The Colonel’s Plan – The Heat is On

“The Heat is On”

December 12, 2018

Dear Daddy–

It’s officially Winter. Actually, it’s not. Winter comes in nine days, I believe. But the days of below-freezing temperatures, frost on the grass, aching muscles and leaving the water trickling in my kitchen (old pipes near old farmhouse walls tend to freeze) have begun. Mother had her first oil delivery of the year and was astounded at the bill for over $500. I explained to her that I paid $250 every month last year, and over $1900 in August to make up for the rising cost of oil. Her response was, “Yes, but my oil bill was $500.”

My mother awaiting the filling of an oil jug in the stove room–or “lab room”–of our basement, c. 1980. Reading, not playing Solitaire, most likely because the workbench behind her was filled with equipment. Note the oscilloscope, a staple of my childhood, behind her on a cart.

The furnace is heating the house nicely, though. No more space heaters. No more blankets and curtains in every doorway. The whole house is warm and usable.

I was explaining to Renee last night why this house always had oil tanks, when the furnace wasn’t active until last year. She had forgotten the Sears Oil Stove in the basement.

It went like this…

For whatever reason, you waited until the year after we moved into the house to install a furnace. That first winter, we lived in three rooms and were saved from freezing only by two or three ancient space heaters. Probably two. These were the kind with coiled wire elements that glowed bright orange when heated. They had a grill over them, but it was comprised of stiff, horizontal wire slats. A drifting scrap of paper could easily have landed between them and ignited. Dangerous.

Then you installed the furnace in 1968. I’ve already reminded you that you were three hours from done. A contractor had installed the ducts you had designed, and the oil line was run to the house from two tanks in “the building,” a wooden shed that you had built, intending it to be part of a to-be-built-later garage. The garage was never built. You rented a concrete mixer to pour the foundation of the building. It was the first such I had ever encountered. Charles built a Flinstone house in the dirt out of leftover chips of concrete, and we later built a whole miniature town with super-highways running around it in the dirt and brush.

We dug a trench below the frost line and ran an oil line from the tanks to the basement. We dug it all with shovels. Mother dug wearing a dress. I remember pearls, too, but that may just be Leave it to Beaver creeping into my psyche.

While you were “finishing” the furnace install (for 48 years), you installed a Sears oil stove in the basement, running its flue through the masonry wall and into the West chimney. Pretty permanent setup. I assume that, somewhere on the tank on the back of that stove was a fitting to which one could attach an oil line. I can only assume, because the stove is still buried behind junk, and you never ran an oil line to it.

No, you ran an oil line to within five feet of it, put a faucet on the end of the line, and left it dangling in the middle of the basement, over my baby bathtub, in case it dripped. For the next four decades, in Winter, one of us would come down to the basement, twice daily, top off the tank from milk jugs filled with oil, and then make sure we still had five one-gallon milk jugs with oil in reserve.

We kept the door to the stove room closed. It was the only installed interior door in the basement, until you put the dark room into service. The stove room stayed warm. I don’t recall how warm. I know we kept a spring-loaded, disk thermometer, still in its blister pack, hanging on the wall; but I don’t remember how warm the room was. Probably about 80 degrees.

Outside that room, it was pretty cold. We wore coats just to walk through, taking them off only “inside” in the stove room. A darkroom timer sat atop a file cabinet, or sometimes on the workbench in the stove room. We would set it for five minutes in the Fall. In the dead of Winter, I remember setting it for as much as twenty minutes. That was the time it took to fill a jug to about three quarters capacity. The colder the outer room (and the ground outside) got, the slower the oil flowed. Then we would go sit and watch it while it finished. Oil spills were not tolerated. I know. I caused at least three.

The wait for the jug to fill on the coldest days was endless. And we had to do it up to five times, twice a day. Mother played solitaire while waiting for jugs to fill. There are still at least five decks of cards stacked next to the workbench. I imagine I read comic books.

Looking back, it seems insane. I have to tell you that. What kind of crazy people fill oil jugs for forty years, rather than buying and connecting a few more feet of copper tube to the stove? I guess it’s no more laborious than milking cows every morning or hoeing the garden; but it was so unnecessary.

It was only a temporary setup, of course. Just while you were installing the furnace.

All I can do now is smile about it–while I listen to the gentle rumble of the working furnace, in the all-over warmth of a house where I don’t have to wear a coat. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to go prop my feet up on the workbench, play a game of solitaire, and read a comic book… just for old times’ sake.



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