Essays Written for The Plantation News

I wrote essays for The Plantation News, our family newspaper, between 1983 and 2003. Some essays recorded actual events, while others were humor, satire or fiction. The Plantation News transitioned from paper to blog and continues online here.

The Furnace

I grew up in a house at a high enough latitude that interior household heating was required for reasonable comfort in the colder winter months. In our house this interior heating was accomplished by a near-mythological beast, called “The Furnace”. Let me begin by describing the furnace proper, the burner unit. I will then try to describe the whole heating system, its periodic upkeep and maintenance; and finally, Furnace mythology.

In our house, the thing we called “The Furnace” was actually just the Oil Burner Unit, and it occupied fully one-fourth of the downstairs bathroom. Sitting brooding in the corner on an untiled area, directly against the bedrock concrete of the house’s foundations, the furnace’s Central Burner Box was about four feet tall, two feet wide and deep; deep blue, gray, white, and silver. A 1/32” coating of ash and soot accumulated deeper in some spots than others, especially around the eight-inch dull gray pipe that exited, after a crook, up through the ceiling to the chimney. A mysterious array of copper pipes protruded from the top of the burner unit, swirled around, and disappeared through small holes in the walls.

Whenever you sat on the commode in the downstairs bathroom, there was nothing to do but stare at the furnace, and hope it didn’t explode. The furnace liked to scare you by clicking, humming, rumbling low, and igniting a fire that you could see through the peephole. The front view of the furnace was dominated by two pumps, an expansion tank, and a peephole into the flames of hell. Starting nearest the ground was the big black oil pump, about the size of a small pig, two feet long and about three feet around. Above this was the peephole, a three inch sliding door with a small 1/2 inch view of the flaming combustion chamber. Appropriately, one had to kneel to peer through the partially shielded peephole into what was surely an image of Lucifer burning souls. Next, about three feet off of the floor, hung the water pump; a smaller pig, about two feet around and fifteen inches long, with thick copper pipes entering and exiting its belly. Finally, about six feet up, dangling magically from a thin copper pipe, was the burp tank. Eventually, this curved shiny gray barrel, about eighteen inches high and fifteen inches in diameter, confirmed its weight by bending the pipe it hung from about fifteen degrees downward (but without ever burping!)

Several things about the furnace look like they could kill you at any moment. First of all, there’s a fire in the house! I know, it’s controlled in a small insulated box; but still, there’s fire in the house! Fire has always been really scary to me, and my bedroom was the only one on the same floor as the furnace-beast. Second, there is scalding hot (like that soup that blistered David’s foot) super-heated water, pumped under pressure throughout the house, carried in thin copper pipes connected with lead solder joints. Third, there is thick, black highly-flammable petroleum, which is, right, squirted under pressure, just thrown like gasoline, onto a hot electrical spark. Finally, at four locations around the house are switches filled with poisonous quicksilver, demurely called “thermostats”.

Actually, these four fearsome features comprise the four systems of our household heating unit. In the temperature-sensitive thermostats, a flat coil of metal cooled by ambient temperatures contracts, and tips a glass vial of electrically-conductive mercury. The toxic, silvery, liquid metal closes an electric circuit, which opens valves that release water heated in the Central Burner Unit, and pumped by the Little Pig Pump. The heat is produced by the combustion of Number Two Home Heating Oil, pumped by the Big Pig Pump, up from a tank buried deep underground in the backyard. The hot water floods the thermostatically opened loops of copper tubing snaking through the house, releasing heat into the thin aluminum fins that act as heat sinks within the baseboard radiators. The room temperature rises. Humans move about the house, or roll over in their comfortable sleep. The metal coils, with their piggybacked mercury vial switches, warm up, unwind, and tilt back. The mercury slithers to the other end of its vial. This opens an electrical circuit, and closes the valve to the loop of pipe monitored by that thermostat. If no other loop is calling for hot water, this also turns off the Big Pig Pump spraying the Number Two Heating Oil into the Central Burner Unit’s flames. The flame goes out in the peephole. The Furnace shutters, heaves a sooty sigh, and settles into a sleepy stupor, to the tune of the tiny tick-ticking of cooling, contracting metal.

To insure continuous operation of the household heating system, at seasonally adjusted intervals, or when you call, the Oil Man arrives. His cheap cloth jacket fending off the winter cold looks like expensive black leather, from the accumulated heating oil stains. Parking his oil-blackened tank truck in the street and husking the hose over his shoulder, he trudges to the backyard pipe stem to deliver the furnace’s liquid lifeblood. He inserts the nozzle, yellow, brass to avoid flammable sparks, and sits on the back porch to have a cigarette.

In some mysterious way, through his ears or his feet, or by the length of his cigarette, he knows when the tank buried in the backyard is full, and clicks off the nozzle. The meter ticking dollars mounted on the back of his truck stops. At the push of a button, the truck reels in its artery of blackened pipe, leaving an oily snakeprint in the snow. The humble Oil Man puts the bill in the mailbox and drives away.

From time to time every winter the furnace fails, causing a Major Household Event. Sometimes Dad, showing his head position in household fire maintenance, can soothe and give First Aid to the furnace; but sometimes it’s time to call the Furnace Man. The Furnace Man drives a van with 29 shelves and 31 drawers filled with 1026 parts, but the part your furnace is diagnosed as needing is always back at his shop. Actually the problem is almost always the same: something in the oil, a bad particle of dirt or rust, has clogged that pinhole valve, right where the flammable oil is sprayed into the electrical sparks of the Central Burner Unit’s ignition system. Result: No fire. (Awwwww!)

Dad hunched over the Furnace Man’s shoulder like an acolyte, and examined the brass tapered nozzle with a hole at the end, clogged with burnt carbon. Maybe it could be fixed with a toothpick, but the aged, oil-perfumed Furnace Man always installed a new one. Restarting the furnace was like the cold boot of a computer, holding in the red restart button, click, ka-jung, floom, dodging that first big puff of vaporized half-burned oil spewing volcano-like through the peephole. Mom always had to clean up after the Furnace Man.

Always, as a final ritual, Dad and the Furnace Man kneel in front of the Central Burner Unit, mumbling benedictions as it coughs and rumbles, allowing the honored trained priest of Furnacehood to accumulate an extra half-hour of billable service time making sure the furnace would not fail again soon. Instead of the sign of the cross, we see the Match Test, the deepest Sacrament of Furnacology. With the peephole wide open, raw flames licking out, choking soot and oil filling the air, the Furnace Man lights a match. He holds the holy match very near the flames, and the match’s flame is sucked into the cauldron of oil fire, showing that the airflow is headed up the chimney. All is declared well, and the Furnace Man leaves a soot-fingerprinted business card with a number more important than 911 or 666.

Furnace Mythology: That fables and a whole mythology of the Furnace should develop would seem self-evident from the facts. Everyone in my 400 home neighborhood had a furnace similar to mine. I lived in suburbs like many others at my latitude and higher, many of whom burnt Number Two Heating Oil to heat their homes. Thus, pre-mythologically, many people like me have shared an experience.

Secondly, living with a furnace for home heating is not an ordinary experience. A furnace serves primitive needs with elemental forces, and does so in a usually unnoticed way, hiding subliminally. When the frost-windowed house is warm, the kitchen sink water hot enough, the shower steamy on a cold morning, the furnace is tamed and doing its job. Neanderthals demanded much less from their fire at the mouth of the cave. We white (by genetics, like the Arctic Hare) descendants of the peopled edges of the last Ice Age’s glaciers have lost our adaptations to the cold. We depend on this Promethean machine of the elements, fire, water, air (steam), and earth (in the form of metal and oil), to stay warm. When all is right with the furnace, on the coldest winter day, usually with a high blue sky after a February ice storm, a house that’s warm is like an incubating egg. In the bed under covers, we can be as content as a fetus in a 98 degree womb.

On the other hand, the major household event initiated by furnace failure can be deadly. The Furnace Service Industry, knowing the odds, is quick to respond. Someone will come that day, even in pretty deep snow, if you call out of oil. The Furnace Man once parked down the block and walked, when our street had not yet been plowed. He got free coffee and doughnuts at every house to keep his energy up. A Furnace Man is sometimes more important than a priest, and works on Sundays if you pay him more.

Furnace Fables circulate among all those who live with the beast. I don’t have space to relate them, but you can tell what they are about by their titles: The girl who went blind at the peephole (what did she see before burning her eye?). Don’t touch that red button or the furnace will explode! Kittens born behind the burner unit. Divorce over thermostat settings. Drying pantyhose on the furnace pipes causes house to burn down. The meaning of radiator thunk. The boiling shower, and many others.

When you were alone, late at night, and didn’t turn the bathroom light on, sitting exposed on the commode and staring at the furnace, you could see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste the importance and power of the Furnace.

|| Index of The Plantation News Essays ||
February 25, 2020
09:39:53 PM