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Sunday, Jan. 09, 2005
Nixtress wrote a review of several days without power due to a bit of a problem with an ice storm (or, perhaps, the power company’s issues with same). Boy did that take me back a few years.

The house we lived in and renovated when Ally and I were still in the production stages of baby cloning happened to have a family room with a black wood stove in it, an honest-to-Pete free stander sitting on a brick hearth with a stovepipe and all. I happened to be standing in the family room one night while a pretty fierce storm was going on, snow and super cold winds, and I was looking out the window at an appropriate time. Appropriate because I was looking in the general vicinity of a sub-station power grid just as it took on the limit of its ice requirements and blew up. All I saw was the most eerie green glow you can imagine, an impressive white flash and then a muted POP! as everybody for 5 square miles immediately went back to the 1870’s.

In the case of our old house, which was heated by oil with an electric burner, was totally un-insulated, and having a wife who was (still is, for that matter) a hot-blooded lass raised in much more gentle climes and 3 young’uns, the temperature dropped to less than acceptable rates rather quickly. In Ally’s opinion ‘rather quickly’ consummated in, oh . . . say about 16 seconds. The shrieking was loud and boisterous.

“Heh,” thought I. “Now’s the time to put all my woodcraft skills to work.” Meaning I could play Paul Bunyan and haul in my somewhat muted pile of firewood that I’d stacked out back, and maybe split a few of the more outsized logs. There isn’t a male alive who doesn’t consider himself to be a veritable buckskinned border scout when it comes to a camp hatchet and a brush pile. Now was the time for real heat, the sort only a wood stove could bring to bear.

Now one of the advantages to working with a substantial amount of lumber is that you acquire quite a bit of scrap material. Leftover framing lumber, oak rippings from the table saw, basically junk. But if you tend toward the pack rat lifestyle your junk is carefully stored for the eventual reward of being able to seize a near forgotten chunk from a scrap bin with a hearty “Yes!” and fit it into a dining room table project with a flourish. Also, some of the less desirable pieces are cut into appropriate lengths for, you guessed it, kindling wood. Wood stove kindling wood.

So getting a fire started in the stove was no problem at all. Oak strips make, you can trust me on this, a really nice bed of coals for the bigger stuff. Some might say you don’t need the bigger stuff at all. In the case of a wood stove that had been dampered with a practiced hand by one who considered himself second cousin to George Rogers Clark, and who had read every issue of Boy’s Life for years, getting a fire started was so mute an issue as to be blasphemy. The downstairs was 80 degrees before I even brought in the first icy log.

(Ed. Note: I just threw in George Rogers Clark to test you, but I always thought he could’ve kicked Dan’el Boone’s ass on any given day. Dan‘el always seemed to be such a wanna-be.)

Now Ally, like I indicated, was not dismayed by this at all. Nay, she crept close to the inferno and set stocking feet on the hearth until I swear you could hear steam coming out of her toes. The kids were admonished not to get too close (like that would stop them) and we set a teakettle full of water on top and talked of popcorn and how pretty the firelight was. That was around 7 in the evening.

By 8 in the evening, I’d said “ . . . just as soon as the power comes back on!” for the 34th time.

By 9, I’m sure I was up to an even hundred with a bullet. Young kids and no power is an equation that is fraught with the horror of explanation. No, the television does not work, ditto on the VCR, the microwave and so on as you discover just how many appliance you actually own. It’s a marvelous exercise in taking stock on just how far removed you are from the frontier. If not from the pioneers who actually dwelt there. George Rogers Clark, for example.

The kids eventually got sleepy and I seem to recall gathering a handful of them for transport to their respective beds upstairs before Ally stopped me. “Where do you think you’re going with those kids?”

“Why, to bed,” I replied. “It’s past their bedtime as it is.”

“Woah ho, no. They aren’t going up there in the cold. You just go grab some blankets and they can sleep right here with the wood stove.”

Now, I have no problem with my wife and her aversion to cold temperatures. She grew up in a Southern mangrove or something, never knew air conditioning until she met me and my sensitive ass and is still the only person I’ve ever met who suggested turning the heat on in August. But 3 healthy kids?

“Dear they’ll be fine up there. I’ll toss an extra blanket on their beds and build this fire up and they’ll be okay. Shucks I’ll bet it’s still 65 degrees upstairs and . . .”

You know the sort of look I got. It might have been 10 degrees outside but I was getting the really frozen look, the real privy in the Arctic one. I’m not sure she even listened to me, really.

I do know that I found myself outside in the ice, fetching more wood. Ally went the route of making a fortress of blankets in the family room.

Fast forward a couple of days. Outfoxed the intrepid outdoorsman had already made two ill-advised trips on ice-slicked roads to find the local trading post (nattily disguised as a Kroger) was closed due to bad weather (the wimps had no power, either). This was during the days when we went through better than a gallon of milk per day, when cereal was not so much a foodstuff as a commodity and diapers were cause for a second cart in the grocery store.

We ran out of milk. Then we ran out of beer, and things really got grim.

Worst of all, we were getting low on wood. I’d started out pretty confident on the wood supply, there was about a quarter cord of split logs out there. But when you’re burning all day and all night just to keep the house toasty it goes quick. When I got to the last of the logs and the last of the deadfall pile I let Ally know the bad news.

“Wood’s about gone. Hope those boys at the power company get the grid back soon or we might be getting a little chilly in here.”

“I don’t think so,” she replied matter of factly.

“You don’t think so . . . what?”

“I don’t think you’re out of wood, for one. You’re not even close.”

I feigned ignorance for a while but she was having none of it. “You’ve got piles of wood out there in that shop of yours. Remember you were showing me all that oak and stuff, that ash and maple? All that stuff piled up in the corner that’s been there for years now?” (She exaggerated, it had been there barely 18 months, if that.)

“Yeah, what about it? That’s the stuff for the living room chair, and the bigger TV unit when we get the bigger TV!” I’m sure my incredulity was coming through loud and clear.

Then I got the stare again. It’s funny how married people communicate in silence sometimes. Like words are just the flavoring that will precede a gourmet ass whippin’.

It was some really nice maple, too. I hadn’t realized how cleanly maple will burn when it’s been surfaced and sized and sanded. I’d also forgotten how long it takes to crosscut into woodstove lengths with a handsaw, even a sharp one.

I had that stove choked down to nothing by now. Because I was tossing stuff in there that was the world's most expensive fossil fuel. Every time I’d turn down the damper Ally sneaked back in and cranked it open again. It was like a primitive version of the thermostat wars we’d had in the past. In August, even.

It was late in the day on a Sunday, and I remember it better than I remember the birth of my son. Because I was out of maple, the ash and oak was getting suspect, and there was nothing after that but the walnut. And I was going to be divorced if I had to burn the walnut. But with a sudden flicker, a jolt of techno-fury, the lights came on and the VCR picked back up with Snow White and 3 kids broke from their sleepy fireside gaze as 1989 crashed back into our lives.

Amid the general resultant mayhem I bid farewell to the axe and handsaw. My wife liked me again and I barely noticed as she strode to the thermostat and gave it a mighty yank to the right. The kids began stuffing the microwave and all was right in the land.

All I did was stroll out to the shop, give a last grateful glance at the walnut and snapped the lock on the door. The one I had the only key for.

Not that it would matter much. I’d have burned that walnut eventually, maybe. But I wouldn’t have liked it. I’d have put up a healthy fight, with reason.

Something’s you just have to sacrifice. Frostbite? Ain’t so darn bad.


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