It’s four-thirty on a cold January morning in Ohio and my alarm goes off. It’s a cheap, ‘50s (not a great surprise, it’s 1956) electric rhythmic buzzer alarm. Thirty miles northeast of Akron, our house lies in the “lake-effect” weather zone of big cold, big winds and big snow. This morning the temperature is probably about 15o F, out in the wind and snow, and about 50 inside. Down in the basement of this century house waits “The Beast.” And this beast is my charge. Like the animals and chickens in summer, I feed this beast, clean up after it and generally keep it in good health. Simple enough… no?
My brother Giles, with whom I share a bed grunts and turns over ramming an elbow into my ribs. Enough! I’m awake! Time to get going. I sit up and swing my legs over the bed and stand barefoot on a VERY cold floor. I grab jeans, shirt, socks, underwear and shoes and head downstairs. Waking the Old Man is not recommended. He gave me this task because he works 12-hour days as a welder, and getting up an extra hour earlier makes the work and drive home risky.
In the downstairs bathroom, I drag my clothes on. Shower and shave will come later. I’ll need it. I head for the basement, a dark little room lined with small boulders, and with Silver Beech logs for ceiling (living room floor) joists. I know the kind of tree because the bark is still on. The floor is old damp and broken concrete, and The Beast squats against the wall to the right of the stairs.
Coal furnace circa 1950s or earlier.
I grab the coal scuttle and a scoop shovel and fill the scuttle with small and medium-sized lumps of sulfur-rich bituminous coal. Back at the furnace, I insert the shaker handle and vigorously shake the fire-bed grates, dumping ash into the ash-pit beneath it. Some of the ash glows red, which tells me I won’t have to light the fire from scratch today.
Grabbing another scuttle, I scoop ashes out of the ash-pit, coughing in the sulfurous fumes. I run up the back stairs, fling open the lay-over shed doors covering them, and carry the ash out and dump it on the gravel drive that circles behind the house.
Back at the beast, I open the door at the foot of the chimney and shovel soot into the ash bucket. If I get a good fire going and it catches the soot in the chimney afire, we could lose this old wooden house. I finish and go stand in front of The Beast, poker in hand. Opening the door, I can see flames licking the vestiges of the large coal lumps I’d used the night before to bank the fire (in “banking” a fire, the fire is pushed into a tight mound against the furnace wall, and large lumps of coal or wedges of split wood are laid against and atop the burning coal, packed closely enough to keep oxygen out, while the air feed is closed in the ash-pit door) .
Having burning coal is good and bad. Good, because I can use the poker to create a burning coal bed out of the remaining coal, and cover it with the coal in the scuttle. Bad because it’s already HOT in that thing, and as I pull the bank apart it’s likely to flare. I pull on the welding gloves the Old Man gave me for this job, and proceed.
With the poker, I drag flaming coal from against the furnace wall out into the middle of the fire-bed. Then I fill the scoop-shovel with coal and spread it as best I could over the burning coal. A puff of hot air hits me and I step to the side as flame bursts out the door. I repeat until the coal is gone from the scuttle, and finish by tossing the soot into the flames. I never do THAT again. I have never heard about combustible dust, but I learn that day. Fortunately, the furnace is not harmed.
I open the air gate in the ash-pit door, set the flue and head upstairs. It has taken me a half-hour, and the house will take another hour to warm, and with no fan, simply a gravity fed hot air distribution system, warm is a relative term. Now that the work is over, I’m cold. Nonetheless, as I look into the bathroom mirror, I know I dare not go out into the house carrying all the soot and ash I’m wearing. And Mother isn’t going to be pleased with the missing eyebrow. I hadn’t been quite as quick as I thought to avoid the first big gout of flame.
I strip and shower, stepping out from the enclosing curtain into what feels like a sub-freezing bathroom. I towel off in record time, brush the Greaser DA pompadour into shape, brush my teeth, pull on clean clothes and head outside to take care of the few animals we keep in winter (a few chickens, two pigs and a pair of turkeys), before the family gets up for breakfast.
At five-thirty, I get Mother up, and go to gather my schoolwork together. Then I sit down at the table… and wake up only when Giles snaps my ear with his finger. I jump up, ready to fight, but the Old Man barks, “When I told you to wake him I didn’t tell you to start a fight. Now sit down and eat!”
Bacon, eggs over easy, buttered toast all appear on serving plates, and we pass them around. Mother brings coffee for the Old Man and me, while Giles and our sister (only eight at the time) have milk. As we finished and put on our coats, Mother calls, “I see the bus!” Shoving our arms into sleeves and grabbing books, Giles and I race for the end of the driveway, arriving just as the bus does. We step aboard and head for school. Another ordinary day begins.
When the Old Man bought a stoker two years later, it meant I could sleep another hour each morning. I could’ve kissed him… but dignity prevented any such display of gratitude.