A Special Day In 1949

James L. Cowles

© Copyright 2019 by James L. Cowles

Photo of a house in the snow.
Winter came early in 1949 and it came with a vengeance; almost ten inches of snow fell overnight.  I was only eight years-old and I didn’t know that such a snowfall that early was unusual; we were just a few days past Thanksgiving and all I could think about was that beautiful white blanket and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it.  To an eight-year-old, it was a signal that Christmas was just around the corner; what an exciting time in the life of a child. 
I spent much of the morning just staring out the window and hoping my parents would soon let me go outside into that beautiful white world.  I sat daydreaming, picturing Santa and his elves in his workshop, putting finishing touches on all the toys he would soon deliver.  I envisioned an elf painting that red wagon that I wanted so badly.  I had very little sense of geography at age eight; I actually thought the North Pole was just across the Ohio River, in Indiana. I had stared over there many times as we rode down River Road; it looked like there was a big factory over there and I could see smoke coming out of the smokestack.  That smoke was puffing any time we rode by there, day or night and that could only mean the elves were working overtime; the place had to be just full of toys. 
I was begging my mother to let me go outside, when my father reminded me there was work to be done on that chilly afternoon, even for an 8-year old.  One of my jobs was to take the coal ashes out to the street and empty them into anything that looked like a pothole.  It was not one of my favorite jobs, but I was anxious to go out to play in the snow, so as I donned my winter attire, I watched as dad opened the grate of our old pot-belly stove and carefully scooped the ashes into the scuttle bucket.  I wasn’t old enough to do that job yet and I remember wishing dad would let me give it a try; it would have made the job so much more exciting.   I certainly remember those early days and how the old stove was our only source of heat for our small 4-room house; the stove got extremely hot on its surface and I had experienced its wrath once or twice in the past, but it certainly kept our family of five warm during those cold winter days and nights in Kentucky.  It was actually kind of sad for me when Dad had a new floor furnace installed and removed the old stove, but I also recall how extremely proud he was that he had provided another, safer and more reliable source of heat for the family.
After dad had emptied the ashes from the grate, he added several new lumps of coal to the stove’s fire, closed the grate and opened the damper a bit more, then motioned toward the bucket of ashes, giving me my cue to do my job.  It was a little heavy, but not too heavy for me, a strapping 8-year old.  However, I do remember that two hands were required most times.  As all mothers did, mine always saw that I was dressed warmly and that day was no exception.  She seemed to put layer after layer of warmth on me, making sure I would feel no cold and that included fitting me with a wool coat, black rubber boots (I preferred red, but mom said they cost too much) and a cap with built in earmuffs that tied under my chin.  Add to that a thick pair of mittens and leggings and I could hardly move when she finished; I hated that ugly cap most of all. 

Dad helped me by opening the front door, allowing me to step out onto our wide, covered front porch.  The boards began cracking from the cold as I walked, pop-pop-pop; I headed straight for the steps, the wind whistling and an overwhelming ten inch accumulation of snow looming before me.  Oh, look at it; it was so beautiful and everything out here was so quiet.  Dad hadn’t shoveled anything as yet, so I carefully made my way down our snow covered front steps with the ashes and headed down our narrow walkway toward the street.  Our street, Chicopee Avenue, was unpaved and most of our neighbors also
heated with coal and just as we did, they emptied their ashes into the pothole filled street.  I suppose we were all hoping to give passing cars a little softer ride, but in truth, it was an excellent place to rid ourselves of the ashes from our coal stoves.
Several cars had already been up and down our street and I made my way down our walkway, surveying the street as I went.   I got about half way to the street, when I heard loud giggling from next door and as I turned, I could see my buddy James building a snowman with his Dad.  Needless to say, I wanted to join in the fun, so I immediately sat the scuttle down and headed over to help with the finishing touches on their great looking snowman. I reassured myself the ashes would still be there when I got back, so why not have a little fun now, while the fun was there to be had (?).

When I was a child of seven or eight years of age, it was not uncommon for me to go anywhere on the block and play with a friend.  When retrieving a child, a parent would merely stick his or her head out the door, or window and yell, “Ah Jimmy, Ah Bruce, or Ah James – Come on home now!”  It was a great place to grow up; the neighborhood was truly one big family and I especially have fond memories of James.  He was a year younger than me and attended the Church of God services with his family; I remember they were very religious.  One summer day, when Mr. Pitts was working in his garden, he was down on his knees, working feverishly and even singing a hymn as he worked.  James watched closely and when his father rose, he proclaimed, “Amen,” very loudly.
Mr. Pitts laughed and also said, “Amen.”  Dad had been working in our garden as well and witnessed the whole thing.  As I recall, he laughed for several days about James’ “holiness.”  Dad had also added an “Amen” that day and relished telling this story for years afterward. 
But, I digress.  I helped James and his father finish building the snowman and James tied a scarf around his neck; I helped complete the job by placing the carrot nose on the snowman’s head.  Afterward, we stood shivering, admiring our work and trying to think of a name for the snowman; I believe we decided to name him, “Oscar.” Finally, after several minutes, I headed back to complete my task of dumping the ashes into a pothole or two.  As I neared the bucket, I could see the heat from the ashes had melted the snow and when I grabbed its handle it was frozen solid to the ground and try as I might, I couldn’t budge it.  No matter how hard I yanked, my eight year old muscles couldn’t move it.  Thankfully, Mr. Pitts saw me struggling and came to my rescue; I actually wondered for a moment whether he could successfully break it loose.   One thing for sure, I did not want to go back into my house and tell my Dad the bucket was stuck; I can still hear my father’s favorite speech, even now.  “Jimmy, always complete a job before you play, son.”  Dad’s speech helped me later in life, but fortunately that day, it didn’t matter.  Mr. Pitts came through and I finally emptied the bucket in the biggest pothole I could find.
That night it again was very cold and all I could think about was Santa and what he might bring me for Christmas; the days back then seemed so much longer in comparison to today.  The cold wind was blowing so strongly, it made the windows pop; no double panes back then.  The popping sound was much like the one our porch made as we walked across it.  Nevertheless, I knew it wouldn’t be long before Dad walked to the corner store to buy us a Christmas tree; the thought of it excited me. There were one, two and three dollar trees and I was hoping dad would spring for the three dollar tree that year, but he decided two dollars   was enough to spend on a tree that would just be thrown out right after the Holidays; another lesson in frugality. .
The only really warm room in our house was our living room and come evening, our family gathered there, dad reading the paper, mom knitting, my sisters playing the piano and singing and me playing with some of my toys. I always enjoyed joining on the songs I knew, which were many.  Our old house had floors that were covered with linoleum and although they felt great on a hot summer day, they only added to the chill on a cold winter’s night; I remember us all wearing warm clothing on those cold days.   The kitchen was right off the living room and Mom & Dad’s bedroom, next to it.  The front bedroom was adjacent to the living room and our bathroom/wash-room was between the two bedrooms, creating a great circular path for a young boy to enjoy; my sisters would often chase me in the circular maze because of some mischievous thing I had done. 
 It was getting late when I saw Dad standing at the kitchen stove, lighting the gas oven.  It was a bit difficult to light as I recall, but when he finally got it lit, he placed several old flat-irons inside.  Mom had once used them to iron our clothes, before she got her new fandangle, GE electric iron, but now they would soon be ready to warm the bottom of the beds on that cold winters night. They were dandy bed-warmers, after they were heated and placed under our covers; dad would wrap the old irons in several towels and carefully place them under the covers at the foot of our beds.  What a great way to make sure your feet stayed warm; I could immediately feel the warmth as I raised the covers to climb in. .

Dad and Mom said good night, I said my nightly prayers, then inched my feet to the bottom of the bed to get them warm.  I still love to get into a cold bed and let my body warm it, but I don’t like to get in with cold feet; once they are cold, they seem to never get warm. Dad’s little bed-warming trick saved me from having cold feet many-a-night.  What a great memory.
As I dropped off to sleep, visions of sugarplums truly, danced in my head.  Today I look back and realize just how very fortunate I was to grow up during those tough years.  We were certainly not wealthy, but we were “rich” in so many other ways.  As I recall, Christmas was special that year, but you know, I cannot remember when it wasn’t so in Highland Park, that special place that now exists only in my memories; I wish the same for every person on this earth.  I learned all those many years ago that Christmas is so much more than electric trains, or little red wagons.  The real gift in life is the love and warmth of family, friends and yes, neighbors, especially those who make a great snowman and help get a scuttle bucket unstuck for an eight year-old.   

Contact James

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Story list and biography for James

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher