Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Memoir by Carl Goodwin. Growing Up in a Company Town.

Memories of the Coal
by Carl Goodwin

Post world war, 1950’s. At age ten, I’m living in a small mid-sized port midway along the north shore of Lake Erie in Southern Ontario. Our community is comparatively small, perhaps a thousand in winter and a summer population of about two thousand if one counts visitors who arrive from the city to “cottage” and swim in the lake.
            Kettle Creek flows through the village. The creek is dredged to remove silt that has been washed down from the farmland upstream. Dredging allows access for large lake freighters that come to offload massive tonnages of coal shipped across the lake from Ohio. Large piles of coal are dumped on both sides of the creek along the docks.
            Some of the coal is destined for homes but most of it is taken to industries and hospitals  in cities to the north, We live alongside the east dock, four houses up the street from where the bulk of the coal is offloaded and stockpiled pending sale. The coal is graded and screened before being trucked out through the village. My uncle is superintendent on the east dock and has worked his way up through the ranks of the coal company. For profit to be made, the coal must be reloaded and trucked to waiting customers as quickly as possible. 

Strongly anti-union, my uncle decides which drivers get what loads. A “good” load is one that is a short trip to places that have good turnaround areas. A “bad” load is a load that must be trucked a greater distance sometimes over snow-clogged country roads in winter and muddy pot-holed roads in spring time.
            The trucks are loaded using cranes and, as the coal is dropped into the trucks, large clouds of coal dust drift in off the lake. Fine and penetrating, the dust vibrates from the trucks and onto the street in front of our house.

            My mother tries to keep my brother and I clean. She tries to keep the house clean. Dust must be wiped from clothes lines and washing hung out before the next truck passes. (no clothes driers in those days.) She worries that my young brother and I might get run over by a coal truck.
            My father, well aware of my mother’s frustration, desperately tries to use the garden hose to water down the road but the garden hose is inadequate and the water he sprays quickly evaporates in the summer sun.
            Dad appeals to the village council to order the Company to water down the coal dust. Council is unwilling or unable to make the company mitigate the dust problem. A truck to water done the road would be “too costly” for the company.
            On Sundays, the company owner drives through the village on his way to inspect his coal piles and sometimes he cruises by on his yacht. Sometime he waves to us as he passes by.
            Summers are the worst. When my uncle comes home from work his face is blackened with coal dust. My aunt likes summer because then my uncle can bathe in the lake and forego the bathtub. Sometime he lets my brother and I accompany him. At the lake, we scrub ourselves down with bright orange Lifebuoy Soap. My uncle lets us dive again and again from his broad shoulders. He tells us that one day each summer all coal company employees get a ride on the owner’s yacht to a company picnic down the lake. Free drinks. Plenty of food. Sometimes pony rides.
            “Too bad you boys can’t go because your dad doesn’t work for the company.” Dad never was a “company man.”
No cake… no pony rides…
            There is a rumour my uncle “could be” moved off the dock into the company’s head office in the city. He will need to wear a tie. A suit. He will need to get his shirts cleaned up at the Chinese laundry. My mother says he’ll have to stop saying ‘ain’t” and spruce up his grammar. Smoke less.
            The promotion and my uncle’s “makeover” don’t materialize. Champion Fuel Oil replaces Imperial Coal as the fuel of choice. Modern times. My uncle retires from the coal dock. Company pension. Still saying “ain’t’ and using double negatives.

Carl Goodwin, a long time resident of Thunder Bay, now lives on Denman Island, British Columbia.

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