My parents set up housekeeping on Cumberland Avenue. During the 1940s their residence was kept warm by circulating hot water through copper pipes affixed underneath the floor. The boiler was in a backyard furnace room which had space for an automatic stoker and a coal bin. On a weekend and on the coldest night of the year, the hopper would invariably ground to a halt, the coal bin would be nearly empty and the house would feel an ice box. Likely as not, Stanley Ditty’s stockpile on River Street would be depleted and, of course, it was the weekend and very late at night. What to do?
In this case, it was “Jake” Turner to the rescue. He was a post office and Bank of Harlan employee who came to the assistance of many households by faithfully looking after furnaces. He built and fed the fires, filled the hoppers and removed the clinkers. But on a weekend, even Jake couldn’t work miracles if the worst possible thing happened at the worst possible moment: the automatic stoker mechanism sheared a pin. When something goes awry and there is a motor of some kind involved, nine times out of ten the explanation is “Hit sheared a pin.” I’ve heard that so many times, along with a tried and true automotive diagnosis, “It might be your gasket.”
Back in 1964, the week of Jan. 12-16 to be exact, I was snowbound in New York City. A winter storm had dumped so much snow on the city that traffic was at a standstill. The blizzard was touted as one of the worst in the city’s history. I was trying to get home because of an emergency situation. My mother had had a heart attack in church Sunday night. I, of course, tried to make immediate plans to fly home, but planes were grounded and all New York-New Jersey airports were shut down.
In the meantime, I had a lot of details to take care of and found myself walking block after block in a relatively quiet city where traffic was all but at a standstill. Tons of snow had to be removed from the streets and avenues of Manhattan. At the corner of Eighth Avenue and 45th Street, I watched one of the many snow removal crews work feverishly to clear the way for pedestrians and vehicles. A large high lift scooped up the snow and dumped it into a gigantic metal bin resembling a coal gondola. Steam from within the bin melted the snow and the many gallons of water were then channeled into a nearby sewer line.
Suddenly, the men stopped work. They gathered into an agitated knot to inspect the steam machine which had shut down. I walked across the street and peered curiously at the enormous equipment. I shoved my gloved hands deep into my coat pockets and looked around the shoulders of the men who towered above me. On my tiptoes, I surveyed the scene and announced loud and clear, “Boys, it looks to me like she’s sheared a pin.”
The foreman did a double-take when he identified the speaker and responded in a “Noo Yawk” accent, “Yeah, yeah, dat’s right. She sheared a pin, but how in the h—- did YOU know that?” Actually, it was just a guess and I was being facetious. On the other hand, I had more than a nodding acquaintance with sheared pins.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, 1964, the fourth day of one of New York City’s worst storms, things began to return to normal and transportation of all kinds started moving again. I was able to fly home that same day in time to visit my mother in the hospital just minutes before she died.