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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
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!)