Black Christmas for St. Louis

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.   

By Bob Wyss

The St. Louis winter of 75 years ago brought a black Christmas.

Smoke began to thicken on Christmas Eve and it would remain dense through Christmas day.  The only exception was around noon, when a pale yellow sun struggled to shine through the thick sky.

One bonus was that the city was 15 degrees warmer than the less populated, less polluted outskirts of the city.  Meteorologists attributed the warmth directly to the clouds produced by the burning coal.

While plants withered and humans coughed, animals did not know quite what to make of the winter.  Roosters in particular were confused, crowing whenever they believed that dawn was breaking, which meant anytime of the day.

For one new arrival in St. Louis the winter was even blacker.

Pae Pei had arrived three months earlier.  His once vibrant white coat was turning black.  Some believed that he was now wearing at least a half a pound of soot and dirt.

Pae Pei was a young panda at the city zoo.  His handlers decided, reluctantly, that there was only one solution – Pae Pei would have to have a bath.

The reluctance was understandable.   Bathing panda was like trying to hold a snake still.  It took two strong men, a tub of soapy water and a large pan of honey to calm and distract the panda.

Even then it was a struggle.  He refused to get in on his own.  When he was finally carried in, he whimpered like a baby.  He also tried to bolt.  The two men struggled to contain him.  Water splashed.  Grown men hollered.  Soap flew.

When it was over, Pae Pei was once again suddenly white.

A zookeeper placed some more honey on Pae Pei’s paws.  The panda whimpered contentedly.  His clean new coat gleamed.  It would stay that way until the clouds of smoke rolled in, again, and again this winter.  And then Pae Pei would have to face another bath.

If only it was that easy for the rest of St. Louis.

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