The old-timers (that would not be me) used to call a particularly cold night "a rafter snapper." That's what last night was for sure, except in this 1850 farm house all the rafters have long since lost their snap.
It was poor timing to shut down my outdoor wood furnace for cleaning and even poorer timing to run out of fuel oil. Because I burn so little oil, I sort of lose track of the tank, which is why I woke up to a cold house. The outdoor thermometer on the north side of the house read 22 below. Feeling number (that's "nummer") than a twice-pounded thumb, I called Chip Bean, who delivers my fuel oil whenever I need it, which is hardly ever, and said "Hey, Chip - guess what?"
But Errol is a good 25 miles from my doorstep, and in the meantime I was worried about my pipes. And if there's a world record on building three fires at Warp Factor Five, I own it.
First, the living room fireplace. I keep cedar kindling and finely split hardwood handy and had a good fire going in not more than a minute.
But that was the easy one. Next was the box stove in what we call the Fish and Game Room, on account of its walls being decorated with all manner of outdoor art, and everything from shotguns to snowshoes gracing every nook and cranny. It is in the ell where the summer kitchen was in days of yore and it has no foundation. It's like having a walk-in freezer.
Cold air is just like water in that it seeks its lowest level. Thus it comes down about a dozen feet of chimney and just sits there in the stove, arms folded, and says "Go ahead, make my day."
This is where the Marx Brothers act takes place. The Fish and Game Room stove and the stove in the back shop are on the same chimney, and the only way to kick the frigid air in the butt and move it up is to get fast and very hot fires going in both stoves. To do this, I stuff both fireboxes with crumpled-up newspapers and very fine kindling and attempt to light both at once - theoretically impossible - but I manage (envision Daffy Duck) and with a whoosh, Jack Frost takes a trip to the moon.
At this point, my fingers were so numb that I could barely strike a match, and the outdoor furnace was next. Think Jack London's "To Build A Fire." All that was lacking was a tree-load of snow falling on my head.
Clearly this situation called for some strategy beginning with a retreat to the main house to warm up. In between visits to the fireplace to avoid becoming a popsicle, I rounded up crumpled newspaper and more fine kindling and hardwood splits, grabbed for the big kitchen matches (easier to hold), and squaring my really, really ridiculous bomber-style hat (think "Sergeant Preston and his Mighty Dog King") made a mad dash of 50 feet from barn door to furnace.
It is next to impossible to strike a match while wearing gloves so finally, at the crucial point, off they came. First match - a failure. Second match - ditto. I may have used some bad words here. Whatever the case, the third match did the trick and I beat feet to the house breaking stride just long enough to glance back at a satisfying white plume issuing forth into a clear-blue sky.
Times like this tend to make a guy think back to similar episodes. When we snowshoe into a frozen solid camp, I'm the guy elected to build the fire. But wait, you say - shouldn't there be tinder and kindling already laid in the stove so you can touch a match to it and step back to enjoy the roar? Nope - that's the stuff of books and movies.
Any makings of a fire left in the stove for the next visit becomes damp as a mop and requires a blow-torch.
Why do we do these things?
Even with a good, fast fire it takes an hour to get the camp warmed up enough so we can take our heavy mitts off while we stand around like idiots our breaths almost obscuring the situation, the camp creaking and groaning as the frozen timbers struggle out of the cold's hold.
"We oughtta have our heads examined," one of us inevitably observes, to which the other says, "They wouldn't find anything."
John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org