Tiled Stoves

Tiled Stoves: in apartments and homes, to burn coal, in order to produce heat.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment. I recall the debates in Germany years ago about recycling. At that time the Social Democrats and the Greens were in power. Jürgen Trittin was Umweltminister, literally Secretary of the Environment. 

German business was against any recycling laws. It’s been reality for years now, though. How could there have been a debate at all? Quite the contrary. Protecting the environment should be foundational to the politics of the Christian Democratic Party in Germany (CDU). They and their sister party in Bavaria (CSU – Christian Social Union) were clearly on the wrong side of that debate.

I’ll never forget the smell of coal back then in West Berlin. Late Fall of 1988. I live in a boathouse in Konradshöhe, on the Havel River, on the other side the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic). No wall between, just the river. On the other side a strange stillness. Just a road along the bank and streetlights giving off a weak, halfhearted yellow-orange glow. Evenings and mornings the smell was strong. A weird feel to it, somehow historical.

My girlfriend then lived in the Schöneberg section of West Berlin. On the fifth or sixth floor of an apartment house built in the early 1900s. Back then I was reading Sebastian Haffner’s Deutsche Revolution 1918. Dry cold days in Berlin, the smell of coal smoke from the houses ever-present, Rosa Luxemburg murdered and thrown into the Spree River, Stahlhelm, Rätherrepublik in Munich. I think of my grandmother who back then was eighteen years old and living in Cincinnati.

I imagine what Berlin was like in 1918 and 1919. I, the grandson and great-grandson of coal merchants in Philadelphia. Our great-grandfather, Alexander Magee, started out with a horse-pulled wagon, going from house to house. Years later his sons, Frank and Alex, would join the business. I see the images in my mind’s eye. The coalyard in the Kensington section of Philadelphia located right next to the train line.

The coal was delivered from Northeast Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Mountains cut through the state from the northeast to the southwest, continuing into West Virginia. The business grows a bit, two trucks, a handful of employees. They’re not wealthy, will never become so. They pay the bills and have more than enough left over.

After the Second World War they convert to oil. Magee Coal & Oil. During my father’s freshman year at Amherst College in Massachusetts his father dies of a heart attack. His younger brother, Ken, uncle to my father, takes over the business. My father does not go into the heating fuel business, instead becoming a business consultant.

We six children of Frank and Laura Magee growing up in suburban Philadelphia have no connection to Magee Coal & Oil. But the constant coal odor in Berlin during those winter months of 1988-89, the dirt in my nose, cleaning it out a few times a day, brought me back into contact with the days when my recent ancestors lived from coal. And today? I, management consultant, put food on the table by supporting those who build coal-fired power plants.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment, yes, the Germans do that better than the Americans. The war ended more than seventy years ago, but those experiences continue to inform and form us. During a long walk through Bonn with my son I try to describe to him what the town looked like in 1945. I repeat the stories of his German great-grandmother – my ex-wife’s grandmother. And why we are taking a walking and not driving tour by car or bus. Besides, walking is healthy.