Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Love in the Time of A Home Heating Crisis

Last winter, in early March, I believe, we got a bitter taste of Maine reality. Winter had decided, in its cruel way, to hang around beyond its welcome.

It stormed all day on a Sunday and straight into Monday, and when it was all over, we had been nailed with 16 inches of snow. School was out. Which means all of our kids were home and all of the daycare kids. The house was rockin.

By Monday night the skies had cleared and that means the temperature plummeted to below zero.

In one night:

We ran out of propane, which heats our water and is used for cooking.

We ran out of home heating fuel, which, well, helps to heat our house.

We were out of firewood, having only ordered six cord the previous fall and due to the longer-than-usual winter last year had burned it up already. Frankly, with March here, we really were only looking at a month until spring. Usually. (This year, we ordered seven acres, just to be safe)

So, here's the patchwork of Yankee ingenuity we stitched together in order to get warm.

1. I found pieces of unused boards in my basement, left over from the previous owner, who had been a carpenter of sorts. I took these assorted boards and cut them using a skill saw. Me. Using a skill saw. I'll paint a picture for you: Barney Fife holding onto a growling saw with its round, toothy blade inches from my hand, my eyes closed, head turned away, imagining those Discovery Channel stories about men eviscerated by fly-away skill saw blades.

2. I purchased four armloads of Cumby Wood. Cumberland Farms, for those not living in Maine, is a convenience store. The kind where Joe the Toothless Chain Smoker buys $12 worth of scratch tickets and proceeds to narrate each goddamn scratch. All while the rest of us stand in line and wait.

"Yessa. I think I might have a winna, theya. I come down last week, ya know, and bought me a ticket and I'll be damned if I didn't win fahty dollas. Mutha got all riled up and I bought her a pint of Allens Coffee Brandy."

Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.

"Nope. Shee-it! That one was a looza. Can you toss that in ya circulah file, honey?"

3. I bought two 5-gallon K1 jugs, cuz in Maine if you don't use the correctly rated fuel container, Al Gore himself will kick your ever-loving ass. The state has contracted this service from him, so I've heard.

4. I cut out the bottom of a 2-liter Pepsi bottle using Corrine's favorite scissors. The once-sharp kind.

5. I trudged around the edge of our house, waist deep in snow, carrying these two K1-rated fuel jugs until I got to the oil pipe. Which is buried from the last storm.

6. I place the neck of the decapitated Pepsi bottle into the top of the oil pipe, and proceed, cautiously, to pour the kerosene into my oil tank, which is actually in our basement. Picture this: Barney Fife, one knee bracing the Pepsi bottle so it won't tip over, tongue stuck into one corner of my mouth, head turned for fear of kerosene splashing out and into my eyes and all the while worrying that someone's cell phone will ignite me. Hey, don't laugh. There's a reason you're not supposed to use those things at gas stations.

7. After pouring in the 10 gallons of kerosene into our 275-gallon oil tank (it sounded like someone pissing into a culvert. it sort of left me feeling really cold and empty) I then start fires in our living room and kitchen stoves, using the old scrap furniture wood from the basement and the Cumby Wood.

8. Corrine gathers the nine tiny ceramic space heaters used for thawing out pipes beneath the kitchen sink (also left over from the previous owner) and places them around our living room the same way you would set up speakers in a surround sound home movie studio. We have enough extension cords in use that I'm fairly certain we'll trip the breakers in all the houses on High Street.

9. All of our children amble down to the living room and immediately begin to bitch about it being cold, apparently oblivious to anyone or any circumstances more than an inch beyond their own skin. When told we ran out of heating fuel, one child had the temerity to say, under her breath (but let's face it, audible enough for us to hear it), "Daddy's house is always really warm," in reference to her father, who lives in another town in the House of Perfection and Perpetual Warmth and Love and Proper Parental Care

10. I offer, subtly, to escort said child to her beloved father's, by way of my foot up her ass, but Corrine shushes me before I get to "Listen, you..."

11. I go downstairs to prime the motor to the furnace. This is a set of sub-steps as follows:

a) Take a 3/4 inch wrench and place it on a nut at an impossible 90-degree angle to the motor. I have schoolgirl hands. Small, petite, feminine in their smallness. I'm not ashamed to admit that. I make up for it in other -ahem - areas. I do, however, ponder how the hell Kirk the Oil Furnace man, with his MAN HANDS (no joints, just sausage fat fingers) can possibly do this task.

b) I take an empty 12-ounce Mt. Dew bottle and place the neck up under the nut. Folks, if you make crude sexual jokes about this I will hunt you down.

c) With my girl hand firmly wrapped inside the motor, clutching the 3/4 inch steel wrench (it's cold in the basement. Imagine wrapping all fingers around a bar of ice) I gently loosen the nut, holding the Mt. Dew bottle in place with my knee, and I push the furnace reset button. The same furnace reset button that has, above it in bold capital letters, DO NOT RESET THIS MORE THAN ONCE.

Picture this: Barney Fife, kneeling on the cold half-cement/half dirt floor of our basement, little Sally hand tucked into the guts of a motor, holding a cold wrench, turning said wrench to loosen a tiny nut, bracing a Mt. Dew bottle with one knee, depressing the small reset button, eyes closed, head turned, and picturing that scene in Die Hard when the skyscraper loses an entire floor after officer John McClain drops a whole pound of plastic explosives down an elevator shaft.

What happens when you trip this reset button is that the motor chugs to life. You loosen the nut to allow actual fuel to squirt out into the bottle, sputtering sputtering sputtering until you get a good unbroken stream, then you tighten the nut. If you did it right, the air is out of the line and the fuel is then injected into the furnace, which roars to life WITHIN INCHES OF YOUR LITTLE PATHETIC SALLY DAINTY HAND

Of course, it never takes the first time. It usually means doing it three or four times. Three or four reset button trips, despite the ominous warning. We had it looked at later that year and I'll be a son of a bitch if Kirk the Oil Furnace Fat Sausage Finger Man didn't turn to me and say "Have you reset this more than once?" in that accusing, I'm a professional and you have girly hands, kind of way. I just said "Huh? Reset button what?"

So, the furnace is back purring and billowing beautiful warm air up up up into our house and leaking out through the various porous spots around every window, the eaves, and the roof, which is why we don't have an energy audit because let's face it, we KNOW we're heating the maple trees. We don't need no stinking energy audit to tell us that.

And then we break the news to our children that there is no propane. Which means there is no hot water. Which means no showers. Which means, heaven help us, the girls might not be able to break the record for most consecutive days with a shower that they started when they were 12, the same day they discovered boys.

We have a remedy for this too, of course. We gather every pot in the house, fill them with water, and place them on both stoves. When the water rises to a nice, toasty luke warm, we instruct them on how to bathe in the shower with the pot of water at their feet and a plastic cup.

Ever see the poster of the monkey in the hot springs? His coat of hair is covered in snow, only his head is above the steamy water and he's got the cheerless, You've-Got-To-Be-Effing-Kidding-Me look?

That's our children. Wrapped to the necks in blankets and sleeping bags, hair askew from slumber, and wearing looks of disgust that only a mother/step-mother could love.

They relent, because they have to. They understand that no amount of foot stomping, pouting, cursing and conjuring the name of their other, more reliable parent, will get them any closer to getting clean.

That happened in one day last winter. The perfect storm, if you will, of bad luck. But hey, as we told our mirthless, shivering, blue-lipped children: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

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