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A messy hillside stirs memories of warmth

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

Draped in black, the hillside behind the backyards of Red Hawk Drive homes showed the impact of an overnight train derailment.

Tons of coal poured from derailed hoppers. A stand of trees alongside the track appeared to be propping up the silver train cars, keeping them from rolling down the hill.

The scattered shipment covered the earth, mashing small plants and smothering the soil. It’s odd how memories work. Because at first glance, the mess reminded me of Grandpa.

For most of my growing up, a giant pile of coal sat behind my grandfather’s home, which coincidentally is less than two miles down Red Hill Road from the crash site.

Just inside the gate that separated yard from barnyard, a delivery truck periodically dumped a supply of jet-black coal behind the smokehouse and near the chicken roost. One bucket at a time that coal would be loaded and carried inside for heat.

A giant potbelly stove dominated the living room of the woodframe house. In the winter, that room was always warm.

Sometimes, it was the hottest place on earth - particularly for the side of your body facing that stove. Every so often, you needed to switch seats at the checker table in order to warm the other half of your body.

In a house heated by a single fire, you experience sensations akin to a roast in the oven. If you don’t turn, it’s easy to get too done on one side. It might be simultaneously chilly on the other half of your body.

There was no electric blower connected to that stove. No duct work carried heat to other parts of the house. In order to heat the bedrooms or kitchen, humans in the living room had to sweat out December evenings.

Particularly just before bedtime. In order to ensure that the fire kept going all night, it was important to stoke it and get those embers redhot just before everyone turned in.

Coal fueled the fire. We don’t think about coal much any more. It’s critical to Kentucky’s economy but in this central part of the state away from the Appalachian underground veins or the western Kentucky surface mines, coal doesn’t come to mind very often.

The house where my grandparents lived was converted to bottle gas. The dump truck deliveries ended generations ago.

But coal continues to be critical to ensuring this state remains a low-price leader when it comes to electricity production. Every car in that train was carrying coal. Countless others move along tracks through our neighborhoods each week.

Somehow looking at that black hillside of coal, you realize how far we have come and how much we’ve forgotten along the way.

Thanks to an electronic thermostat each room stays at a steady temperature whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter outside. Obviously, electricity plays a role in that process but because we are separated from cause and effect by suppliers, utility companies and distribution lines, we forget how the process works.

It’s easy to forget how things work and what’s important. I like my climate-controlled comfort but what I wouldn’t give to sit again beside that redhot stove and that checker table with those precious folks.

Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 270-505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.