What's Coal

by Harry T. Roman

I remember my now married daughter looking at this black rock on my bookshelf. She was just starting to take science in school back then, and showing some interest in rock collecting.

"Daddy, what is that black rock?"

"Why that's coal my dear", I uttered with great authority.....to which she asked the inevitable..... "Daddy, what’s coal?"

Suddenly I became dreamy-eyed and my daughter wondered what was going on. “Mom, Dad has that weird look in his eyes again!”

But I knew what was about to happen. It’s off to Newark I go once more in my mind’s eye. Whoosh! My personal time machine swirls me back to the basement of 595 North 4th Street, just two blocks down from the old Dugan’s Bakery.

I am standing there with a No.2 coal shovel in my yet small hands, the back bulkhead door to the basement is open and the cold winter wind is whistling up my robe and PJs. Dad is introducing me to the practical side of science on this frigid winter morning, as he clangs open the gate to Hell and I peer inside our round, gray, cast iron steam boiler. It’s twin brother is sitting right alongside, smug and still a bit warm, waiting for my Uncle Mickey to come down from the second floor and stoke it up.

There on the grates of our boiler is a glowing bed of red coals and ash, like the kind of stuff those fire-walkers strut across; and just barely visible rising from this blanket of heat are tiny blue flames. It doesn't smell so good, almost volcanic, as I squint at the heat and pungent aroma.

"See those black rocks behind you?" Dad says to me. "Just toss a couple of shovels full into the boiler, right on top of the hot ashes. That should warm the house right up."

“But they’re rocks Dad!”

“Them rocks burn son. It’s coal. Your grandfather and me used to work a coal mine back in Pittsburgh during the Depression. It does not look like much, but you’ll see what I mean in about half an hour.”

In I toss those black beauties, as Dad makes a few adjustments to the cranky old boiler. Sure enough, in about 30 minutes, the radiator steam valves are chirping and singing their steamy tune, and the house is toasty and comfortable again…..and so began my love affair with steam heat and boilers.

Every house I have ever lived in has had steam heat. As far as I am concerned, if your house does not have steam heat, it ain't heated; and someone is playing some mighty cruel tricks on you and your family trying to convince you otherwise.

You can understand steam heat. A little water, some fuel, and a fire…… and this big tea pot in the basement fills your radiators with steam and you get warm. You actually hear the heat coming up---a clang here and clunk there as the pipes expand; and the rumbling steam is heard, as though a throbbing beast is coming to life. Those steam valves get to hissing and popping and you know it’s gonna’ get warm real soon; like having a little pot belly stove right there in every room.

At night you arranged your clothes and school coat on the radiators so they were warm when you put them on. Ain’t nothing like a pre-warmed pair of Fruit of the Loom boxer shorts to help you face a tough math test.

Remember those great big radiators in your Newark school? They usually stretched the entire length of the windows, mounted right below them. Can you remember how you dried your rain or snow drenched clothes on them?

Painted bright silver every summer, those huge radiators all connected to a big boiler in the basement of the school. Big coal trucks would deliver their entire load of coal to the school. At Abington Avenue, my old school, they drove in under the arch in the playground and the janitors opened up manholes in the ground and when the coal was unloaded it was pushed down these holes and into the coal bunker---a giant coal bin like the one at home.

Everybody used coal back then, and the ashes were collected at the curb, or some folks just dumped the ashes in their yards. We had an ash dump in the back of our yard on 4th Street. In the house we live in now in East Orange, I found an old ash dump years ago when I was putting in some new gardens.

Coal is gone now as a fuel and with it that wonderful man-made thunder sound as it rattled down the metal chute into your basement coal bin. The trucks that delivered it were mechanical marvels. Some just raised their back dump bed, while others had a scissors jack-type of elevating back that brought the coal up high so you could angle it down a basement window. Sometimes, the coal man would load up canvas bags and bring it in by hand with the sack slung over his back.

Nothing like the scrape of a coal shovel in the basement to tell you that someone was looking after your needs. A quick tap of the shovel on that metal door closed it neatly, so as not to burn your hand. You developed a technique with coal, like you did with shaking the grates and taking out the ashes. You interacted with your fire, like your ancestors. It was a primal thing.

Remember that coal gas smell in the halls of the 3 story walk-up houses in your old neighborhood? You expected that smell along with a dim light bulb.

You could use the coal for writing on the sidewalks and making hopscotch layouts, or maybe for writing your words of wisdom. Sometimes you could spot tiny fossil imprints in it too-traces of the prehistoric nature of these flammable rocks; and of course you could always hide in the coal bin if things got really desperate. That No. 2 coal shovel also did double duty in the winter to remove snow from the sidewalk and stairs.

Along came fuel oil and then natural gas and soon coal was no more. Everything became automatic. No more shovels, no more ashes, no more technique. Just set the thermostat and away you go. The fuel went into the boiler without any help. Haven’t seen a coal delivery truck in 45 years. The last coal depot I remember was on Alden Street in Orange, NJ and they closed that down years ago.

My daughter shakes me back from my reverie…….”Daddy, Daddy you haven’t told me yet. What’s coal?!”

“Ugh, er……rocks that burn, sweetheart. Back when Mom and me were small they used coal as a fuel to heat houses. In fact, this house had a coal-burning boiler back in the 1920s when it was built. Now we use natural gas to heat our house. Big trucks used to bring the coal and dump it into your basement so you could shovel it into your boiler.”

“Sounds like work to me.”

“Yep, it heated you twice, once when you shoveled it and once when you burned it.”

All this remembering is going on amidst the reassuring sound of my steam valves crackling and hissing, keeping the winter gloom outside at bay. Don’t they teach kids about coal anymore?

I still remember that old basement on 4th Street. I can see those two boilers standing there like our own private sentinels. I can feel the heat on my face from that open door; and recall the steamy smell of wet woolen mittens drying on their warm tops. I still dry my snow encrusted winter gloves on our steam boiler.

I got a scar right in the middle of my forehead, right where my hair used to be. Got 3 stitches one evening over at Columbus Hospital. Ran head on into the tall radiator in the living room. Dad said it made a nice Boing sound. Even Uncle Mickey heard it upstairs. He came down and the three of us rode the few blocks over to Columbus in Dad’s old Plymouth, me lying down in the back seat with a cold wet towel pressed up against my broken cocoanut. This boy knows his radiators.

I still have Dad’s old No. 2 coal shovel out in the garage. Don’t seem right to part with it. Never know, a couple more heating oil crises and coal could make a comeback.

Feels a little chilly in here. “Hey Hon…..nudge the thermostat up a hair!”

Yep, me and steam heat are on a first name basis.

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