Friday, April 8, 2011

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

t was the last fire of winter, burning on a night that teetered on the cusp of being cold enough to justify going to the trouble. I stoked the small hearth with post-oak logs and put the lighter to the gas pipe that tends to singe my hands when it ignites. My right hand has been hairless since late November, the skin occasionally reddened from the whoosh of pent-up gas combusting. The fireplace in this suburbia rent house bears watching.

Despite the epidermal damage, I have enjoyed burning real wood once again after four years of living with a gas-log fireplace. There are merits to both, the latter providing low maintenance but an antiseptic flame, the former being messy — requiring purchases from men peddling stacks on highway corners and shoveling out the ashes every few week

I left East Texas on a cool gray Sunday afternoon — my lovely fiancĂ©, aka the Beautiful Mystery Companion — about to stretch out in front of a roaring fire I had built. She planned to catch up on reading as I headed back to the Hill Country. My only consolation for leaving was that I could build a similar fire here once I finished the 4.5-hour drive. And so I did, our parallel home fires burning.

Disaster was narrowly averted in East Texas when I piled red-oak logs — split by my BMC’s nearly 80-year-old father and hauled to town for his only daughter — into her fireplace and lit that gas pipe, which isn’t as prone to blowing up, since the hearth is much larger. After about 30 seconds I asked, “Is the damper open?” Admittedly this question is best asked before putting flame to gas, igniting the shards of lighter pine and kindling at bottom. It was getting a tad smoky, but you never know. Sometimes damp heavy air discourages wood smoke from heading upward.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. Time to grab a flashlight and peer upward, trying not to singe eyebrows and read the “Open,” and “Close” markers her landlord had written with a Sharpie on the metal insert. Sure enough, the flue was closed. I quickly flipped it to the left and with flashlight made sure the damper truly had opened. My BMC was none the wiser of my near-doofishness. Until now.

Twenty years ago, in a house outside Lufkin where I relied heavily on wood to heat in winter because the alternative was an expensive and balky propane tank, I blithely built a fire. I was keeping my daughters on a divorced-dad weekend. After igniting yet another gas pipe, I went outside to do manly things, such as spit and gather more firewood, perhaps even indulge in a bit of Skoal before I gave up that nasty habit. I re-entered the home to discover smoke alarms screeching and a viscous cloud of smoke that reminded me of following the mosquito-fogger truck on a bicycle during an East Texas summer. The damper was closed, so the smoke took up residence throughout the house. It took a while to get oxygen levels back to a breathable status. My children were so busy playing with Barbies in the back bedroom that they barely noticed the commotion.

My favorite fireplace was in a house owned in Kilgore, a few blocks north of the college. It was the home of a family that owned a funeral home next door. They are still in that business but have since moved both their business and residence. It was a fine old house, built in the 1940s with pine-knot paneling in the family room, which contained a double fireplace. One side was for building a fire for warmth. The other side contained a smoker and an electric spit, so one could, for example, slow-cook a pork loin on one side while enjoying a crackling fire on the other. I plan to have a similar arrangement again someday, though I’ll probably put the cooking portion outside.

The fire is starting to die down as I write this on a laptop, listening to Jackson Browne on the stereo, the television on mute as I watch occasionally scenes of tragedy and sadness in the world beyond. It has gotten warm enough, and a bit smoky, so I have to open the windows. I’m almost certainly the only fellow here in suburbia burning a fire on the next-to-last day of March.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, April 7, 2011.

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