Potential–A Remembrance

After almost two glorious months of living in Knoxville, with Dad coming to visit us on the weekends, we moved back to Streator. Our new house was at 601 West Stanton, just three blocks west of where we had been living. I still attended Grant School, but now I had to walk farther.

The house was smaller, only one story, and I had to share a bedroom with Cynda. 

Georgy Malenkov. Photo by unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

The Korean War had ended in July. The new Russian leader Malenkov said that the Russians now had the Hydrogen Bomb. 

We were supposed to be terrified. People on the radio said we were in the Atomic Age and the world might blow up at any time. In Streator we were at least sixty miles from any target the Russians would deem worth an H-bomb. We yawned and went about living our lives.

Much more explosive to me was an event that happened in October. I was in third grade, under the eye of a kindly old teacher named Mrs. Winders. One sunny Friday afternoon, she took me aside after class was dismissed.

“Larry,” she said, “when you come to school on Monday, report to the fourth grade.”

Time stood still for a while.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said at last.

On the way home, my brain boiled furiously. I tried to work it all out. What could this mean? Why would I go to fourth grade? I was in third grade. It made no sense.

“Oh, well, that,” Mom said when I came home and announced the mysterious news. She looked away. “Sit down, and let’s talk.”

“Why do I have to go to fourth grade?”

Alfred Binet, inventor of the I.Q. test. Public Domain.

“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”

“No.”

“Well, you did. And you scored very high.” 

I stared at her blankly.

“And because you scored high, you get to go to fourth grade now.”

“You knew about this?”

Mom leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. “When Daddy and I went to the parent-teacher conference, they told us about it. You know Rue Rhymers?”

“Miss Rhymers? She comes and sits in the back of our class sometimes.” A nice lady with glasses, who dressed in a tan suit.

“Yes. And do you know why she comes to observe your class?”

I shook my head.

“Because of you.” Mom exhaled a stream of smoke and tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray on the end table. “She comes to watch you, to see how you do in class, how you answer questions, things like that.”

“No, Mom, not just me. She comes to watch us all, to see the whole class.”

“Mm-hmm. Anyway, your scores are in the genius category, so they have to move you up a grade.”

The room tilted. “I don’t want to go to fourth grade.”

She looked at me. 

“Mom, all my friends are in third grade. And Missus Winders is nice.” I did not mention that Mrs. Winders sometimes let me do other things, like write stories, when the rest of the class was still working on a classroom task I had finished. As far as I knew, that was our secret, between me and my teacher.

“But pretty soon, you will get bored with third-grade work because it’s too easy for you. And then you’ll stop paying attention, and you won’t do your school work, and you won’t fulfill your potential.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“Potential.”

“Potential?” Mom rolled her eyes back in her head, leaned forward, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray. “It means, if you can do a certain level of work, like a high level, you should do that. If you’re only doing low-level work, you’re not living up to your potential.”

“This . . . potential. It’s something I have?”

She nodded emphatically. “You have it.”

Good old Teddy.

“So it’s mine. So I can do what I want with it, right?” 

“Right. You can do great things.”

“Or I can leave it sitting on a shelf, like a toy I don’t want to play with.” 

Mom frowned. “No.” She lit a new cigarette, shook the flame off the match, and dropped it in the tray. “It would be a sin to waste your potential. You’re such a smart boy, you can do anything you set your mind to.”

I went to my room and lay down on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and chewing my lip.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Turned Out– A Remembrance

1953

It’s July and hot, even at night. Cynda and I have gone to bed in the large room we share with Mom and Dad, just off the kitchen in my old second-grade teacher’s house. 

Cynda is already asleep, her little three-year-old snores drowned out by the adult voices coming from the kitchen.

“I know this comes as a BOMBSHELL to all of us,” my baggy old teacher says in her loud, foghorn voice. I don’t hear anything after “bombshell.”  What? A bombshell? For all of us? Is a bombshell a kind of bomb? Or is it like a bomb? Do bombs have shells? 

The door opens. Light floods the room for a second as Mom bursts in and slams the door behind her. She flings herself on the big bed she shares with Dad and lies there, sobbing. 

This is some kind of disaster.

Cynda sleeps through it. 

I have to do something. I climb out of my bed, go to Mom, and hug her. “Don’t cry, Mommy.” 

She rolls over and gathers me in her arms. “Oh, Honey, don’t worry. I’ll be all right. It’s just . . . we’ve been turned out.”

“Turned out?”

“We have to leave.” 

Dad comes in and stands mumbling.

Mom gets up. “Come on, Lloyd.” 

We pack all our things there in the dark bedroom. Five minutes later, we’re out the back door, standing in the alley with suitcases. We get into our 1939 Chevrolet and scram out of town, headed for Knoxville, where we know we’ll be good enough.

#

As my second-grade year at Grant School ended, we faced a dilemma. We were moving out of our nice house at 303 West Stanton June 30 and moving to another place farther west, but the house would not be available until September 1.

The large-framed, loud-voiced woman who had been my second-grade teacher offered to take us in for three months when we would otherwise be homeless. It was a good solution. The teacher’s two children—Freddy and his little sister, whose name now escapes me—were our frequent playmates. The family lived just a block away, on Grant Street. Mom and Dad put our furniture in storage, and we moved in with the teacher’s family.

Things started out amiably, but the arrangement went sour after only a week or so. Maybe we were just too many people to live together in a small house; maybe it was something else. But our invitation to stay the summer was suddenly revoked one night, with the result that we crept out of Streator in the dark of night and fled to our ancestral home of Knoxville. 

I never knew why we were set to flight in such a dramatic way—the code was never revealed to me. I figured out later that when my old teacher said it was “a bombshell to all of us,” she didn’t mean it was a bombshell to her—just to us. It seemed we were not worthy to live with my baggy old teacher’s family. 

Somehow, for reasons I did not know, we were not good enough.

Our exodus to Knoxville took place on a weekend. Monday morning, Dad was back at work in Streator. He stayed in a rented flat all week, then drove to Knoxville to spend the weekend with us. This became the pattern for the whole summer. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Streator and Knoxville–A Remembrance

In 1952 we moved from the little house by the glass factory in Streator, Illinois, to a two-story house at 303 West Stanton Street. Mom explained the number 303 meant we were three blocks west of Bloomington Street, the second house on the south side of Stanton Street. I could see how that pattern made sense. It was a kind of code.

1939 Chevrolet. Image by Photosleuth, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The house on Stanton was a nice one, with three bedrooms and a bath off a large landing on the second floor. The picket-fenced back yard contained a brick barbecue pit. Across the alley stood Grant School, a red-brick cube where I would attend second grade. 

A garage stood at the back of the lot. When Dad came home from work, driving our black 1939 Chevrolet, he could drive up the alley, stop the car, get out, pull the swinging garage door open, get back in the car, drive the car in, get out, and push the garage door closed. Then he could open the back gate in the white picket fence and walk through the yard to our back door. It was simple and convenient. 

hollyhock lady 2” by Jay Erickson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mom and Dad paid sixty dollars a month to rent this palace. Hollyhocks grew by the barbecue. Cynda and I learned to pluck off the blooms and make “hollyhock ladies” of them, the ruffled edges of the red, pink, or purple petals forming the ladies’ billowing skirts.

The house had a full basement, where stood an asbestos-padded furnace, thick round ducts sprouting from its top into the murky realm of floor joists overhead. My cold-weather chore was to shovel coal into the furnace twice a day—once right after school and again before bed. Dad handled the job in the mornings, and I suppose Mom did it in mid-day. On Saturdays Dad and I scooped out the spent coal—a mixture of white, powdery fly ash and hard, iridescent cinders or “clinkers”—and carried it in a five-gallon bucket to the alley, where the garbage men would collect it on Monday morning.

Life settled into a routine. I kept busy working out answers to life’s big questions. 

But our family life was not all centered in Streator. Knoxville, a hundred miles away, was still our real hometown. That’s where the relatives lived. There was a real difference between these two places that I had yet to grasp.

Knoxville was a town of about two thousand souls, ten miles west of the Spoon River and five miles southeast of Galesburg, the city where Dad had gone to college while I sucked ice chips and envied my playmate’s adventure at the hospital.

Parts of Mom’s family had lived in or near Knoxville since before the Civil War. Dad’s family had relocated there from tiny Dahinda when he was about ten. 

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers lived alone in their house at the east end of Knoxville. Grandma, a Gold Star Mother twice over, was a large-framed woman with big white buttons in both ears, wired to a microphone-and-battery pack that hung on the front of her baggy, flower- print dress. She was a warm, comforting presence—unpretentious and accommodating. 

Grandpa, William P. Sommers, was a bantam rooster—small and fiery, given to profane outbursts, sharply critical of children. 

I was terrified of him and comforted by her.

We were their closest kin, geographically. Dad’s older brother, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and lived far off in Germany or England or someplace like that. Dad’s older sister, Mabel, had married an aircraft mechanic and lived in Southern California. Their other two children, Stanley and Franklin, had been killed flying bombers—one in the Solomon Islands, the other over France. 

Grandma and Grandpa, different as they were from each other, formed a unit, an odd-yoked pair going through life with a strange mix of anger and acceptance.

The Old Courthouse. Larry F. Sommers photo.

On Mom’s side of the family, we swarmed with present kin. Mom was first of seven living brothers and sisters—some married, with children, and others not yet full-grown. Mom’s mother, Grandma LaFollette, had a brother and sister in Galesburg and many aunts and uncles living nearby. 

Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette lived in a slouching house on the west end of Knoxville, facing the Old Courthouse across the town square. Neither of them was as critical as Grandpa Sommers or as comforting as Grandma Sommers. They were warm, friendly, and commonplace. Aunts, uncles, and cousins moved through the house. You never knew who might turn up. 

I preferred life at the west end of Main Street to the stifling ennui at the other end of town. This was especially so at Christmas time, when all the LaFollette aunts and uncles and cousins sloshed together in a burst of amiable chaos that included turkey, gravy, and wishbone-pulling. Even then, we usually slept at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’s sedate place. They had bed space for us, whereas the LaFollettes often didn’t.

Christmas 1950 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Knoxville, where our roots were planted, was home. There, we were good enough. 

Our usual dwelling place, Streator—a perfectly fine town—seemed like a place where we had something to prove. Mom and Dad lived in a web of grown-up associations, some quite relaxed and friendly but others apparently fraught with unfamiliar expectations—an element of tension that did not exist in little Knoxville, among the relatives.

I could not have identified it then and do not fully understand it yet. But it came out, over and over in the following years, as a gnawing sense of insufficiency which pervaded our household. Mom and Dad both experienced it, in their separate ways, and by the time we grew to be adults ourselves, my sister and I had both caught serious cases of it. 

It was a code that would take many years, and much heartache, to decipher.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

School Days–A Remembrance

When I was six and a quarter, in September 1951, we moved to Streator, Illinois.

After Dad got his bachelor’s degree at Knox College, we had moved away from Galesburg—away from Dale and Hado, away from warm-globed lamps on purple-bricked streets, away from iceboxes and late-night card games and the rumble of freight cars in the night—to little Dwight, a hundred miles east. Dad taught chemistry in the high school there. After two years, he threw in the towel and got a job that paid a living wage, working as an analytical chemist for the Smith-Douglass Fertilizer Company in Streator.

Dad about 1950.

My sister, Cynda Jo, had been born in 1950, when we lived in Dwight. With that single exception, we left the town no richer than we came.

The house we rented in Streator was on First Street, in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory. The house was small, but we were a small family.

My father was a slender twenty-nine-year-old with brownish hair, a high forehead, and wire-rimmed glasses—studious in appearance, methodical in all his doings. A scientist by nature. He was sociable, even garrulous, yet far from smooth or accomplished in social graces. He was a nice guy, might say, even if he seemed a bit bewildered. He could bore you with things you did not want to know, yet clam up about things you did want to know.

Mom’s 1940 graduation picture.

My mother was our dynamo. She was a statuesque blonde, also twenty-nine—beautiful, smart, energetic, and hard-headed. She was a flash typist and stenographer, with perfect spelling and grammar. She had the drive and determination that Dad seemed to lack. She was forthright. She would tell you what was on her mind, often in terms you could not figure out.

Cynda, about age 3.

Cynda Jo, my little sister, was sixteen months old when we moved to Streator. She was beginning to walk and talk. Already her personality seemed, from my perspective, crabby and self-centered.

Me? I was high-spirited and inquisitive. I still thought I could decipher the world’s secret code. I was eager to start school. When I finally got there, it was a smashing success. 

#

Our teacher, Miss Gamble, showed us a picture on a big white card. There was a boy named Dick and a girl named Jane. 

“They are brother and sister,” said Miss Gamble. She pointed to words printed in big letters under Dick: “Look. Look. I can see.”

There were words under Jane also: “Look, Dick. Look. Can you see?”

The poetry of Dick and Jane. Fair use photo.

The speeches were not very interesting, but I could read them. “Look” had different letters, and a different shape, from “see.” They meant the same thing but sounded different. You could tell which was which by their shapes. Other words, like “I” and “can,” had other shapes.

It was my first day of school, ever, and already I could read! This was a promising development.

#

I soon learned that reading was a little more involved. There was something called “phonics,” which meant you had to know the sound of each letter. The great benefit was that you could look at a word and “sound it out.” You did not have to know what a word was already. You could figure out the code on your own. This appealed to me. 

Naturally, there were oddities. For example, f was sometimes spelled ph. Even so, it was a kind of system one could master.

There was also a social system, which was harder to master. 

#

A skinny kid named Allen and his chunky cousin Donny Bill sometimes blocked my path home from school. They were well-known bullies, with a little gang of hench-kids who aided their bullying. None of them struck me, but they danced around, made fun of me, called me names—especially when I walked home hand-in-hand with a cute little girl named Mary Lou.

I knew not what to make of these kids’ rudeness. What if they went from taunts to actual hitting? How could I protect myself? The idea of counter-punching, of bravely facing them down, was nowhere in my brain. 

When I confided in Mom, she told me to stand up for myself. I could not imagine what she was talking about. She said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

One winter day when Allen’s gang bothered me on my way home, Roger Benckendorf, my next-door neighbor, stepped in. Roger was in fourth grade and towered over my tormentors. He took Al, Donny Bill, and their friends aside. They all stood in the dirty purple snow at the side of the street. 

“Look, youse kids,” said Roger in a voice that was soft yet just loud enough I could hear every word. “Larry is my friend. Youse lay off of him, see? Leave him be, if you know what’s good for youse.”

Just like that, my problem was solved. 

It pays to have friends.

#

After Roger solved my problem, Mom kept trying to solve it, by interpreting Allen to me. 

“He’s a year older,” she said. “He had rheumatic fever and was off school a year. Because of that, people spoiled him. So now he thinks he’s king of the mountain, and he hasn’t got any real friends of his own. That’s why he acts like a bully.”

She arranged a play date. Allen and his family lived up the street from us, in a two-story house. I showed up at the appointed time. Al answered the door and let me in. “You wanna go upstairs and play with my train?”

Lionel passenger cars, ca. 1950.

“Sure.” I followed him up to a large room. A big oval of track was laid out on the shiny hardwood floor. A couple of switches formed an inner loop. There was a Lionel diesel-style engine and a long string of passenger cars, all identical, a dozen or more. 

Al worked the lever to speed the train around the track, occasionally flipping the control buttons for the switches. 

It was interesting to watch these operations. Here was something I could surely master.

“Let me try,” I said.

Al’s eyes flashed. “No,” he commanded. “You watch. I run the train.”

He had invited me upstairs to play with his train. But he didn’t mean that. He meant that he would play and I would watch.

I was no longer afraid of Al. Somehow, it now seemed he was afraid of me.

Feeling embarrassed for him, I left. 

I didn’t need to play with his train as much as he needed to be the only one who played with his train.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Sputnik–A Remembrance

Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!

“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time. 

“Disaster” would be closer. 

Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.

No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.

That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts. 

First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.

Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all  goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.

Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.

My Own Nemesis

The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends. 

I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change. 

On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep. 

That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.

#

Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.

I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

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. 

“Chains” by Cowgirl Jules is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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

Larry F. Sommers

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)