Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories: The Coal Man cometh, with the Night Stalker not far behind...

By Jim Heffernan
One of my grandsons, a five-year-old kindergartner, is concerned that he might be getting a lump of coal for Christmas. We all know why he has that concern, although lumps of coal aren’t as prevalent these days as they used to be.

A lump of coal for misbehaving was not part of my Christmas tradition growing up. We heated our home with oil, assuaging any concerns I might have had. Our next-door neighbor heated with coal, though, and I think the excitement and drama of the arrival of the “coal man” has been lost in our time.

Coal was the main source of furnace fuel when I was a child, and throughout the winter large trucks loaded with it crisscrossed the city in winter. Their boxes had a sliding trap-like door at the back with a handle that, when lifted, would release the coal into a chute positioned so that the coal could fall directly into houses basement coal bins.

If the truck couldn’t maneuver close enough, the coal man – a grim looking fellow covered from head to toe with coal dust – would load a wheelbarrow and push it into position above the coal chute. Coal was king well into the era that Nat King Cole started singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire (over coal?).

The thing that intrigued children about the process was the hope – never fulfilled – that they could slide down the coal chute into the coal bin. Nobody in my neighborhood ever pulled that off, probably realizing that when they completed their slide they would be, like the coal man and a certain jolly old elf, covered with black ashes and soot, the result being the threat of receiving only a lump of coal for Christmas.

But rest assured, the threat of receiving a lump of coal instead of colorfully wrapped gifts beneath the Christmas tree still exists, as witness my grandson who might never have even seen a lump of coal, unless charcoal for a grill counts. I suppose it does.

But enough coal. In keeping with the Christmas theme of this reminiscence, this week I heard a program on National Public Radio that devoted fully half an hour to discussion of the movie “A Christmas Story,” which has become as much a Christmas entertainment tradition as “White Christmas” (or Not-So-White Christmases in the coal era.)

People love that 1983 movie about the boy, Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and whose adventures leading up to the grand holiday include getting his tongue caught on a metal pole, encountering and triumphing over a neighborhood bully, a fall in his snowsuit so stuffed that he couldn’t get up by himself, and a nightmarish visit to a department store Santa Claus and his elves. No further description is needed – everyone surely has seen this delightful romp written by Jean Shepard, one best humor writers of the 20th century.

I was reminded, listening to the radio program, that actor Darren McGavin played Ralphie’s father, he of the living room leg lamp. If you have seen the movie, you know what I mean by leg lamp; if you haven’t go straight to Target where I notice they are selling them this year.

McGavin had earlier played a character on TV called “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” in which the title character investigated strange crimes of violence that the police had given up on. At the time, mid-‘70s, I was writing a column for the Duluth News Tribune and devoted one to “The Night Stalker.” I can’t recall what I wrote, but somehow in that pre-Internet era it caught the attention of McGavin himself.

Soon after I received a box in the mail from a Hollywood studio containing a nice personal note from McGavin thanking me for mentioning his show in the paper, and a narrow-brimmed straw hat, a replica of one the actor wore in his role as Kolchak (or should I spell it Coalchak?).

I wore the hat once, on Halloween one year, and now it has disappeared from my hat bag. (I do have one; it contains, among other hats, my father’s World War I “Smokey the Bear”-style uniform hat and my own coonskin cap from my Davy Crockett years.)

McGavin died in 2006, the gospel according to Google reports, hastening to add, “of natural causes.” No night stalker involved, nor any coal men, I trust.

Oh... and Merry Christmas, everyone!


Kath1e said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours. Did you read the NPR story about oranges in Christmas stockings and the connections to Northfield MN?

Jim Heffernan said...

Kath 1e... Listen to MPR all the time and guess I missed that one. Sounded like fun! Thanks for reading and have a Happy New Year!