This story, written by Marcus Newton, was originally published in the January 16, 1999, edition of the Weld County Past Times.
As the wind howls and the snow swirls and the temperatures plunge on a cold January evening, I think about the blessings of shelter on a winter night.
Furnaces with constant 70-degree temps, double-pane windows, insulation, thermal blankets, winter boots, sweaters and down coats are relatively new to many people.
In Mead, Weld County, Colorado, in the ‘50s, we never knew when it was going to snow and we never knew what the temperature was; we only knew it was winter.
I remember watching an unexpected afternoon storm blow in the from the northwest. We saw the trees around Highland Lake disappear in a cloud of angry gray and watched the curtain of winter move slowly across Mr. Gettman’s field. Then, engulfed in the wind and the driving snow, we hurriedly tried to herd the squawking chickens into the coop.
I remember the winter winds rattling the windows and hissing through the cracks and crannies of our barn-like house on the north end of Mead. Cold crept up from the cellar. Frost and frigidity stole through the attics. Winter entered through the floors and the doors and the windows of that old house. Two coal-wood stoves, one in the kitchen (the stove) and one in the dining room (the heater), gave brave battle to the Colorado cold.
Those stoves were voracious consumers of coal and wood. If economic times were fat, you could call up R.W. Markham, proprietor and sole employee of the Mead Transfer Co., and he’d deliver a ton or two of coal in his blue and red truck. If we ran out of coal during fat times, Mom would call a neighbor and we’d take a gunny sack and the wagon and go borrow or buy some.
If times were lean, as they were during many winters in that Mead household filled with kids, wood was the fuel alternative. You always needed kindling to start a fire and to get it hot enough to burn coal. We were forever foraging for dead trees or fallen branches, lumber of any kinds that people threw away, or old buildings being torn down. If it would burn and you didn’t need it, there was a Newton there to take it off your hands.
Unbendable winter rule: Immediately after school, coal buckets had to be filled and wood and kindling gathered and chopped before playing or reading or anything else.
In the afternoons, when I wanted to do something else, I thought that rule was stupid. But as I ate supper or breakfast that had been cooked on the stove, and as I warmed by the heater, I came to understand some things about the need for rules and why we each had jobs to do. Upstairs, where all the kids slept in three big rooms, the only heat was the lukewarmth given off by the chimneys from the stoves below. Temperatures were what you might call brisk; you could usually see your breath.
But our mother was a good provider. We had plenty of quilts. The same way the boys scrounged wood for the stoves, so did my mother scrounge material for covers. Hand-me-down clothes that couldn’t be worn by anyone were cut into squares and diamond patterns, stitched together attached to batting material and turned into beautiful, heavy quilts. We had a couple of trunksful in the attic. You’d just pile on quilts until you weren’t cold anymore. Of course, you had to decide whether to sleep on your stomach or your back because you could barely turn over.
A winter morning in the ‘50s began with my father rattling the heater grate, shaking the ashes from lumps of coal used to bank the fire the night before. Next, he added kindling and more coal to get the fire going.
As I listened from my bed in the middle bedroom upstairs, I’d hear the fire roaring before Dad shut down the damper and the heater began to heat. A short time later, I’d hear the clatter of the kitchen stove as my mother used newspaper and kindling to get a fire going for coffee and breakfast. As the stoves began to roar, I and my brothers and sisters would begin to think about getting up, but it usually took a call up the stairwell from Mom or Dad to get much action: “All right…rise and shine.” Finally, we’d leap from bed, grab our clothes and, two steps at a time, dash downstairs. Shivering, we’d place the cold clothes on the still-warming heater before dressing.
On a cold winter evening, most Newtons stayed home. We had no car and, except for Grover Roberts’ Mead Pool Hall, there was no place to go. We spread about the dimly lighted dining room. Some huddled round the heater, trying either to get warm or to stay warm. Some kids were reading, some were doing homework on the table or the floor (“…No, I was here first…You were not…Was too…Mover over and gimme some room…Mom, Dave’s writing real hard and shakin’ the table…Mom, he’s still doing it…”).
Dad would periodically feed the fire until it roared and the heater glowed. It rarely failed that my mother would comment, “What are you trying to do, burn the house down?” Dad never responded.
A short time after opening the stairwell door – to allow the lukewarmth to creep upstairs – Dad would say, “It’s about time you birds were gettin’ to bed.”
After various protests and delays, you’d rush upstairs, undress in seconds, hop into the sack and hugging knees to chin, scrunch up into a mass about the size of a pillow and lie there for a time. Then, as the cold departed, you’d s-l-o-w-l-y stretch our under the toasty pile of quilts.
While you meditated on the joys of a warm bed, the storm raged and rattled the attic doors. As you drifted off to sleep, you smiled, knowing there was a good possibility that Mead Consolidated School would be closed the next day.
Marcus Newton is the Neighbors/Religion editor at the Greeley Tribune. This column was first published in 1993.