How two lumps of coal can be prized possessions

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two lumps of coal sit on a curio shelf in our house, resting among our finest trinkets and collectibles. There is nothing visibly remarkable about them, no special features that make them unique, nothing outwardly portrayed that set them apart from any other specimens of coal.

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And yet, these two pieces of coal are among my most prized possessions.

My dad found the coal one morning while walking along an abandoned railroad track near Kickapoo State Park in Illinois, where we briefly camped together one summer several years ago. He gave them to me after his walk, and I have kept them ever since.

It is said that it's not the gift, but the thought that counts. Over the years, I have thought a great deal about the two lumps of coal my father gave to me.

Folklore tells us that Santa Claus leaves coal in the stockings of the undeserving. Indeed, in these good times it can be difficult to place much value on a lump of coal. This was not always the case.

My dad was born in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Kickapoo was a strip mine then, and coal was the life-blood of the region. Coal streamed out from the mine in a seemingly endless procession of heavily laden trains, bringing money into the local economy and providing jobs at a time when jobs were hard to come by.

Coal heated most of the homes and businesses in that region of the country in those days, but for many people employment was scarce, and money even scarcer. Heat was a luxury that not everybody could afford.

But even in those worst of times, it was still possible to stay warm. Coal could be obtained for free by walking along the railroad tracks and picking up what had fallen from the cars or the tenders of the trains that passed by. A few hours spent along the tracks might yield enough coal to cook a meal, to heat a room, to feel warm on an otherwise cold night.

It is a good thing to feel warm. People can go without a great many things and still be content when they are warm. Even food and shelter lose some of their value when compared to the luxury of heat; anybody who doubts that should try going without it for a few days.

The two lumps of coal on our shelf remind me of how well off we are. They remind me of how luxuriant life is for my children as compared to the spare existence my parents were born into. They remind me of a much harsher time, of a time when the basics of life were far more basic than what we consider so today.

In the days of the Great Depression the luxuries of life were few for most, nothing was taken for granted by many, and little was left to waste. Products were reused and recycled and passed from one use to another until they were truly used up.

In today's world consumerism has replaced thrift. Excess and waste denotes our society. Pollution has taken on world-wide proportions in the guise of greenhouse gasses and global warming. The consequences of our current largesse will be bourn by our children, and by all future generations.

The two lumps of coal on our shelf remind me of the future challenges my children will face. My children, and their generation, will have to learn to live in a world where fossil fuels are not a cheap and easy solution to their needs for heat and energy. They will have to cope with the environmental changes that our use of these fuels has caused and will continue to cause until alternatives can be developed. With luck, they may develop these alternatives, and find ways to undo the damage we have done.

Hopefully, coal may someday become a symbol of our past rather than a fuel of last resort in a world clamoring for energy. Perhaps, someday, humankind will be able to live in a cleaner, greener world, where coal is viewed as a curiosity, like the two lumps of coal that sit on our curio shelf.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long term Juneau resident.

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