Antique Road Show, Part II

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, about 1950.

On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West. 

They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.

With Mabel and Bob

The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October. 

Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say. 

Women drilling a wing bulkhead for a World War II transport plane at the Consolidated Aircraft. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, U.S. Office of War Information. Public Domain.

Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards. 

Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.

Bob and Mabel Hiler, second anniversary, 1938

But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble  across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us. 

Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.

The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older  than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.

Stint in Seattle

There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass. 

In Seattle, they stayed with Edward, the elder of their two surviving sons, his wife, Mary, and their three children. Uncle Ed was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and at that time flew out of Seattle, to and from Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau. 

Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle: 

Grandma’s notebooks
  • “Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
  • “Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.

Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.

On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home. 

West to East

Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.

They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography: 

  • “Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.” 
  • “State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe.  Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.” 

They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.

Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.

At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:

  • “Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
  • “(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
  • “(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world. 
  • “Moffatt [sic] County
  • “90 ft vein of coal.
  • “Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
  • “1,600,000 sheep raised annually
  • “20,000 cattle raised annually.
  • “Many Deer.
  • “3,460,500 acres – area of county.”

Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.

Enough Coal for 900 Years

First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.

Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster. 

That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:

Source: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37692

So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”

Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward. 

There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County. 

Through the Rockies and Home

Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas. 

On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France. 

In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.

They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Purple Snow

When geezers gather, the gab gets garrulous. There is boasting value in extremes. 

“We were so poor that the patches on our jeans, had patches on their jeans!” 

“What! . . . You had jeans?”

Tales of poverty can still score points, but people who remember the Great Depression are mostly gone. So the extremest thing most of us can conjure these days is the weather. 

Sling psychrometer. CambridgeBayWeather. Public Domain.

Eco-warriors among us—whippersnappers!—construe any bump in the barometer, any thump in the thermometer, any slump in the sling psychrometer as a harbinger of the woe we are to reap from Global Warming. Well, maybe.

I can say this for sure: Nobody ever weathered weather like the weather we weathered, back in The Old Days. Gathered geezers may tell of the Terrible Winter of 1935-36, the Great Floods of ’93, the Summer That It Rained Alligator Eggs, or the Year With No Summer Atall. You never know, Dear Reader, when you may find yourself swamped in a five-hundred-year flood of such remembrances.

Winter of Purple Snow

When I mention the Winter of the Purple Snow, people look askance. When I claim that, actually, every winter in The Old Days was a winter of purple snow, a ceiling-mounted wide-angle lens would show a frenzy of Brownian motion away from me and toward the exits.

But it’s all true, every word. We did have purple snow, at least in Streator, Illinois, where my boyhood was misspent. Other cities must have had it, too. 

Each winter, the snow tumbled down in December—pure, fluffy, altogether white. Over the next three days, the snow on the ground—not the snow in my backyard, but the snow on every city street—became empurpled. The cause of purple snow is easiest to explain in retrospect: Snow tires had not yet been invented.

“So, ‘no snow tires’ equals purple snow?” Exactly.

In these apocalyptic times—even as we face continual peril from CNN-scale floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and disaster films—one thing we no longer worry about, much, is sideways slippage on winter streets. All our cars wear radial tires. Radial tires slump a bit. This increases the surface that contacts the road, thus improves traction. Those who like to gild the lily may put on special “winter radial tires” in the fall. They have a deeper, more “road-gripping” tread design in addition to the famous radial slump. Most of us don’t feel a need for this. But before radial tires were invented, deep-tread “snow tires” were better than nothing. 

However, in the 1950s, we didn’t even have those. There were only regular bias-ply or belted-bias tires. No special deep tread, no radial slump. They just perched on the ice and slid this way or that. In heavy snow, you might put messy, inconvenient “tire chains” on your tires. These were circular cages, made of interlinked chains, that enveloped each tire. They bit into the snow and ice. If you had to climb a long hill in the country, you needed chains. But on city streets that were half snow-covered and half clear, as is often the case, those chains chewed up the pavement, the tires, and themselves. So you didn’t use them any more than you had to.

“Where,” you ask, “is all this headed? Have you forgotten about the purple snow?” Stay with me, Kind Reader.

We needed something short of chains to help tires grip the street—especially at intersections, where most winter crashes occur. Sand would have been  dandy. But why use expensive sand, when  you can get crunchy, gritty cinders free of charge? This thrifty solution appealed to the city fathers in Streator and, I’ve got to believe, elsewhere.

Coal

You see, our houses were heated by coal. In Illinois, Mother Nature, 350 million years ago, had buried a generous layer of bituminous coal not far underground.

There are three forms, or “ranks,” of coal: anthracite, bituminous, and lignite. Lignite is brown, not much harder than the peat burned by poor Irish cottagers and rich Scottish distillers. Anthracite is hard, black, almost-a-diamond coal that’s mined in Pennsylvania. Bituminous is harder lignite but not as hard as anthracite. In other words, it is just right—not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks would have used it in her furnace, for sure.

One ton of bituminous coal cost about five dollars—1950s dollars, that is. About fifty bucks in today’s money, so it wasn’t as cheap as it sounds. But if you could heat your house halfway through the winter on fifty dollars—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Bituminous coal was useful, abundant, and cheap.

But “O! The horror!” Did not all this burning coal cause sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, toxic metal residues, acid rain, air pollution, and so forth? Why, yes. It did. That is why we have air-quality regulations now, why the coal industry looks for low-sulfur deposits. It’s also why most coal-burning homes converted to gas, oil, or electric in the 1960s and ’70s. Through a combination of governmental action and industry initiatives, air and water in most places is cleaner now than it was in the 1950s.

Even in the Fabulous Fifties, however, pollution from coal was not very bad—in most places. It was quite bad in some heavy industrial corridors. But for most of us, the worst side effect was a thin film of soot on our walls. 

“Spring cleaning” in those days meant something very particular. Our mothers each April removed coal dust from every interior wall. This was not a happy task that added joy to Mom’s relentless mission of caring for her family. My mother seemed to regard it as an irksome chore. But it must be done, and done it was.

Casey Stengel. Public Domain.

She bought wall-cleaning putty at the hardware store. She rubbed it over the wall surface, then pulled it out, folded it over to expose clean putty, rubbed again. At the end we had clean walls. Plus many little balls of soiled putty to throw away. When homeowners abandoned coal, the makers of wall-cleaning putty added bright colors to the stuff and called it “Play-Doh.” That’s right, they did. (As Casey Stengel might say if he were alive today, “You could Google it.”)

“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PURPLE SNOW?”

How to Be a Kid, 1950s Edition

When I was seven, Dad introduced me to my first regular chore—stoking the furnace. The furnace lived in the basement. It was a huge cylinder with ducts about a foot in diameter that sprouted all directions from its head. The main chamber and all the ducts were padded with asbestos insulation. (See “O! The horror!” above.)

Bituminous coal filled a room near the furnace, called “the coal bin.” Two or three times a year, the coal deliverymen would pour a ton of coal down a metal chute into the coal bin through a basement window.

Our coal came in rough lumps the size of a baseball or softball. It was shiny and black. You could break a lump in two with your bare hands. This exposed the striations of the rock. Sometimes it also exposed a fossil—the outline of a small leaf, for example—that had been trapped in the coal back in the Pennsylvanian Age of geology.

Coal was lightweight, for a rock. It was friable; when you handled it, you got greasy black dust on your hands. I scooped it from the coal bin with a giant shovel, set it in the furnace on top of the coal already aflame there. I had to make sure the new coal caught flame, augmented the fire and did not smother it. 

Then I shook down the grates. (Purple snow coming up, Gentle Reader!) Two metal handles protruded from the furnace below the coal door. I rattled these handles; dead ashes and cinders fell through the grates into a hopper below. Once a week we shoveled ashes and cinders—also called “clinkers”—out of the furnace. We carried them to the alley behind our house in a five-gallon can. When the garbage men came by to collect our refuse, they dumped our ashes and clinkers into a separate compartment on their truck. 

They collected these materials from every alley in the city. The product, as donated by householders, was a mix of fine, white fly ash and dense, iridescent clinkers. The city washed the fly ash away, leaving the clinkers—small, irregular rocks of metallic slag. A single clinker could be round, bulbous, sharp, jagged—all at the same time. They were multi-hued, but dominated by purple, blue, green, and pink.

The Empurplement of Streator, Illinois

When snow blanketed city streets, crews dumped these clinkers on every intersection for traction. Every passing car crushed them into smaller pieces. Periodically the city replenished the clinkers at the intersections. 

Voilà! Purple snow. This image is a modern re-enactment, because I only had black-and-white film for my Brownie camera in those days. And besides, purple snow was so normal that nobody would have thought to photograph it. “purple snow” by TORLEY is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Numberless bits of cinder got dragged down the street—transferred from interesections to tires, then deposited in mid-street, in driveways, in alleys, even on sidewalks. By mid-winter, all streets were festooned with purple snow, colored by the powdered residued of our furnace clinkers. It ranged from bright purple-pink to a dull brown slush with just a bit of rosiness. 

Snow melts; cinders remain. They lay in small, sharp bits, in gutters and on sidewalks. They formed a light coat over asphalt schoolyards and potholed alleys. They lay in wait for innocent childen.

Cinders paved athletic running tracks before the invention of GrassTex, Tartan Track, AstroTurf. Sprinters and middle-distance runners got cinders in their low-cut track shoes, chewing up their feet. Or they fell on the track and embedded tiny chunks of metal under their skin.

The same hazard faced every child who strapped on a pair of roller skates or drove a tricycle pell-mell along uneven sidewalks while clad in short pants and tee shirts. Nobody escaped. Some kids had cinders embedded so deep that years later you could still find the black speck in cheek, knee, or elbow where the projectile had burrowed in.

Was anybody killed or maimed by these clinkers?

Come on. We were made of sterner stuff.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer