Childhood in Wheeling, 1930s: V. The Island in Winter

Even as a boy who loved Wheeling and was very happy in his home there, I accepted without question that Wheeling Island was dismal and even ugly in winter. Uglier than the surrounding hilltops and, as I would soon learn, uglier than the suburbs of New York City. True, there were some magically beautiful moments in the winter when freshly fallen snow brightened the outlook and beckoned us to sledding fun on the “bridge grade,” the embankment leading to the bridge that connected us with Aetnaville, Ohio. But within a couple of days the snow would develop a blackish crust, and the slushy mess in the unplowed streets was a very dark gray, thanks to the soot from thousands of household furnaces burning soft coal in the valley, as well as from the sprawling industrial plants with their busy smokestacks. Because of this same soot, every child had to be taught that face-washing included a careful scouring inside the ears and the nostrils, from which the washcloth emerged quite black.

On many winter nights a dense fog would settle in on the valley, and would not burn off till the middle of the next morning. As I walked alone to school before dawn on winter mornings, my way was marked by foggy cones of light beneath each street lamp. The fog had a slight yellowish tinge, and a distinctive odor that seemed to be a mixture of sweetish hydrogen sulphide and acrid sulphur dioxide. Both the color and the odor emanated principally from ever-burning gob fires in coal mine tailings up and down the valley. The odor was not overwhelming. Growing up with it, I came to like it, and similar odors have touched off nostalgia ever since. I don’t know what price we paid in health for that odor. But there was another price that quickly became apparent. Anyone who was bold enough, as my family was, to paint a house in bright and cheery colors would soon see extensive dark streaks as the sulphurous gases reacted with the lead in the paint.

During these dark morning walks to school, the concept of street crime never crossed my mind, nor anyone else’s as far as I knew. But there was one source of mild terror. My route to school included a brief stretch along Front Street where, on the rare winter mornings that were clear, there was a good view of the Ohio River, sparkling with reflections of the city lights on the opposite bank. I loved that river, and by day I would never tire of looking at it. In summer I would play along its banks, I would play in it, and I would swim in it. But in the darkness I found that a view of the river was ominous and troubling. That feeling was a legacy from early childhood, from an event that I’ve described elsewhere in this blog.

It seems that I so readily accepted the ugliness of Wheeling Island in winter that I never thought to look and see whether there were any exceptions. During the usual philosophical inquiries of the teen years, I came up with the proposition that there was beauty in all of creation and that every creature and every object, no matter how reputedly ugly, possessed a beauty that could be seen if viewed in the proper way and with the proper mindset.

This idea arose in winter on Wheeling Island, and after racking my brain for something especially ugly to test the proposition, I selected the tall trees, leafless and black against the fog or the cloudy sky. I looked at them anew with an open mind and, behold, the theory worked! Ever since, I have enjoyed the delicate, lacy beauty of leafless trees in winter. Now the point of this story is not that I made a unique discovery, but that I had been far too accepting of the principle of general ugliness. With prejudice, I had selected one of the most beautiful features of the winter landscape as a supposed example of surpassing ugliness.

Which confirms the old saying that Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

J winter_tree_

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)

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