Random Thoughts

Ashes to ashes

 ... and dust in the air

by Jerry Norton

Many old-time Melrosians can hark back to the days when many, if not most, of our homes were heated by coal. And thus it was that during the winter months in the 1930's our home on Sargent St. provided my brother and me with a distasteful task.

In my mind's eye I can still see that big cast iron furnace in the cellar and I can hear the rattle of the coal as it was being disgorged down the delivery truck's chute into our coal bin below. My dad was "the keeper of the flame" and every night before retiring he would crank the grates on which the coals rested and the burned ashes would fall into the pit below. Unfortunately some of these ashes contained still unburned pieces of coal and that fact provides the basis of this yarn.  Although dad made a good living selling John Hancock Life Insurance he was no profligate and waste in any form was repugnant to him.

And so it was that every two or three Saturday mornings in winter found Eddie and me sorting this good unburned coal from the discarded ashes by a rather unpleasant process. We would transfer a full barrel of ashes into an empty one, a shovel at a time, through a sifter on top of the adjacent empty. By vigorously shaking this device, the real ashes would fall through and we would pick out any unburned coal and throw it back into the bin. Not long into this process the air would be full of ash dust even though the small cellar windows were kept wide open. We wore cloths over our faces and probably filtered out most of the soot. We are now both octogenarians and our lungs evidently no worse for the experience.

Most often we would take some of the ashes outside and scatter them along the unpaved driveway leading to the garage in order that the family car might have traction to negotiate its way on the frozen snow. The remaining ashes would be taken out to curbside for pickup by the city.

These efforts were not without compensation as we each received a weekly stipend of seventy-five cents which was far above most kids' allowance in that depression era. If memory serves correctly the old Melrose theater would sometimes have a Saturday morning movie for youngsters, charging ten cents admission. Our neighborhood pals knew that if one of these shows fell on an "ash Saturday" that the Norton boys would be unable to attend with them...no matter, with our princely allowance we could well afford the afternoon show at fifteen cents.

I must be a creature of habit...after all these years, and the various warm climates in which I have lived, I still catch myself on rubbish days saying "time to put out the ash barrels."

June 4, 2004

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