Sunday, April 3, 2011
The Fire Brigade
The introduction of a coal fired furnace into our house was a momentous event. The furnace would later be fitted with a gas fired burner and ultimately replaced by a small, modern gas furnace. But all of that was preceded by a some years of heating with a combination wood/coal-fired space heater. The complications in our lives, occasioned by that early heating system are hard to exaggerate and I’ll try not to do so.
Before I was born the family lost a home to fire and the experience never was forgotten by Mom and Dad. There was no choice but to continue to heat with a potential fire hazard but warnings were frequent and alarms not uncommon. Clothes were dried in winter on clothes lines strung across the living room near the stove and care had to be taken that they did not get too close to the stove or the hot stove pipe. The chimney itself was a concern, especially when the stove had to be stoked against a particularly cold or windy day. When the stove was being fed a new supply of wood or coal care had to be taken not to allow sparks to ignite anything nearby. We had no carpet in those days, nor did we have any “overstuffed” furniture, but there was always a coat, hat, or some socks or mittens hanging close to the stove for drying.
The house had a simply layout. On the north side there were two bedrooms. In middle back, there was a dining room, to the front, a living room. The south back corner housed the kitchen and the south front corner another bedroom. The house had no insulation so even the dining room and the living room were cold near the outer walls. The kitchen took care of itself most of the day with heat from, originally, a wood cook stove and, in subsequent years, a kerosene, and even later a gas cook stove. But the bedrooms, particularly the one on the northwest corner of the house, suffered from a double curse; they were a distance away from the source of heat, and Mom insisted that their doors be shut during the day to retain the heat in the living room and dining room. Consequently the area around the stove served as a launching pad at bedtime with everyone getting into their night clothes near the stove and making a quick dash to get under the covers and begin to warm up their ice-cold bed. In the morning the traffic flowed the other way with all of us trying to get to the warmth of the stove without allowing our feet to touch the cold floor. Privacy? Huh! A luxury too great to even dream of.
For Donald and me the most onerous aspect of that heating system was the requirement that we maintain the fuel supply. That meant chopping and splitting kindling (and larger pieces of wood) with an axe or, if the piece resisted our might blows, using a saw. As I’ve already said, the railroad ties required our “cooperation” in using a crosscut saw. We were understandably happy when there was a supply of coal on hand and we were only required to get in the number of buckets needed to last through the night.
Looking back I find myself wondering why we didn’t get that simple task taken care of during daylight hours so we could enjoy our evening with no obligations hanging over us. Another mystery is why we became such cowards once darkness set in. It could have been those mystery dramas we listened to on the radio . . . “who knows the secrets lurking in the heart of man? The Shadow knows!” Whatever it was that put the fear of darkness in us it affected me more than Donald.
One evening we had lingered too long again and had to go out in the dark to the “new” shed Dad had built at the back of the lot to get a bucket of coal each. Donald went first and I followed a minute or so later. I made my way through the menacing shadows in the back yard and approached the door of the shed. The coal bin was at the far end of the shed necessitating another harrowing trek past shadowed forms that resembled nothing I had remembered being there in daylight. Just as I opened the door I heard a faint, plaintive voice crying, “Help me! Help me!” My heart stood still. I had never faced a moral dilemma of such magnitude. Everything in me wanted to run and save my life. But, he was my brother. Not always nice to me, but my brother nonetheless. Was he in the grips of some monster that would take me too? Had he fallen and needed help in getting up? I called his name but got no reply. Perhaps he was already dead. Should I throw my life away to rescue a dead brother? I cautiously made my way toward the back of the shed, ignoring, at great risk to myself, the goblins along the way. When I reached the coal bin, I saw the monster sitting in the far corner grinning at me. I wanted to kill it then and there . . . but I couldn’t. It was my brother!
To this day, I wonder why everyone else in the family enjoyed that joke, played on me, more than I did. I think I’ll call him up and tell him . . . no, that was too long ago to hold a grudge.