The Coal Heap

Okay, so now that I’ve interrupted our Mexican vacation, I think I’ll really break away and reminisce for a while about my African childhood, the setting of my middle grade novel, MARULA RIDGE.

My father was the first white baby born in Vereeniging, a small town huddled along the banks the Vaal River in South Africa. The town was 6,000 feet above sea level - dry dusty highveld – and the Vaal was its lifeblood, meandering, wide and brown, between willow-lined banks.

By the time I was born, my grandfather had helped damm the Vaal River and my father was Chief Engineer of the Water Board. Our house, along with a couple others, was built right on their property, so that the key workers could be close to the heart of the operation.

An impressive brick and iron gateway marked its entrance. An African in a smart khaki uniform stood guard, clicking his heels together, saluting and waving us through with his wooden knob-kerrie. And within the compound were workshops for the blacksmith, the welders, and the carpenters, as well as housing for the African workers. All this enterprise used a lot of coal and to that end, there was a coal heap two stories high against the side of a building on the property’s edge.

Keith and Peter Glass, who lived next door, were my best friends and the coal heap was our playground! We’d scramble up the sloping pile of coal, slipping and sliding as we raced each other to the top, where we’d stand triumphant, panting, grazed and very black. From up there, we had a perfect view over the wall and onto the railroad track on the other side.

A couple of huge shovels lay at the bottom of the heap and often we would drag them up with us. We’d take turns – one sitting on a shovel and clinging to its curved edges while the other two pushed on the handle to sent you bouncing all the way down to the bottom of the pile struggling to keep balanced and screaming in ecstatic terror all the way.

But the loudest I ever screamed was the time we tried this maneuver using a piece of wood instead of a shovel. I positioned myself in the middle of the wood and Keith and Peter gave me a great shove from behind. The wood stayed put, wedged firmly into the coal, while my body scooted forward gathering a great harvest of long wood splinters in my behind! I wailed all the way home and had to lie sooty, snotty and bleeding while my mother pulled out the splinters one by one, scolding me all the while.

The railroad track ran along the outside wall of the property next to the coal heap, and the huge black steam engines would puff and hiss their way past loaded with equipment for the nearby gold mines. My mother hated them. They would set the ground rumbling and turn her lace curtains grey.

But we kids loved the trains. They were so big. So loud. So powerful. We stood in awe as they passed by, our necks craned to watch the engineer, naked to his waist and shiny with sweat, shoveling coal into the gaping red mouth of the engine. When we were flush with pocket money, we’d place pennies on the track when the train approached, and watch, holding our breath, as those awesome steel wheels flattened them into thin uneven circles of copper.

In the evenings, African workers walked home along the tracks, weary from their shifts on the mines. They would pick up any stray chunks of coal that had fallen from the train, to help heat their huts and cook their food. All winter long the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, drifting from the braziers in these huts.

But there were not many stray chunks of coal to be found along the tracks. And so when the evening sirens sounded to end the day’s shift, and the sun sank low in the west, Keith and Peter and I would station ourselves at the top of the coal heap and toss coal over the wall to the grinning Africans. It was just a great game of toss the coal to us, but thinking back, it was probably an unexpected stroke of luck for those tired men heading home to long nights in cold and drafty huts.