Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hauling Smoke

In my younger days I tried numerous professions. One of the hardest jobs I ever had was delivering coal from a train station to homes in Boston. The hours were long, the coal was heavy and the work paid very poorly.

After about a month, I decided to go into business for myself hauling smoke instead. It weighed less and I figured it would pay better. I’d noticed that on particularly cold winter days, the smoke from the coal-burning stoves and fireplaces didn’t just hover over the rooftops – it froze solid. It blocked sunlight and made the short, dark days of winter even darker for people living in those houses. I would walk from building to building and offer to clear away the smoke for a fee. Folks paid readily.

To clear the air, I would climb onto a roof with a ladder, saw out a block of smoke, tie a rope around it and pull it into my cart. Then I wrapped the block in a wet sheet. The sheet would freeze in the winter air, sealing in the carboniferous cloud should any start dripping off, and add enough weight to keep the block from floating away. I would continue in this manner until the roof was clear, and then move on to the next building. When the cart was full I would take the blocks to a lumber mill, where I packed them in sawdust for shipping. I sold most of the blocks to the army. They bought a lot of smoke to make jerky.

This worked fine until spring, when the Army switched to canned beef. The thaw also made it too difficult to saw the clouds effectively. I didn’t quit, though. I took old barrels and attached them to the tops of the chimneys in order to fill them. When I had enough to load a rail car, I shipped them to Tennessee. There they were purchased by a certain whiskey manufacturer I knew who liked to age his whiskey in smoke-cured barrels.

Of course, once the barrels were opened a lot of the smoke escaped, but the prevailing winds blew the cloud east into the Appalachians. Much of it remains there to this day. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “Smokey Mountains.” Now you know how they got that name.

copyright ©2010 Laurie J. Anderson, all rights reserved.

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