It was a dirty job, but we had to do it

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Listening to politicians discuss our energy challenges in this country, coal as a power source comes up again and again. It makes me feel rather old, as though I have come full circle in this lifetime.

And then I hear the term ‘clean coal’ and I realize we really have come a long way to have found this incredible trick up the old sleeve.

Coal was our heating source when I was a kid. One of my earliest and most dreaded jobs was ‘hauling out ashes’ every Saturday.

It was a dirty, icky job my sisters grumbled about every bit as much as I did. While our friends talked about how much they looked forward to Saturday mornings and the lazy fun of watching reels of cartoons, our world stood in stark contrast to their glorified lolly-gagging about on comfy couches.

Saturdays on our farm always started with the very early morning milking and served as a good time to catch up on extra chores that simply could not be completed during the busy week. It may sound mighty strange to say, but I found myself taking extra time to complete those barn chores, simply dreading the next job on the chore list more than anything the dairy barn could demand.

No escaping it

After a hearty breakfast, that dreaded chore list reminded us there was no escaping hauling out ashes. My older sisters would open the grate under the coal furnace and instruct us younger girls to hold the bucket, tipped on an angle, so they could scoop those ashes from the under-belly of the furnace in to the ash bucket in one quick movement. The dust was unbearable, unbelievable.

We would all escape from the old cellar of the house through the outside cellar-way door coughing up a storm, gasping for fresh air. It was usually so cold we could see our breath, and we joked that was the only way we could be sure we were still alive.

The buckets were light-weight, almost airy, but we found the job to be miserable in every way. We were instructed to carry those dusty cinders to the driveway, spreading them along that entrance lane. It was recycling at its earliest and finest; we just didn’t know to call it that in those days.

I still grin when I realize even my little Pekingese, Chippi Chan, who was my constant shadow in every other endeavor on the farm, chose to remain inside the house when this chore was being completed. She would lie on the top of the davenport’s backrest, always in the same spot, which allowed her to look out the window at us while we worked, keeping tabs on our progress.

When our final trips had been made out to the lane with ash buckets, she barked at the door, pleading to be let outside, wanting to join us. She was no dummy.

My poor sister Debi, who seemed to be allergic to everything, coughed and sneezed and wheezed her way through this job and often remained miserable for the rest of the weekend. She probably looked forward to spring more than anyone, even though it brought spring fever, just because warmer weather meant the elimination of this dreaded chore.

Coal delivery

I remember listening to the coal truck pulling up to make a delivery, lump coal being dropped through the coal bin of that old cellar. I have wondered in recent years how much one of those deliveries cost. It especially crosses my mind as I write out big payments for natural gas in the dead of winter.

I remember picking up even the largest lump of coal and feeling astonished at how light it was. Sometimes, while playing ‘house’ inside on winter days with my sisters, we would pretend the shiniest lump of coal in the coal bin was gold which we had discovered. Suddenly, we were rich and powerful!

On the few occasions my parents went away for an evening, Dad would make a point of telling us he had loaded lots of coal in to the furnace so we would be warm without worry until their return.

I still remember the week the old coal furnace was torn out, replaced with a much smaller new furnace. We were ecstatic to be able to scratch that Saturday morning chore off the list, once and for all! Dad was pleased to have a furnace that fed itself, keeping us warm without trips to the cellar to throw coal in to the furnace several times throughout the day and evening.

But, he reminded us we were blessed to live in a warm house, and I remember him telling of stories of coal miners who toiled in dangerous working conditions to supply us with our heat source.

Perhaps re-discovering coal will once again lead this country back to independence. Maybe hauling out ashes wouldn’t be as painful as writing out those big checks for natural gas.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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