Scratch an old person, or if you insist on being politically correct, scratch a senior citizen, and you’ll find someone who will be only too happen to look you straight in the eye, spit, and tell you that things ain’t what they used to be.
Don’t waste your breath on the obvious reply that many things, particularly medicine, are better than they used to be. Trust me, it’ll get you nowhere.
Pneumonia, for example, used to swoop down and whisk away otherwise healthy people with alarming regularity. I can remember a physician looking at a pneumonia patient running a high fever and quite calmly telling his soon-to-be widow not to worry.
“If his fever breaks tonight,” he said, “he’ll be fine.”
And if it didn’t? Your chances of making it? Fifty-fifty. Personally, I don’t like those odds. Give me penicillin any day.
Don’t bother to point that out to your 90-year-old granddad though. As he’ll be very happy to tell you, using himself as a prime example, back in those days dying was for sissies.
As for the other progress we’ve made over the last 90 years? Just ask granddad. You know what you’ll hear? “TV? Nuts! Too noisy! Too much flashing! Anyway, who wants to sit INSIDE and watch a baseball game?
“And cars today? Bah! Pieces of spot-welded sheet metal that disassemble if they hit a pregnant mouse!
“Cell phones? Computers? I-pods? Phooey! That collection of trash, along with backpacks, are turning kids into couch potatoes with bad backs and waistlines same as their height.”
There is, however, one thing granddad won’t argue about, but you’re not going to bring it up because you’ve never seen it, and us old folks don’t talk about it because it just quietly drifted away. No fanfare. No arguments about losing our precious heritage. No sighs for the good old days. Nothing. It just went.
What am I talking about?
You’d never guess, so I’ll tell you.
“Coal?” you’re probably saying. “What was so big about coal?”
I’ll tell you how big coal was. Right up ’til 1960 there was a guy by the name of John L. Lewis, head of the mine workers, who could lift one finger and shut this whole country down. That’s right, shut it down! Shut down transportation. Shut down industry. Shut down everything! All he had to do was call out his coal miners.
Poof! No trains running. No heat. No electricity. No nothing.
In fact, without coal you couldn’t even light your gas stove to keep warm.
In those days gas was made from coal. It was called “city gas” and was made in soot-blackened corners of the city where coal was roasted into two products, city gas and coke.
No, dummy, not the coke you drink. And uh-uh, not that kind either. This was light airy-looking gray stuff that you could toss into a hearth, blow some air through, and produce a white hot fire that would melt steel.
Yes, coal was king back in those days. Walk down any city street and you’d know it in less than five minutes. A black rock half the size of a BB would come wafting down out of some chimney and lodge in your eye. And when you wiped it out, you’d look like you were wearing your mother’s eye shadow.
Or stand looking down the tunnel as you waited for the subway to come roaring into the station, and a second too late to turn away you’d see this black cloud of soot rolling toward you.
Or wipe your hand across any flat surface out of doors in the city and you’d bring away a greasy black palm.
Oh yeah! Coal was king. Big dirty, nasty, sooty old king!
Think I’m exaggerating? Listen, you could go to any beach on the east coast of this country, dig down into the sand, and a foot down you’d come to a thick black layer of soot deposited by trains and collected into a layer by rainfall. Might still be there too.
They used to teach us about coal — and John L. Lewis — in school. Everyone knew about anthracite (hard coal), bituminous (soft coal), and lignite (brown, unfinished stuff). If you didn’t you were ignorant. It was part of our culture, like knowing the difference between blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.
And why not? We ate at least two or three times as much soot in those days as we ate berries. And soot was free.
Ever seen any of the old movies set in city slums? You know? “Dead End,” or “The Dead End Kids,” or “The Dead End Kids Rise Again”? Those slums were dirty, black-looking places, weren’t they? But if you go to a so-called “slum” these days the people may be dirt poor, and there may be more food stamps per acre than there are ants, but the neighborhood doesn’t look all that grungy.
You got it! Old King Coal.
Ever seen those documentaries where they show big old steam locomotives?
Don’t they just look grand? Shuff-shuffing through the countryside? Roaring along the tracks on great steel wheels?
Listen, bubba! Every time one of those things shuffed out that “steam,” 15 pounds of soot shuffed out with it.
There was a railway bridge in my home town in Connecticut. It was there so that when a train sat in the station you could cross over the rails. I’ve seen fools look over the side as a locomotive went by underneath. Never saw anyone do it twice.
Oil killed coal, of course. With the help of natural gas pipelines run halfway across the country. I can remember my mom waiting for the “new” gas. The pipeline came through. They came and changed the orifices on the burners.
And that was that.
It was a quiet revolution. They tore down the old gas works. Trains went GRONK-GRONK instead of TOOT-TOOT. No one had to carry two tons of coal up from the street, bag by hundred pound bag, and send it crashing down a metal chute into our cellar. The air grew cleaner. The little black bits in my food were pepper.
Of course there are drawbacks. These days as you cross the Sierras you can look down and see Los Angeles spread out below.
Which is a good reason to miss good old coal-fed smog.