r Back Tracks Managing the woes of winter
Before the icy winds blew across the back tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, many preparations needed to be made to help manage the winter woes.
First of all, the coal shanty needed to be filled. Heat, food, and drying icy gloves and mittens on the open oven door, all depended on a roaring fire in the coal stove. This meant my brother would be shoveling a dump-truck load of the black lumps into the old wooden coal shanty, which sat near our house.
Throughout the summer months, Dad found coal, here and there, in the old abandoned coal mines that surrounded us. He would go for a walk in the woods, carrying two empty buckets, and return with them full of coal. Do this a few times a week, and maybe the level of the coal in the shanty would go up a foot, or two — enough to keep us warm for several days.
During the winter, the first path to be shoveled out in the deep snow was to the coal shanty. It was that important.
In the fall, you started saving up ashes in an old metal garbage can or burn barrel. It was for sure you were going to need them to spread on the driveway and walks during the icy weather that was sure to come.
People who were lucky enough to have cars, put studded tires on them, or got out their tire chains to be sure they would be ready to use when the need arose.
If winter days were cold, winter nights seemed even colder, and it was always freezing in the upstairs bedrooms. Filling an empty plastic bleach bottle with hot water, covering it with an old sock, and tucking it down under the covers kept your feet warm for a while. But heaven help you on the nights when the lid wasn’t screwed on just right and it popped off during the night.
Cold feet are bad. Cold, wet feet are much worse.
Of course, we were lucky to have feather ticks, filled with goose feathers, for our beds. These covers were passed down through generations, probably made by my grandmother, who came to the USA from Poland and raised geese on their farm up the road. Those ticks were so heavy they almost suffocated a spindly child of10.
Chores in winter still had to be done, including hanging the wash out on the clothes line. Sometimes when I was sent to pick the clothes off the line, I would find frozen-hard cardboard-like pants, shirts, and towels. I would layer them up in the clothes basket (there was certainly no folding them) and try my best to carry the stiff pile back into the house. Then I would try to drape them over the banister to dry, sort of hitting the clothes a little bit to get them to bend.
Kids still had to attend school in winter. We walked the mile to school in all kinds of snowy and freezing weather. There certainly were no wind-chill school closings or delays back then.
On one particularly frigid morning, I remember leaving the warmth of the kitchen and walking to school with my older brother. The snow crunched under our boots. We had only walked down the road a very short way when I realized it was hard to breathe and the moisture in my nostrils was freezing. My bare legs were freezing prickly cold, too, because girls always wore dresses to school.
In my distress, I started to cry.
My brother cautioned me, “Don’t cry, Rose. Your eyelids will freeze shut.”
So I stopped crying. We learned to toughen up very quickly in the Sixties.
Another winter prep was putting thin sheets of plastic film over the single-pane windows in the house, to try to keep out the windy blasts. This process involved two people. One person held the plastic film over the window. The other held teeny black tacks and used a ball-peen hammer to pound them in around the perimeter of the plastic, all the while trying to avoid hitting their fingers. Never a happy time.
I was so glad that plastic film was only put on the windows that faced the wind. Because on the windows that did not have plastic covering them, during certain types of winter weather, Jack Frost would paint the inside of the entire window pane with a thin solid sheet of the most beautifully swirled frosty leaves. When the sun shone through that masterpiece of nature, it was a sight to see. Before the sun melted it, that is.
I have never seen that beautiful icy artwork on windows since I left the wooden frame house that once upon a time sat between the railroad tracks on Number 10 Mine Road.
After I moved out of the house and married, eventually my husband and I were making plans to build our new home. When he asked me what kinds of features I wanted in it, I told him that all I wanted was “to be warm.”
And on this very cold February day — a day when the local schools have called for a two-hour delay — I sit here in my toasty kitchen and realize that I got my wish.
Rose Hoover is a freelance writer for The Express. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-387-4016.