Yesterday's Magazette

12 – Gathering Coal

Gathering Coal

By Ingeborg Haese Knight

The cold days of winter approached like a silent phantom, spreading its chills in our unheated apartment. The potbelly stove in the kitchen provided the only heat. But not now; it was cold. Most of the firewood, from torn-down garden plot fences that Mother had carried home during the early quiet hours, would be saved for the cooking pot’s evening meal.

The stoves voracious appetite presented a constant daily challenge of finding anything to burn. Scavenging became the norm in 1946 as a Siberian winter held its icy grip over Northern Europe.

It was still early afternoon when I finished my school homework at the kitchen table, wearing two sweaters; now and then blowing warm breath into my hands and rubbing them. It helped. My brother Pauler rummaged quietly, not to alert Mother, through our cloth shopping bags, looking for just a right size. He picked the bag that could hold 10 pounds of potatoes.

“What are you doing”? I asked

“Come with me,” he said softly, so Mother would not hear him.  “We’re getting coals. Heiner, Walter, and Werner know where to get them.”

Coals for the stove. Eager and anticipating the warmth, I said: “Okay, let me find a bag,  too.” My bags, medium size, used to hold two pounds of flour and sugar, seemed just right. ‘Getting’ coals meant the stove would stay warm throughout the night. The wood usually burned hot and fast and was long spent before the night waned.

The neighbor boys waited outside our apartment. When they saw me, I overheard them,  “Oh, man, why did you bring her? She won’t be fast enough.”

Determined, I asked, “Where are we getting coal? And why do you think I’m not fast enough? Fast for what?”

Grudgingly, Heiner provided information and instruction to keep a watchful eye for the police. “Never give your name, never give your address, in case we get caught gathering coal.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

The boys followed rumors that a freight train filled to the brim with coal was sitting idly at the station tracks. That’s where we headed. We climbed, one by one, to the top of the open wagon. Feverishly, I began to fill my bag with the oval, egg-sized coal, a much preferred heating source due to its hard compressed coal-dust composition.

My hands and clothing turned black from the dust. When my bag was almost full, I saw the boys hurriedly climbing down and running off without me, or warning me of the approaching police. My heart raced. I’m caught. It was too late.

The policeman in a civilian beige coat shouted, “Get down, at once.” He kept hitting his palm with a thin long stick.

Hanging on to my almost full bag of coal I made my way slowly down the ladder, trembling with fear.

“Dump that coal right here. Empty your bag, and what’s your name?” he barked.  I watched in horror as he reached inside his coat and withdrew a notepad and pencil, ready for my information.
Nervously, I looked around me. Where were the boys? Then I saw them, hiding behind a big chestnut tree, across from the station. They watched me. A silent encouragement from the boys, and I knew what I had to do.

“I’m Inge Muller,” I said, giving the last name of a classmate. Then I made up a street name; only the house number was identical. After taking his notes, I was told to go. But the coals were lying in a small heap on the freight train platform.

My bag was empty.

It would be another cold night at the apartment.

(Ingeborg was born in Pomerania, Germany, and raised in Stade, Germany. She emigrated to the United States in 1963 and now lives in sunny and warm Summerfield, Florida. Her memoir writing has been featured in Yesterday’s Magazette and in the anthology Dolls Remembered.)

Vol. 37 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2010

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