This Is My Fire Story! (The Second One)

A cord of firewood can produce 50 pounds of ash. It was shortly before 10 in the morning when my wife backed the car out of the garage revealing the remaining, neatly stacked 1/2 cord, which awaited its pending peregrination to the ash pan. “Are you sure you don’t want to go shopping with me?” I unknowingly blinked a couple times, as I processed the least sardonic response. “I’m sure…love you!” (Nicely done!) “Well, if you’re staying home, get a few of the honey-do-list items done…the list is on the table…love you too!” (Doh!)

I perused the list up and down to find at least one chore remotely interesting. The list was neatly handwritten on paper illustrated with little yellow smiley faces, which stared upward with child-like innocence. I stared back with growing contempt before ultimately turning the paper over to terminate their failed attempt at mockery. The list, however, continued on the other side….No. 26 – remove ash from fireplace. “Hi Daddy…what are you doing?” It was my eldest daughter. (I’m reading the list Mommy left for you and your sister!) “I have to clean the fireplace, honey?”

This was our first house with a fireplace. Having lived in the northeast United States all our lives, my wife and I longed for a home with both a fireplace and a garage; necessary upgrades to protect us from the elements of earth and wind. It had been an unusually cold fall, and the fireplace was well-used. The crackling of the fire and the periodic whiff of the cherry wood smoke took me back to the camping days of my youth. The tugging at my pant leg brought me back to now. “Why are you staring at the fireplace, Daddy?” It was now the youngest of my two daughters. I looked down at the smokey black fire box, now devoid of heat or sound. “Mommy wants me to clean the fireplace out.” “Why?”

Did you know that it’s not a good idea to remove ash from the fireplace every time you have a fire? Nor did I! Apparently, having an ash layer on the floor of the firebox makes it easier to build and maintain the next fire.  The hot coals tend to nestle (unforeseen I might add) into the ash, adding more heat to the fuel and reflecting the heat back into the fire. I did not know that either!

Fireplaces don’t come with user manuals, at least none that I could find; likely consumed in the baptismal conflagration. My knowledge of fires was based on my years of camping, both with the boy scouts and with my family. Short of starting a fire and roasting marshmallows, camping rules did not apply here. “Can we roast marshmallows, Daddy?” I hadn’t realized that I had been thinking out loud; a bad habit of mine. “No honey…I’ll make you some mac-n-cheese in a bit.” “Thanks, Daddy!” “You’re welcome, sweetheart!”

Every job has its tools. I looked back down at the fireplace and started a mental list: old clothes, newspaper, brush, dustpan, and a paper bag…oh…and more newspaper.

The box of mac-n-cheese was in the pantry, under the bag of marshmallows. My youngest, a mac-n-cheese connoisseur, watched intently as I stood at the stove and mixed the ingredients in the proper proportions. Setting her at the table in front of a generous proportion, I set out to change my clothes and gather the requisite toolset to complete No. 26. A mouthful suppressed “Daddy, this is delicious!” trailed from the dining room. “Find your sister and play upstairs after lunch; cleaning the fireplace may get dirty.” “OK.”

I moved the furniture away from the fireplace, spread some of the newspaper on the floor, and opened both sides of the fireplace screen to expose the grate. We had purchased the cast-iron grate just a few months before, but now it looked well-used and covered in soot and ash. I expanded my mental toolset…gloves…and more newspaper.

I put on the gloves I had retrieved from the garage and added the newspaper to the growing stack. I reach up and opened the flue damper to allow dust to rise up through the chimney. Grabbing the grate from both sides, I removed it from the firebox and placed it on the recently spread newspaper. The disturbance generated an upwelling of feathery, grey ash, which shimmered in the sunlit streaks leaking in from the nearby window. “Is that where burned marshmallows go, Daddy?” “Go on upstairs, sweetheart.”

Older fireplaces, like ours, have another damper, typically located in the back, rear floor of the fire pit, which provides access to an ash pit. Ash pits are designed to safely manage accumulated ash. Brushing this fact aside, I elected, instead, to brush the ash into the dust pan and, in turn, dump it into the brown paper bag, where I had, a moment ago, also placed the excess newspaper. In doing so, I prioritized what I thought to be an overriding element in my decision-making process; that is, to avoid honey-do-list item No. 33 – clean-out ash pit!

Don’t judge me! Sure, it seems obvious now; but you have the benefit of hindsight, as well as the knowledge that this is a story about fire; that each passing row of words leads you closer to that imminent flicker foretold in the story’s title.

But not so fast! Below are actual cleaning steps recommended by professional chimney sweeps, not, as you might suspect, self-serving untruths (I swear):

  1. Open the damper for the dust to rise out of the chimney. (Check!)
  2. Make sure that there are no hot embers. (Let’s come back to this one!)
  3. Using several paper bags, shovel the ash into the bags and roll them closed. (Check!)
  4. Deposit these bags into your trash. (Check!)
  5. Leave a small amount of ash under the grate to act as an ash bed for your next fire. (Oops!)

Make sure that there are no hot embers. In my own defense, I put my ungloved hands over the ashes and did not “feel” any latent heat. For pity’s sake, we hadn’t had a fire in over a week. I certainly did not know that “hot coals tend to nestle into the ash” and I certainly was not going to check. I know where burnt marshmallows go!

So it was as follows: the ash to the pan, from the pan to the bag, and the bag to the garbage, and the garbage to the garage. The garage…to protect things from the elements (at least earth and wind). Let’s get you oriented. In our garage, the garbage is stored in a 32-gallon, plastic receptacle, near the door that provides access to the kitchen. The receptacle is situated alongside two plastic recyclable bins. To complete your mental picture, these disposables are proximal to important non-disposables such as our two cars, lawn tractor, and snowblower.

Flicker! (You certainly have been patient!)

Preparing for the imminent return of my wife, I returned the living room to its shining splendor, checked on the kids, and proudly crossed-off No. 26 from the honey-do-list. I turned the paper over and smiled back at the yellow, pretentious smiley faces; then arrogantly slammed the paper back on the table, faces down!

While I am not a smoke connoisseur, I can discern between cherry wood and plastic and I absolutely recognize smoke when I see it. The plastic-scented smoke bellowed from the furnace vent located in the kitchen. I instinctively yelled upstairs to the kids and ran to the basement access door located in our dining room. Feeling the coldness of the door, I turned the knob, opened the door and proceeded down the stairs. I was immediately overwhelmed by the stark placidity of the darkness; neither sight nor sound. Back upstairs, the polyethylene ash protruded unabated from the kitchen into the dining room.

By now, my kids had joined me in the dining room. The oldest held a phone to her ear. In a calm voice, she said “I called 9-1-1!” In that moment, she looked older than her 11-years! “I need you to take your sister to the neighbors.” In that moment, I opened the door in the kitchen that leads to the garage. I was greeted by a wall of flames and a sudden flashback of the “ash to the pan, from the pan to the bag, and the bag to the garbage, and the garbage to the garage.”

“Tell them to send the fire department…do you know our address?” “Yes, Dad…they’re already on their way”! she responded with a twinge of irritation in her voice. I reached around to the pantry, opened the sliding door and grabbed the only fire extinguisher known to be in the house. It was old, perhaps an antique; left by the previous owner, who, for over 50-years, had no reason to use it. “Who puts ashes in a paper bag?” “You do Daddy!” Doh…I was thinking out loud again.

I pulled the pin and aimed the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the flames (remember). The foam spray met the flames in a white, billowing plume of smoke. “Tell the operator I think I have it under control.” The extinguisher sputtered and the fire flickered (again). “Nevermind…let’s get you both to the neighbors!”

I exited the house with the kids via the front door and walked them across the street. I watched as the kids walked hand-in-hand to the neighbor’s front door. An exchange of pleasantries, a few details of the fire, a sheepish wave from me, a wave back, and the kids were led into the house. At this point, I thought that any plausible deniability with the wife was increasingly reduced by the growing number of witnesses. As the neighbor’s door closed, I quickly returned to the problem at hand: two cars, a lawn tractor, and a snowblower.

I opened both garage doors to see that the fire was still content with the abundance of plastic it had yet to consume; the non-disposables remained non-disposed. While not recommended for smart people, I entered the garage and removed, in order of priority, the cars, the lawnmower and then the snowblower; the last taking its place in the driveway as the first of several, impressive pieces of firefighting apparatus rolled up. The whirling sights and sounds encouraged the rest of my neighbors to the street, exponentially increasing the efforts needed for me to succeed in the greatest marital cover-up since…well…the last fire.

From a firefighter’s perspective, this one was a one can, incipient stage fire; taking several, tense seconds to put out. For several more seconds, the firefighters and neighbors stood with me in the garage, encircling the still bubbling, ooze of plastic, which was once my plastic garbage can and recycling bins. The residual smoke and ash were now being drawn outward by their portable high volume, positive pressure ventilation fan.

When the smoke had dissipated sufficiently, the chief turned off the fan, then turned his attention to me. “So…how do you think the fire started?” I stared nervously as my two daughters returned unscathed from the neighbor’s house. (“My Daddy puts ashes in a paper bag!”) Thank God, my youngest doesn’t think out loud! But I spilled the beans anyways and proceeded to tell the story of the “ash to the pan, from the pan to the bag, and the bag to the garbage, and the garbage to the garage”. “Hey Lenny, come listen to this…tell that story again.” And with that, my wife, weaving her way between people and equipment, turned back into our driveway. “Hey…isn’t the Department’s annual fund-raising drive coming up?” I nervously inquired, while grabbing my wallet. “Hi hon…you won’t believe what happened…”

In time, all evidence of the fire was eliminated, with the exception of a few blackened cobwebs located in the upper reaches of the garage and one solid, shiny grey and blue mass of plastic fused-by-fire to the floor, which my family refers to as my Darwin Award.

That evening, with the kids asleep in their beds, my wife and I passed the time by linking one awkward moment to the next; silent to the day’s events and indifferent to the darkness of the hearth. The ringing of our doorbell was a welcome alternative. I opened the door to a spectacle of firefighters and equipment, which again resulted in a knee-jerk reaction to pull my wallet from my back pocket. “Let them in!” The words from my wife forced me to focus. Before me stood our good friends and their kids; dressed in fire hats and carrying hoses and fire extinguishers. We woke our kids and together we celebrated all things associated with fire safety and prevention.  It was a good end to the day and a good start to our future. While they had provided us with a much needed good laugh, more importantly, they had provided us with extinguishers (good, modern ones) for each floor of our home.

In time, I have taken on a safety-first mentality. I cleaned the fireplace one more time, placing the ashes in a metal can, which I filled with water, and subsequently placed at the end of the driveway (in another neighborhood).

With more time, I learned that ash can be repurposed for beneficial uses such as:

  • de-skunking pets
  • hiding stains on pavement
  • enriching compost
  • blocking garden pests
  • melting ice
  • controlling pond algae
  • cleaning glass fireplace doors
  • making soap
  • shining silver.

Who knew?

Before we switched to a natural gas-fired insert a few years back, we cleaned the fireplace one last time by hiring a professional chimney sweep. He was meticulous in the completeness and cleanliness of his work. With the sweeping complete, he turned his back and kneeled to empty the contents of his ash vacuum. As he stood up, he turned, reaching out with one arm to hand me one brown paper bag. I laughed, which caught his attention. “I hope you have insurance.” “Pardon?” With that, I proceeded to tell him about the “ash to the pan, from the pan to the bag, and the bag to the garbage, and the garbage to the garage.” I stood vindicated.

While it may seem unnecessary and redundant to others, the phrase “we had a fire in the fireplace last night” is acceptable within our family’s lexicon to more fully describe one of the potential fire-related home options to which we have grown accustomed.

The Music Box!

In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released The Music Box, a short film comedy starring Laurel and Hardy. The film, which depicts the pair attempting to move a piano up a large flight of steps, won the first Academy Award for a live action, short film. Sixty years later, it became the de facto instruction manual for directing our attempts to move our piano up a spiral staircase to our second floor flat.

Spiral staircases have been around for centuries. During the Middle Ages, the spiral design was widely used to provide access to towers and give advantage to the King’s army against enemies. Right-handed, sword-bearing adversaries found it difficult to navigate the spiral stairs into the castle and especially difficult to go upwards in a narrow pathway. Several men at once could not storm the tower to take the space from the inhabitants, but instead had to go up one-by-one. (see Spiral Staircases)

Over the centuries, militaristic strategy has evolved. We have gained an upper hand on medieval combat tactics by dropping the sword. It was now, 1992. At dawn, we attacked with a piano!

Not just any piano…a Hammond 54-inch upright constructed by the Hammond Organ Company between 1963 and 1965. In 1962, Hammond acquired the Everett Piano Company of South Haven, Michigan to enter the lucrative, defense-industry supported piano market! Between 1963 and 1965, in a modest, brick-faced factory located along the windswept shore of Lake Michigan, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 upright pianos were manufactured, and subsequently wheeled onto the shipping dock and into trucks driven by strong, well-trained warriors to be delivered to parts unknown. Except for one.

On this day…a Sunday, No. 2166 had found its way to the base of a foreboding spiral staircase within in an old Victorian home located in Baldwinsville, NY. Absent the professional soldiers of yesteryear, this piano was now encircled by four unimposing, non-trained “weekend warriors”. The absence of a leader was evident in the shared expressions of confusion on their faces and to their task. “Just to review…we need to get this monster up those stairs to the second floor landing?” “That is correct…any more questions?” “Yes…when are the others getting here?” From the back…“Does anyone actually know how to play the piano?”

Upright pianos are quite heavy! We knew this before we started, as we had all watch the Laurel & Hardy training video. A 54-inch high upright can weight between 500 and 600 pounds. Based on a 7-inch riser and an 11-inch tread of an average staircase, you get an upward angle of attack of 32 degrees. As we all should know from that physics class we skipped in High School…the one on Newton’s Second and Third Laws of Motion:

  1. Force due to gravitational acceleration will increase weight (i.e., weight = mass times gravitational acceleration);
  2. A massive body in an inertial reference frame (i.e., a 32 degree downward angle) will behave in a predictable way when it is subjected to an outside force (i.e., gravity forcing the piano unexpectedly back down the staircase); and, finally
  3. The expected result of what happens to the body that was exerting the original force (i.e., it gets smushed).

But you are correct, this was not your average staircase, but a spiral staircase, with its defensive, narrow and winding design. Setting aside the additional complicating physics of vectors, the outcome is typically the same…gravity wins, while the person at the bottom…behind the piano…gets smushed.

I took my position on the upward side of the piano. “No no no no…no! What are you doing?” My father, who apparently had not skipped a physics class…ever…was reorienting me to my “team” position behind the piano. As I moved to the back, he followed with a nod and a not very instructive “Good luck!” My brother-in-law, stood at my side with nervous anticipation, silently staring upward; a young soldier going into battle for the first time. His father, my father-in-law, took the point position.

By mere happenstance, the ceremonial “dropping of the sword” brought with it a reversal in the relative risk associated with leading the charge. No longer was the point position the most exposed position in spiral staircase combat military formation. The hostile or insecure territory had transitioned to the rear position, which due to simple physics, had taken on 100% of the risk and burden. We awaited with trepidation our orders to advance.

With age comes wisdom and, from the point position, our fathers indicated that they had heard from experienced piano movers (who, for whatever reason, were absent that day) that it was very desirable to do as much of the piano moving as possible with as little human effort as possible. So, for the first five minutes, we just stood there. And so did the piano.

After five minutes, we reviewed the steps again…there were 12 to the second floor landing. The first step in piano moving, however, was to “tip and lift”. In doing so, it became readily apparent that the front, spindle piano legs would need to be removed to avoid breakage. Upon removing the legs, it became apparent that we had also removed any remaining stability. We had effectively created a large, 500-pound container with the feel of water swishing left-to-right, front-to-back with each upward movement. With only 12 more steps, we untipped and unlifted and rested!

We understood quite well that the most dangerous part of moving a piano up stairs is actually moving the piano up the stairs. Once the process starts, the piano can very easily go out of balance causing terrible things to happen very, very rapidly. To increase the stability of the movement, we envisioned three separate lifts of four steps along the move path, always shifting to the left to follow the counterclockwise spiral design and never letting go during the move…

Not having yet mastered the order of such steps as tip, lift, move, set down, let go and rest, we found ourselves moving rapidly back down the stairs; the piano and point men in hot pursuit. Luckily for my brother-in-law and me, the sudden and ignominious failure occurred during the first lift, lacking in sufficient momentum to cause much damage. We were only slightly smushed with our backs to the foyer wall; a Godsend for having stopped our movement beyond the house and into the street! “Are you OK?” my father inquired…“I’ll take your lack of a response as a yes!”

With the lessons learned behind us and twelve steps still ahead of us, we quickly reached consensus on the path forward which, short of switching fore and aft positions, included a thorough refresher on the proper order of procedures. As my father and father-in-law bantered back-and-forth regarding where the fault lay, I couldn’t help but notice their sudden morph into Laurel and Hardy, with their celebrated derby hats bouncing on and off their heads with each parrying quip. “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

It took us a while and, on occasion, two-steps forward were followed by one-step back; but we ultimately reached our 2nd floor, top-of-the-tower objective…piano and all. We reinstalled the spindle legs, untipped, unlifted, setdown, let go and rested.

Alas, what goes up must come down…hopefully in a well-executed operation. Along with the piano, my wife and I moved one more time. On the third occasion, we elected to give the piano to her brother along with the mover’s instruction manual…a VHS tape of Laurel & Hardy film shorts, including The Music Box.