Mack Williams column: Fossil fuel in my childhood

  • Posted: Monday, October 21, 2013 1:09 a.m.

I had to turn on the heat the other night, so that got me to thinking about how our family kept warm when I was growing up along the Old Concord Road. Our initial “turning on” of the heat back then was accomplished by way of getting the kindling burning, then adding the coal. Our kindling was kind of like manna, fallen from Heaven, since a lot of it consisted of sticks that had once been part of the back woods forest canopy, extended over us as well by the great number of trees in our yard.

Coal is in the news a lot these days. One camp opposes any use of it for environmental reasons, and the other side says that since we have so much of it, not to use it would be a waste. I’m not going to attempt to wade into either camp here (or “step carefully,” as we used to in Mr. Cline’s cow pasture), but I will say one thing about coal that I do know from personal experience: For the greater part of my childhood, it kept me from freezing to death during the winter months over 50 years ago!


The coal heater in the living room was later replaced with another heater which burned another “geo-relic” ­— oil. (Perhaps the warmth generated from these “fossils” helped to inspire my childhood interest in trilobites, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, etc. that is still with me,)

When I first visited my friends Charlie and Pam, who live in my former childhood home, they showed me the dark “stain” on the granite living room mantle which they have scrubbed repeatedly but just cannot remove. It is only the ingrained, aged soot from coal, then oil, nothing as “weighty” as the similarly irremovable, purported permanent bloodstain on the rock near Chapel Hill’s Gimghoul Castle. On a trip there in 1964,that discoloration was pointed out and the story of its origin told to us by our sixth-grade Granite Quarry School teacher, Mrs. Roselyn Misenheimer.

When I was a child, we had a little coal stove in the kitchen and a “living room size” one in the living room. Between the two of them (literally, one on each end of the house) they kept us warm, especially since our house only had five rooms.

Sometimes, a little coal smell would be evident in the home, but most of the time it exited the chimney as planned. Every now and then, my mother would have to clean some fine soot off the ceilings. Since my father smoked cigarettes, cigars and a pipe, I was already used to the presence of “particulates” in the air.

At that time, my brother Joe and I were the only children in the neighborhood being kept warm by means of coal. All of the other children’s homes remained “seasonable” in the colder months through the burning of oil. I recall it being said that the reason our father loved coal so much was because he worked for Southern Railway, and that the burning of coal reminded him of the old steam-locomotive era.

Our coal pile was in the immediate back yard, such immediacy aiding the fuel’s portability. The mound first consisted of natural, irregular chunks, but my father later purchased coal which had been pressed into “briquettes,” advertised as slower-burning, kind of like a “man-made” anthracite. When it was my turn to tend the stoves, I would pick up the coal scuttle (surely purchased from O.O. Rufty’s) head out the back door, shovel in some of that fuel, then apply as needed to the two stoves. (“Apply as needed” sounds kind of like medicinal directions; and it was, for the achieved bodily result of “staying warm.”)

In the winter, when the blowing snow would find its way under the pile’s covering tarp, it couldn’t be helped that some little bit of it would be brought in and dumped into the stoves along with the coal. When the snow struck what was already glowed red, it seemed to almost sublimate, practically skipping the liquid part and going directly to vapor, as does the frozen CO2 in one of our science activities at the museum where I work. Pouring that coal, seeing and hearing the steam, I thought back to the supposed rail-oriented reason for my father’s home-heating preference.

We later switched to oil, and the coal pile was no more, but a certain “reminder” lingered on. Many loads of coal were dumped in that spot directly between those two large backyard trees nearest the house. The initial dumping fragmented some of it, generating coal dust, a certain portion of it too heavy to be blown away. The shoveling of the coal into the scuttle caused further breakage, adding more of that particular dust to the ground. Each successive dumping of new loads mashed any previously fallen, unblown remains into the soil.

There, the black dust mixed with the earth, becoming a pigment which painted a “shadow” of the old coal pile, long after that shadow’s original crafter was gone.

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