and smelly, and there was hard coal (anthracite), which burned cleaner and hotter, and that was all.
I had a particularly intimate connection with the coal in our house because my bedroom was on the first floor directly above the opening in our foundation through which the monthly coal was delivered. Price: eight dollars a ton. On Saturday mornings I would lie in bed and listen to the coal pouring down the metal chute into the wooden coal bins in our cellar. It sounded like a river of steel fragments pouring into the bowels of our house.
In addition, when I was quite young, I had a chronic winter night cough for several years which I later attributed to coal gas seeping into my bedroom from the basement. I say that because when I was seven, we moved to a larger house on the block in which my bedroom was on the second floor with my parents and brother, and after we moved the coughing stopped for good.
Every winter morning, my father would get up before dawn and go down the narrow cellar stairs to stoke and feed the fire before coming up to call my brother and me to breakfast. And every evening before going to bed, my father would go down to the cellar again and bank the furnace to keep a low, even heat going throughout the night. Sometimes on weekends I would go down to watch him shoveling the coal into the maw of the great massive furnace that was sheathed in thick layers of asbestos (oh yes, that too was not an environmental issue in those days). As he shoveled he worked up a mighty sweat as the glowing coals cast a red sheen over his face. Somewhere in my mind I knew that my father had a job as a manager in a nearby factory, but I always thought that his real job was shoveling coal, for that was the work I most often saw him do.
Later on as I grew older and bolder and when both my parents were out of the house, I would go down to the furnace, open its heavy grated door, pick up the iron stoker rod and thrust one end of it into the bed of coals. Then, after several minutes, I would put on my father’s asbestos gloves and, like young King Arthur drawing the sword Ex Caliber out of the Stone, would pull out the rod, one end glowing cherry red. I would hold it as long as I could and then plunge it into the pail of water my father always left sitting next to the furnace, where it gave off a mighty hiss and a thick cloud of blue-white steam.
I had no way of knowing then that the fire that heated the rod I held was the product of decaying plants hundreds of millions of years old, but I felt the primal power of it nonetheless. And it was a feeling that remains undiminished long after I switched from coal to more environmentally-friendly, if less interesting, sources of heat.