What’s that in my stocking?
They looked like the pieces of Hawaiian lava we studied in junior high science class in 1956. Ours also had a rough texture and an irregular shape, like something from outer space perhaps? Unfortunately ours didn’t come from Hawaii or outer space, but from the furnace in our basement. Dad called them “clinkers.”
Clinker is the common name for the unburnable residue or slag that remains in the bottom of a coal burning furnace. We had such a fiery beast in our basement. It was big, round, and had large pipes protruding from its body which resembled the arms of a giant octopus running along the ceiling in all directions and disappearing into holes cut in the floor above.
Burning coal was the way we heated our home in the 1950s. In that era there were two choices when it came to staying warm during the winter months; burning coal or wood. Coal was cheaper and more readily available from mines located in southern Illinois and Kentucky.
Many reading this column may not be familiar with coal unless they happened to find a lump of it in their Christmas stocking. Discovering coal on Christmas morning indicated that the recipient had not been a good little girl or boy.
Santa left the unfortunate youngster a lump of coal in their stocking instead of a toy or doll. I remember warning a rowdy child that he would find coal in his stocking on Christmas morning if he didn’t behave. His response to my threat was, “What’s coal?” No longer impactful, the time-honored threat was retired.
Periodically, dad had to pull the accumulation of clinkers out of the furnace. He used a giant pair of iron tongs to grasp the clumps and then deposited them into a coal scuttle, a metal bucket-like container. After the clinkers cooled, he drafted me to carry them outside and dump them in the unpaved alley behind our home.
These were eventually pulverized and returned to nature by the wheels of the garbage truck as it made its weekly rounds.
Summer was nearing its end when dad told mom that the coal man would be making a delivery the next day.
To a youngster in a sleepy Midwestern town, this was a major event. The rumble of the coal truck could be heard as it bounced down the same alley where I dumped the clinkers. The soot-covered driver always knew where to stop, next to the coal chute window. He affixed a shiny metal slide from his truck to the open coal chute.
The truck carried two tons of the black “diamonds” which he hand-shoveled onto the slide from the truck bed. The coal slid through the opening, landing on the floor of the basement coal bin.
During the winter months, dad would load the furnace with coal prior to retiring for the evening. In the morning, before leaving for work, he would grab his shovel and again stoke up the furnace.
Generally this would last until he arrived home from work. I can’t help but smile when thinking that most homeowners today only need to adjust their thermostat up or down to warm or cool their homes. Plus, there are no clinkers to haul outside and dump in the alley.
At one time, coal generated most of our electricity and heated our homes. It smelted the steel for building ships, bridges, factories, consumer goods and armed our military.
It’s hard to imagine that someday the black rock that occasionally appeared in Christmas stockings during my childhood might become nothing more than an idle threat.
Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633