January 21, 2013

Points East: We stoked the fires of global warming

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I’m not absolutely sure what’s causing it, but I suspect that a substantial number of factors have combined to bring on global warming.  But I am sure that it’s happening and that the potential impact on earth, as we know it, will, most likely, be devastating.  

I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I know, for sure, that Kentucky winters are a lot warmer now than they were when I was a school boy in the 50s and early 60s.  We simply didn’t have weeks of January weather with daily high temperatures approaching 70 degrees when I was growing up on Blair Branch.  If the temperature got above 40 in January, back then, it was considered a heat wave.  

At any rate, I can’t recall any January days when we didn’t need fires built at the school house.

Starting in the fifth grade and continuing through eighth grade, I was able to land fire building jobs with one teacher or another while I was enrolled at Blair Branch Grade School.  

The school had three rooms, three teachers, and three big, pot-bellied, coal-fired, heating stoves that had to be stoked and cleaned every day during cold weather.

The teachers figured out which boys could get to school early, reliably build a fire, stay after school to take out ashes, carry in several buckets of coal and get ready for the next day without burning the building down.  

They also figured that one stove was enough responsibility for one boy, so three of us landed these jobs.  I doubt that anyone besides J.B. Blair and me ever built fires for four consecutive years because the jobs were usually held by seventh or eighth graders.  Building fires and performing the chores associated with keeping the building comfortable during cold weather took about an hour each day and we fire builders were paid a dime a day for our labor.  

Each of us was entrusted with a key to open the padlocks to our respective rooms which meant that we had the building open at least an hour before any teachers showed up and we had to make sure that the building was empty when we locked up well after they’d gone home for the night.  

I usually showed up much earlier than that because Dad had a mining job that required him to leave home at 4 a.m.  If I got up early enough, I could ride out of the holler with Dad instead of having to walk a mile and a half before daylight.  I might also catch a ride with Lawson Brown or Lovell Blair in their loaded coal trucks if I didn’t get up in time to ride with Dad.  But usually I had to hoof it at least one day each week.  I even had my own carbide light for those mornings when walking was the only alternative.

On those extra-early mornings, I would simply build a fire and get it going, turn the lights back off, then curl up on the floor and go back to sleep for a couple of hours until one of the other fire builders  started banging around loud enough to wake me when they showed up at 7. Many times I would be so engrossed in a book, be it Zane Gray, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, or the latest Hardy Boys mystery that I didn’t need to go back to sleep.     

School was rarely canceled because of weather back in those days and high water, because of heavy rain or melting snow, was more apt to shut Blair Branch Down than a heavy snow.  

Every student at Blair Branch Grade school walked.  Even though we only had one teacher, during my tenure, who actually lived on the holler, most of the others lived close enough to walk if the roads were too bad to drive on.

I remember getting to the school house, getting a fire built and then learning from one of the neighbors that school had officially been canceled.  

The only way we had to get that notification was from WTCW, the Whitesburg radio station, and they didn’t sign on the air until 6:30 in the morning which was too late to get the word out to the fire builders.

This meant, of course, that we had wasted a hundred pounds of coal and, if modern science is to be believed, needlessly contributed to global warming.

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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