Monday, August 1, 2016

An Unpublished Essay

I realize that this is the middle of summer, but winter comes every year.  This essay concerns that colder season. 
Keeping Warm? 

2016 - When someone asks, are you keeping warm, it is a conversation opener and no more.  As long as the electricity is supplied and basic general mantainance occurs, we expect to keep warm.  Winter can howl.  We can take our comfort for granted.  All we really have to do is to adjust the thermostat.  It wasn't always that way. 

1966-How do you heat your home?  I remember my father asking this question and it wasn't at all casual.   I suspect it was a sales pitch but it addressed a very real concern. 

Back in the 60's, my father, a farmer and jack of all trades, sold and installed Kirk furnaces.  These were coal burning wonders.  They had a fan system to force the warm air into each room through ducting and also, luxury of all luxuries, a hopper with auger to feed coal into the fire at regular intervals.  One lurked in our dirt basement, a glory of convenience; modern and automated.  As a child, I was proud of us for owning such a marvel. Forced air heating was a brand new thing and we had it.  However, heating our home wasn't totally hands free yet. The chore of hauling out the ashes remained as part of the homeowner's week as did the annual trip to buy a truck load of coal which would be unloaded through a window into the coal bin. 

How did people heat their homes, those that didn't buy a Kirks furnace from my father? I remember answers that went something like this.  A coal and wood cook stove provided part of the heat while another area of the house had an oil floor furnace.  To light these, someone told me recently they would drop a piece of burning paper through the grate.  A drip system of diesel fuel waited.  It would spew oily smoke and eventually warmth.   

 I recall that my grandmother had a oil-burning space heater.  It sat on a metal clad base that looked like a giant pot-holder.  The base's purpose was to prevent the floor from catching fire, and the heater was that hot.  We were allowed to draw near to warm ourselves but were also warned, with stories of bad burns,  to keep our distance, and above all, not to fall against it.  

So while the adults concerned themselves with our safety, I also worried for theirs.  Housefires took lives, space heaters just like my Grandma's were dangerous.  Oil floor furnaces exploded.  Chimney fires, sparks that jumped out and burnt where they landed meant keeping warm was a serious business.

What lay behind the concern with homes and heating was the brutal fact - winter, white and snowfilled and cold, 40 degrees below zero or more, was on the other side of the wall.  And those walls varied greatly in their construction.  There were drafts, and fingers of snow that came in through the bottom of doors and through window frames, and drawing near the outside walls meant a marked change of temperature. 

The war against cold air included 'storm windows' that were put up in the fall and removed in the spring.  Electrical outlets, if your home featured the 'power' often had frost built up on the central metal screw.  And if 'indoor plumbing' hadn't reached your home, there would be frozen chamber pots under the bed.  Burrowed under feather beds and multiple layers of quilts people still woke to see their breath.  Children warmed their clothes under the blankets first, then leap quickly to where hopefully the cookstove had been fired up.  

It was a bit more rugged in those days. And I am grateful that heating a home has become easier. The enemy was, and still is winter, but we are warm.  Until we go outside, of course!