Save the ashes, please

The return of coal for heating houses has been widely hailed as a panacea for high oil prices. This thought fills me with unbelievable trepidation. When I was a boy my father said that I was responsible for keeping the coal furnace going while he was at work. I became a daytime denizen of the cellar. The coal bin was my domain. It was a grave responsibility.

As soon as I came home from school, the call to duty was sounded. ''Look after the furnace. The house is getting cold.'' I donned my sackcloth and ashes - my overalls and an old sweater knitted by my mother. The sweater tended to grab you under the arms. It was Mother's first attempt at Depression knitting. You could feel the grime of the ashes as you put the sweater on.

As the environmentalists wax enthusiastic about America's 200-year supply of coal, let me sound a note of caution. Our furnace generally produced a minimum of heat but mountains of ash.

To me it seemed that the main purpose of coal fires was the collecting, sifting, sorting, grading, and distribution of ash.

The ash was quite useful in those days. It was a natural for icy driveways and sidewalks. No need to spend scarce money on rock salt.

The processing of ash (today we would call it recycling) was a major cellar activity. After shaking the grate, you shoveled the hot ash on top of the ash pile. When it cooled the next day, ''operation sifting'' could begin. Choking through clouds of dust, you separated the ash from the clinkers. The clinkers were good for banking the fire at night - another operation beset with woeful consequences if you did not adjust the dampers properly.

I always remember the morning I saw Father lighting a fire with newspapers under the pantry faucets to melt the ice in the pipes. Incidentally, when the fire went out you lost your hot water supply as the water was heated in a little neck of pipe over the coal fire.

We were a two-barrel family. We used in excess of ten tons of coal a year. Each week I had to fill two iron barrels with waste ash, lift them up the six steps of the cellar to the outside door, and then drag, push, pull, and wheel the barrels down the long driveway so that the city sanitation workers could pick them up.

Poorer families (or were they just better furnace engineers?) were one-barrel families. And the really unfortunate used kerosene in a kitchen stove burner, which heated two rooms rather well but produced no ash.

Ash had uses beyond icy driveways and walks. It was a major landfill, and I always nurtured the suspicion that most houses and buildings during the Depression rested not on sand but on ash. Any ash that was not recycled and barreled wound up in the tomato plant section of the garden.

Another demand of the coal furnace was the preparation of kindling. Every summer we collected small branches and odd pieces of wood. As long as that supply lasted, things were not bad in my bailiwick. But, once the supply was depleted, I had to scrounge for boxes in the alleys behind stores and markets.

Fortunately, cardboard was a rarity in those days. Everything was shipped in wooden boxes or crates. Orange crates were particularly favored for kindling, provided that they were not held together by what I surely thought was barbed wire. My ax for wood chopping was a lumberman's pride, except for the fact that the ax head had the unpleasant habit of flying off. After it had smashed into the gas meter in the cellar corner, I was careful not to raise the handle above my head.

No, I guess you could say that I don't look forward to the return of coal as a heating fuel - not unless someone symbolizes the era with an epochal play, appropriately titled ''The Ashman Cometh,'' to sanctify the work ethic involved.

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