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Fireplace memories warm the heart

Rick WatsonIt’s funny what you remember from childhood. Some memories are fuzzy, but others are as vivid as an Imax movie that comes rushing back at a sound or smell.

This morning was chilly, so slipping on a sweater seemed the wise thing to do as I stepped down for the morning paper.

I involuntarily shivered for the first time this fall. On the wind was a wisp of wood smoke from our neighbor’s fireplace, which brought back the memory of the fireplace in our living room, and the Warm Morning heater in the corner of the kitchen.

We weren’t into the aesthetics of crackling logs or the aroma of burning hardwood; we were into heat on cold mornings, and so we burned coal. We used oak and hickory chips to get the coals started, but once it began burning, we mostly smelled a hint of sulfur.

Mom sent dad off to work at 5:30 a.m. each morning and by the time we rolled out of bed at six, she’d have that Warm Morning fired up so hot the stove pipe glowed orange halfway up to the ceiling.

I’m guessing if that stove were sold these days, it would come with a safety pamphlet as thick as a Bible with ominous warnings about the risk of fire, serious injury or death.

I’m sure one of the warnings would tell you that if your stove pipe ever glows the color of the setting sun, to close the dampers, turn off the vents and have the fire department on standby. But it felt great when it was cold outside.

I do remember a hazard that probably would not have been documented in the safety booklet.

One frosty winter morning, ice crystals had formed around the edges of the panes in our windows over the sink. I’d stumbled into the kitchen sleepy-eyed and backed up to the old heater. The expanding pipe ticked as the glow inched upward.

My brother Neil walked up and grabbed the front crease of my jeans, pulling the denim tight against the back of my legs. I howled in pain. The hot denim seared the hair from the back of my leg. Neil snorted with laughter.

Mama thought it was funny too but whacked him playfully on the side of the head with the palm of her hand.

Behind the heater was a length of clothesline that was about head-high to my dad and ran from one corner wall to the other.

Hanging from one side was a blue bed sheet. About three evenings a week, the sheet was pressed into service as a privacy curtain. Behind the curtain was a #3 washtub filled with water heated on the stove. That’s where we bathed.

One of my chores was hauling ash out and toting coal inside to feed the home fires.

We had two old scuttles, which were metal buckets with spouts on one side. Ours were blackened from years of dumping coal into the fireplace.

Most young folks look at me as if I were pulling their leg when I tell them we didn’t have an indoor bathroom until the year I graduated from high school, and that we heated our house with coal.

These days we have a fireplace, but it’s fueled by gas logs. No hauling coal on frosty evenings for me. With the flip of a switch, fire glows softly from imitation logs. The only coal I have is a lump I saved, so that I always remember where I came from.


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