Recently I asked a young journalist to critique some of my stories. She kindly agreed, and afterward made a comment that my posts reminded her of her grandparents. Not to worry, it didn’t make me feel old, because I really am old enough to have a granddaughter her age. But it was right about then that I realized I could be a bridge: stories about my childhood could make that period of the previous century (whoa, that did make me feel old!) accessible to younger folks.
My childhood caught the tail end of some “technologies” that were either on their way out or already passe. For instance, the desks in the first school I attended actually had ink wells! They weren’t in use any more, but were still there — in the upper left hand corner of each desk, still ready to hold a bottle of ink for dipping the nib of one’s pen. Pretty far out, huh. I also spent the night one time with a young family (when I was a little older and not so prone to getting overly excited and…ahem, barfing) and had to go outside during the middle of the night to use their outhouse. Wild stuff. Like my parents before me who described things to us, like priming the water pump in the back yard, sitting around the radio as a family, or the issuing of government ration stamps during WWII, I could also provide a looking glass into a former era.
Exactly which younger folks are the target audience for this bird’s eye view? I’m not really sure. I know I’m a boomer, and that we boomers made a big splash. But beyond that I get confused: it seems to me Y’s are the endless questions of a four-year-old, X’s either mark the spot or pay child support, and mosaics are cool artistic thingies you can find supplies for at craft stores. Bottom line? Virtually anyone who doesn’t have white hairs transitioning their locks to grey seems young to me these days. (And I promised I was never going to become that person. Sigh.) So I’ll leave you later generations to sort yourselves out and I’ll just focus on telling this next historical anecdote.
The duplex I lived in for the first eight years of my life was in the Craftsman style and was built somewhere between the 1900 and 1930, and I’m guessing it probably wasn’t all that old when my parents bought it — not brand new, but not needing renovation, by any means. This would mean that the heating system we had at the time was probably fairly standard issue. What type of heating system might that be?
A coal furnace. Directly in front of me when I got to the bottom of the basement stairs, it sat, staring at me. I was always fascinated by it, and always a little bit scared too. Probably because I had been cautioned so sternly about never, never, ever opening it up without an adult present. The message came through loud and clear. I never, never, ever did!
To feed this heat belching hulk one would grab coal shovel and bucket and head for the coal bin, a separate room in the basement with a small wrought iron opening up near the top at street level where the coal would be chuted in. Periodically a coal delivery truck would park by the house and rig a conveyor to replenish our supply of fuel. The noise from the coal spilling from the conveyor, through the chute, and down onto the pile of coal on the floor of the bin was quite a din, but brief. We kids were forbidden to play in the coal bin, as well. For quite obvious reasons, I suppose. Consequently, it held a particular mystique for me. And every once in a while my dad satisfied my hankering to peer into the bin and allowed me to accompanyhim as he filled the coal bucket. Cool stuff.
Our home was fitted with forced air duct work, rather than a boiler and radiators. I remember loving to stand right on top of the grate in the dining room on a cold winter morning and let that heated air toast me for a minute or two before moving on into the kitchen to eat breakfast. That was every bit as wonderful as putting on a blouse or dress Mom had just finished ironing. Mmm, cozy.
Probably the most exciting thing I remember involving the furnace was smelting. I have no clue as to where Dad got the scrap metal or what he did with the finished product, but he would extend a long-handled vessel into the flames, melt the silver, gingerly pull it back out, pour off the dross, and then make little nuggets by filling small pits in the concrete basement floor. Mesmerizing. He also melted lead and made his own sinkers for fishing. Can’t remember, but I’m guessing he had a mold for that.
Nowadays, I merely head over to the dining room wall, punch a few buttons, and program a thermostat to regulate the ambient temperature of our home keeping it comfortable throughout the day and night. The natural gas is delivered silently and unseen. No dusty coal bin, no noisy delivery, no scary inferno within a massive apparatus, no early morning feedings. The passing of an era has rendered our lives less colorful and void of the rituals that established rhythm in our life. It almost makes me a little wistful…
Nah… not a chance!