By Arthur H. Gunther III
With recent early-morning temperatures hitting numbers not seen in months and with – hopefully – no more awful heat waves in sight, our house furnaces and boilers will soon be ready to kick in. For me, the change involves more than a turn of the thermostat dial. There is a memory journey as well.
Back when I didn’t worry about such things as heating, when the cocoon of early childhood had others taking care of room and board, my only assignment was to watch for the coal man.
In that time, before there was a massive bridge connecting interstate carpets on both sides of the mighty Hudson River in my lower New York State region, before the hustle-bustle age, we lived in a sleepy community – Spring Valley – population perhaps 4,500, though summer saw that tripled, maybe quadrupled, since there were seasonal bungalow colonies.
Our cherished quiet time returned in September, and the assuring hum of small-town life as well, with its Main Street shops, two small public elementary schools, a few small religious schools, one high school, a collection of doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals whose family names had long been known by residents, and the village regulars all communities have and without which there is no small town, USA.
One regular was the coal delivery man, from Comfort Coal, Beckerle Lumber or the other outfits that received their anthracite and bituminous lumps by Erie rail car. Living at 14 Ternure Ave., corner of Summit, at age 5, I watched for him.
I would sit on the mound of grass near small Mountain Pink flowers, day-dreaming as a past time and always an obsession, one ear cocked for the sound of truck gears changing as the coal man’s rig climbed Ternure’s hill.
The delivery fellow would pull into the gravel driveway and stop next to the Mountain Pinks. I would run and tell my grandfather or grandmother, and they would open the coal chute door above the basement bin. Then the deliveryman would connect a metal chute to his truck and begin shoveling supply into the chute and down into the cellar. The bin would always reach the same level, as the man had done his job for so long and was quite good at it, another community constant.
When the fellow was finished and had his chute back on the truck, but before he hopped in his cab and left, he would come over to me, give me a lump of shiny coal and tell me to bury it for a day when I might need it as a big boy or an adult, probably when I had to provide my own room and board.
I did what he said, and if anyone cares to dig into the dirt on that little hill at 14 Ternure, the east side of the house, they surely would find my stash of coal, buried there numerous times.
That home, long gone from the family, now has natural gas for heating, not coal, and there are no such delivery men in what is no longer a small village, nor a small county. “Progress” relentlessly has been on the march, but if it ever stops, I know where my rainy day savings account lies.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier piece.