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.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis!

Fredericksburg had a hotel (see “I Like Not Camping!”); everything else was dependent upon that! From the early days of our marriage, my wife and I were enamored with the offerings of the Commonwealth of Virginia. From its eastern shore beaches to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, we hit the road to explore its expansive natural beauty and historic landmarks. Our hotel was Central Command for the daily treks.

Fredericksburg is part of the Northern Virginia region, north of Richmond and approximately 45 miles south of Washington, DC. Although not known as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Fredericksburg had a hotel and it was from there that we embarked on a 200-mile westward day-trip to Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway – “America’s Favorite Drive”.

What may seem an arbitrary admission now, I must profess that my wife is of the “been there…done that” persuasion, which limited our exploration of any one location…“so many places to see, so little time!” Consequently, it was necessary to cram as many miles and destinations into the “here and now”, as the likelihood of a return visit to the region would be…well…absurd.

As you surmised, we had set an ambitious itinerary, covering many miles. Taking advantage of the pre-dawn promise of a pleasant summer day, we packed a picnic basket with an assortment of snacks and beverages and headed out the door. The analogy, however, between places and time is imperfect in that the shortest distance between two points is often boring. Avoiding the fast-moving, as-a-crow-flies, beeline byways, we targeted the less beaten, scenic path to our first destination…South Royal, VA…the northernmost entrance to Skyline Drive. One and a half hours and 70 miles through the agrarian Virginia outback. “Down the country” as the locals would say.

The second leg of our journey took us south along Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive is a two-lane, National Scenic Byway, which traverses the Eastern Continental Divide. The torturously meandering route boasts 75 scenic overlooks and 2 visitor centers (with restrooms), but can only be accessed (or egressed) at four evenly-spaced points; the southernmost point…Rockfish Gap…being our destination…105 additional miles or two “long” hours (without stops), if you’re tracking. For those that miss the escape ramp at Rockfish, Skyline Drive continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway for an additional 469 miles.

For the final leg of our trip, we opted for direct, well-traveled thoroughfares; a two hour, 90-mile return trip to Fredericksburg…confident we’d arrive in time for dinner. The Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center is located at Skyline Drive milepost 51. Shenandoah National Park’s southernmost public facility operates on weekends between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.; we were burning through the oil of a late Saturday afternoon, nigh closing time. The sign indicated that Mr. Byrd, Sr. was an American newspaper publisher and political leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia who passed away in 1966. Unaware of the societal successes that justified his memorialization-by-name on this end-of-the-road Visitor Center, we were just as grateful for the use of his restrooms. And so we did, then headed back on the road to Fredericksburg.

But this isn’t really a story about Virginia or site seeing. It may as well be a tale on the subject of purses; that effeminate accessory that’s been at my wife’s side longer and more assuredly than me. Regardless of its form…backpack, baguette, bowling bag, bucket bag, clutch, doctor’s bag, envelope bag, feed bag, hobo bag, messenger bag, minaudiere, saddle bag, satchel, shoulder bag, sling bag, tote bag, or weekend bag…(deep breath)…the purse or pocket book has been an instrument of womenkind since the 15th century. Don’t take my word for it, the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (yes, it exists), professes that “The introduction of pockets towards the end of the 16th century meant that the men’s bags slowly disappeared in the course of the 17th century. From then on, bags belonged almost exclusively to the women’s domain.” ( My wife’s purse was her sine qua non; indispensable. From my perspective, the purse, supported by the advent of the automobile, was critical to the success of marital long distance travel.

Fredericksburg had a hotel, to which we returned at approximately 5 p.m. Moving through the unlocked door, we tossed our belongings onto the bed and sat in the two opposing chairs to de-stress a few moments before heading back out to dinner. I shut my eyes…for one moment.

“Where’s my purse?” “Isn’t it on the bed? Look behind the picnic basket.” “It’s not there!” “Maybe it’s in the car…I’ll be right back.” I returned from the van, a little more exasperated. “Well…where could you have left it?”, which was less a question regarding its whereabouts, than my reconsideration of its historical significance!

“Well…we stopped at the Visitor Center to use the bathrooms.” “Do you remember having your purse then?” “I had to have had it…my toothbrush was in it and I remember brushing my teeth!” Another arbitrary admission…my wife is a dental hygienist. Factoid about hygienists…if they aren’t sleeping, they are, more often than not, brushing their teeth…it’s what they do.  What they have is super white teeth…it’s their superpower! She followed, “I may have left my purse in the Visitor Center washroom.” (“Way to go, Wonder Woman!”)

At 6 p.m., my wife phoned the closed Visitor Center and was lucky to reach an attending park ranger. I sat nearby in my chair, listening as my stomach growled. “You did…that’s great…yes…great…my husband will come and pick it up…great…yes, he knows the way…yes, ha ha…he would know that already…OK…yes…thank you so much! You have a good night too!” Click! “They have it at the guard gate and they’re expecting you.” In that moment, it was obvious to me that the fact that my wife had already made this journey once, coupled with the lack of her requisite purse, made it impossible for her to participate in the long, return trip! In that same moment, I also kept that conclusion to myself, only now sharing it with you to complete the obvious connection-of-the-dots. Been there…done that! My stomach continued to growl and my brain responded with the onset of a headache.

But this isn’t a story about Virginia or site seeing or purses. It is, I promise, a teachable moment on the value of cost-benefit analyses (CBAs). Stop me if you already know this. CBAs provide a systematic approach to estimating the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives (i.e., should I stay or should I go). Applying equivalent money values to the benefits and costs can help you decide which decision would be best for you or, in my case, which alternative I would have opted for, absent the decision being previously made by my wife and the park ranger. So out the door I went.

There’s a lot of time in 288 miles. As I gazed out the driver’s side window at the passing deja vu-packed scenery, I couldn’t help wonder if the trip was economically warranted. The premise was simple. Would the fuel and depreciation costs of driving a vehicle 288 miles (check my math) be greater than the cost of a purse and its contents? With each passing mile, I advanced the hypothetical scenario. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline (1997 dollars) was $1.50. We drove a 1997 Chevy Venture (van), which averaged 19 miles per gallon. Doing the math…a 288 mile, there-and-back trip would cost approximately $23 in fuel. In addition, the depreciation value of a year-old van (assuming average mileage, maintenance, insurance and repair costs) is approximately $0.20 per mile or an additional $57. From “my side” of the analysis, the total cost (without benefit) would be $80. That was easy.

To calculate “her side” of the analysis took me every remaining mile; what do I know about the contents of a woman’s purse (that’s sacred territory)?!

At mile 25, my headache gave me my first inkling:

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = $3

At mile 50, the obvious came to me:

  • Wallet (cheap, unremarkable) = $7 (Note:  the CBA assumes that credit card companies would be contacted to report the loss.  Credit cards, themselves, have no intrinsic value. Nor does her library card!)
  • Traveler’s Checks and Checkbook (no intrinsic value; notify bank)
  • Cash = $17 (we discussed in the morning)
  • Change = $4.25 (mostly in dimes, nickels and pennies jingling at the bottom of the purse)
  • Van Key = $5 (replacement fee)

By mile 75, I was freewheeling:

  • Woman’s Compact (with mirror) = $5 (I read that all woman carry these and that the ones who don’t are dead; is that true? If not true, I’ll take a $5 deduction!)
  • Moisturizer = $5
  • Brush = $5
  • Planner = $2
  • Mini-Calculator = $2
  • Cheap Sunglasses = $3

At mile 100, any essential items escaped me:

  • Lipstick = $2.50
  • Nail Polish = $4
  • Nail File = $0.25
  • 2 Pens = $1
  • Candy Wrappers (no value)

I arrived at the guardhouse at approximately 9 p.m. I handed my driver’s license to the park ranger to confirm my identify and my relationship to the purse. “Here it is….you don’t look so good!” “Long day” I responded. “And I have a headache…you wouldn’t have any aspirin would you?” “No…sorry…maybe there’s some in your wife’s purse.” I gave it a quick check…no aspirin! “Ugghhh…no such luck…well, thanks for finding her purse.” “Oh…I didn’t find it…someone in the restroom brushing their teeth found it.” “Another dental hygienist!” I mumbled.

My headache continued as I circumnavigated the guardhouse, waved goodbye, and headed back to Fredericksburg (again).

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = minus $3.00 (deduct)

Darkness filled the remaining 144 miles as the late summer Virginia night surrounded me. The throbbing in my head restricted my ability to fill the remaining dark voids within my wife’s purse:

  • Q-tips (really?)
  • Hair Pins, Clips and Ties = $1
  • Tissue Pak (unused, $1); Tissues (used, gross)
  • Coupons (no value)
  • Unmentionables ($2)

Satisfied that I had accounted for a reasonable assortment of contraband within the bag, I completed my assessment by adding in the replacement value of the purse itself.

  • Purse (cheap, unremarkable) = $15

I struggled to complete the CBA. My Side = $80…Her Side = $82. My headache intensified! I arrived back in Fredericksburg at midnight; the disappointing results of the CBA reverberating in my head. Ahead, the soft neon glow of the hotel sign beckoned me to Central Command one last time. Out of the corner of my eye, I observed the lights of a small 24-hour convenience store. Aspirin!! I swung right into the driveway, parked the van, and walked inside. “Aspirin?” I asked the clerk. “Aisle 3B.” was the response. I walked up 3A, past the woman’s purses; my headache intensifying. Quickly grabbing the 100-count, I returned to the front of the store to check-out. “We have a 200-count.” “No…the 100-count will be just fine…how much?” “Three dollars.” I paid the clerk, grabbed the aspirin, and walked out the door, smiling for the first time in a long while.

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = $3 (My Side)

My headache dissipated as I drove the remaining block to the hotel; the unopened aspirin bottle lay at my side. Fredericksburg had a hotel, and I was finally there; satisfied this would be the last time I would pursue a lost purse in the Virginia outback.

Final CBA: My Side = $83…Her Side = $82!

This Is My Fire Story! (The First One)

Ironically, the man who stated that “Genius is initiative on fire” also opined that “No man is ever old enough to know better.” (George Holbrook Jackson, 31 December 1874 – 16 June 1948, British journalist, writer and publisher.)

When it comes to fire, I am dumber than a box of matches. Without that intellectual spark, I have also not benefited from the wisdom of age. So this is my fire story…the first one. Sadly, a second story is forthcoming. Let’s keep them both between friends, for they bring me no gratification. I will deny they ever happened. Except for various police and fire department records, there is no evidence these events actually occurred. Nor will there ever be, as verified by my thorough sifting through the ashes.

The Learning Years!

We purchased our first house in 1990; a two-story colonial constructed in 1889. The skeleton of the house consisted of a framework of aged pine. A good, sturdy, dry, strong…did I say dry…wood. Wood that is 100+ years is referred to, in expert wood-burning circles, as “seasoned”! For 10 years, we lived in that seasoned house.

Homeownership comes with responsibilities…cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, fixing leaks, lighting the furnace pilot light. Not realizing some opportunistic author actually published a completely illustrated book entitled, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Home Repair and Maintenance”, I was left to my own devices (or lack thereof).

The house temperature had dipped below 65, echoing the seasonal conditions expressed by a late Fall day. What heat was left in the house was fast-moving out of the house; soon to be replaced inside by cooling temperatures and, perhaps, snow! “You need to get that furnace started!” I could barely make out the face of my wife through the layers of fleece pull-overs and her favorite wool hoodie blanket. Lacking a competent response, I feigned a sudden and complete hearing loss. (“Furnace…where’s the furnace?”)

Our basement consisted of a 20-by-30 foot “habitable” space. Crawl spaces, the inside joke of home designers, provided additional “space”. The basement floor was partitioned into concrete and dirt portions. I recall seeing a shovel in the corner, but that may be my poor memory or rich imagination. Rounded wood beams…good, seasoned wood beams moved upward to the joists, supporting the weight of the floors above. This was the kind of basement, which warranted a slightly mischievous chuckle every time the local utility company meter-reader knocked on the front door to see it. “Sure, right this way…watch your head!”

The Octopus was located immediately to the right, as you made your way down the stairs. An Octopus furnace is a gravity furnace so-named due to the long ducts coming out of the central unit. It can be quite intimidating, especially to a new homeowner. Standing at the far end of the basement, I stared at the Octopus and, in return, the cold, silent Octopus stared back. The sound of Freddy Krueger scraping his bladed gloves along the ductwork was suddenly broken by a muffled sound from the reality above. “It’s 63 degrees in here!”

I found a cast iron hatch at, what I assumed to be, the furnace front. Stamped into the door were the words “Patent Pending 1875”. With some trepidation, I wondered (for my sake) if the furnace company and patent office had amicably resolved the issues holding up the patent! I kneeled to open the hatch…slowly…and peered into the cold, silent, dark space beyond. With my mind (and heart) still racing, I paused to reflect upon the number of prior homeowners whom had previously knelt in this position…unknowing to the task-at-hand. I looked down at my toolkit, which consisted of a flashlight and box of matches. My first thought was that these items were redundant; I could have accomplished the job with just the matches. Nonetheless, with the potential for gas leaks, I picked up and turned on the flashlight and peered back inside the hatch. I didn’t “see” any!

The pilot light assembly was located deep into the opening; more than an arm’s length. I surmised that the resolution of the patent issue was still pending! Frustrated, I backed out of the opening and looked down at the matches, back at the dark hole, and back at the matches. The matches would be useless after all. This job required something much longer to bridge the great cold expanse. I did a quick visual reconnaissance of the basement looking for the manufacturer’s instruction manual. There must be some logical method to igniting this monster. But there is no method to madness and I quickly concluded that the first homeowner, in a moment of pure genius, had torched the manual to bring about the successful inaugural lighting of the Octopus. Well done, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter! Well done!

Not to be outdone by the wisdom of a Victorian Age gentleman, I focused my flashlight on the forward crawl space. To my surprise, beneath an old fire extinguisher, I observed a stack of old newspapers. It was my Eureka moment…a lit rolled up newspaper in my hand could extend my outstretched arm to provide the necessary reach. I yelled up stairs, reassuring my wife that things would be “toasty” in a few minutes. I smiled with confidence, knowing that there would be no need to call the father-in-law in for help! “Not this time!” I remarked out loud, as I moved aside the fire extinguisher, grabbed a newspaper and started to roll.

The auto-ignition temperature of paper is 451 degrees Fahrenheit, as eminently asserted in Ray Bradbury’s bestselling novel — “Fahrenheit 451″. However, introducing a lit match to paper significantly shortens the wait for the ambient temperature to reach such extremes. “It’s 61 degrees!!” came the voice from above. We continued to lose ground from the required 451 degrees, so I lit the match…and introduced it to the paper. It was an instant success. And in another instant, too much success…

The idea of holding a flaming 451 degree torch at the end of my outstretched arm was soon abandoned. As I instinctively dropped the newspaper, it unrolled exposing the ignited surfaces to a surge of oxygen-infused air. With the ensuing flash of yellow and orange, I soon found myself comfortably warm, in a well lit room; which, in-turn, exposed me to the problem-at-hand. A large fire in a large place rather than a small fire in a small place. Seasoned wood and all!

Fuels have a flammable range; a certain percentage of oxygen needed to burn. Too much or too little means no flame. Paper is no different. Remove the oxygen source and the fire goes out. In hindsight, I have no doubt that, given the same circumstances, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter would have engaged his expensive patent leather ankle lace-ups to tap dance bombershay the oxygen right out of that fire. I, however, was just wearing cotton socks…also flammable. Lucky for me, newspaper also burns slow, which gave me time to think.

Again, I heard the muffled voice of my wife. “It’s getting warmer up here…thanks!” (“Save yourself!” I thought to myself)

The far wall flickered with the shadows created by the fire. I was mesmerized by the display, which, for a second, I thought to include the dancing shadow-shape outline of a fire extinguisher. THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER! I hurried to the forward crawl space and grabbed the fire extinguisher, upsetting the remaining stack of newspapers in my haste. Running back to the other end of the basement, I performed a quick once-over of the apparatus. It was old…not Leadbetter old…but old enough for me to surmise that some past owner along the Octopus timeline had stood where I now stood, under these same circumstances. Since the house and furnace were, at least for now, unscathed, I assumed another historical success story. Good job, whoever you were!  Good job!

I learned afterwards that the fire extinguisher was of the dry chemical type; which, when used correctly, is excellent in creating a barrier between oxygen and fuel elements (such as newspaper). I also learned…afterwards…that, to be effective, the user should aim at the base of the flames, not at the flames…at the base of the flames…not at the flames. Write that down.

I pulled the pin and aimed at the flames. The effect was immediate. Riding the thrust of the chemical surge, the newspaper, including the fire, raced across the basement floor…30-feet, all the way to the far side, near the disheveled remaining newspapers. While the temperature within my immediate surroundings suddenly dropped, I couldn’t help but chuckle and imagine being handed the large overstuffed bear by the Carnival Barker. But, alas, reality brought me back once again.

Time is a funny thing and so is fire. If you combine the two, you get to these facts. While newspaper burns slow, that’s a relative fact. Newspaper burns slow relative to…say…gasoline, which ignites and burns relatively instantaneous. While paper burns much slower, a newspaper will still be fully consumed in approximately 15 seconds. As another matter of fact, it’s taken much longer to tell this story than for the actual events to run their course. From the point of ignition to the culmination of the fire traversing the 30-foot basement floor, a full 17 seconds expired; and so too did the fire. Precluding other influences (seasoned wood, additional newspaper, or me), it was only a matter of time before the newspaper torch would have burned itself out…but where’s the humor in that.

Failing in my homeowner task, I stepped slowly back up the stairs and was greeted by my wife, still dressed in Alaskan native vestments. Smelling like smoke and a little ashen, I softly inquired “Is your father home?”

Coming Soon: “This is My Fire Story! (The Second One)”

The Saving Thing!

“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.” (Quote by Mark Twain)

My father lived 64 full years. That’s 768 months or 3,328 weeks or approximately 23,360 days. Almost 34 million passing minutes in which my father lived on this planet, interacting with people, including me. In all that time, I was struck by one telling moment in particular, a simple moment with a simple lesson…that humor is the saving thing and that, even in the darkest hours, a sunny spirit can take their place.

In life, my father was a matter-of-fact, live-in-the-moment type guy. He focused on what was in front of him, unaffected by the sideshow distractions that life can throw at you. Near death, he was resolute in maintaining his focus on what was in front of him…not on the cancer, not on the what-ifs, and certainly not on self-pity. He focused on family and friends…he was there for us.

The dying time is an emotional rollercoaster for family and friends. We spent our last minutes together in unscripted conversations; too afraid to confront the obvious, so we hid behind the routine. The absurdity of discussing next week’s weather was lost in our moment of communion; until our conversation was abruptly interrupted by that unfamiliar and unwelcome silence.

You can’t get back time; a moment passed is a moment lost. But you try and we did…try. “Dad, we love you…can you hear us…we love you!” In that moment, you are flooded with things you want to say; what you think you should say…another moment passes…silence and the pulse of time moves forward.

We stood around his bed…a communal assemblage of family and friends; bound together in the sharing of the moment. Breaking the silence, we continued to try…my brother repeating, “Dad, can you hear me…dad, can you hear me? Say something…”

A man can wait his entire life to have everyone’s complete attention; that one moment when there are absolutely no distractions. Everyone in that room, as my dad intended, was focused on what was in front of them. This…was…my…dad’s…moment!

“Dad, please say something…” In that moment, my father’s eyelids twitched; maybe the recognition of my brother’s voice…the light of life still burned… “Keep talking…”  “Dad…Dad…Dad…say something.” We leaned forward in unison; both family and friends. The patriarch of our family, with a remaining breath…what would he say…we leaned further…and he spoke… “Something!” That was it…‘Something!’ In that moment, he spoke the word ‘Something!’ Again silence…then a nervous giggle followed by another; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony of laughter. All our irritations and resentments slipped away and a sunny spirit took their place.

My father lived for a few more days, passing away quietly at home. In death, he continued to present us with situations in the ensuing days, which highlighted the importance of humor and laughter in the healing process. It was those moments that got us through those days.

And those days picked us; we didn’t pick them. The day we visited the cemetery to select my dad’s plot was a cold, blustery, winter day. It went without saying that, absent these unpleasant conditions (and circumstances), we would not normally be out on a day like this. It went without saying…to most people.

“What are you doing out on a day like this?!” We closed the door tightly behind us and brushed the snow from our coats. “Sorry…what?” The proprietors resembled and interacted like “Fred and Ethyl Mertz”, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s vitriolic neighbors on the popular 1950’s “I Love Lucy” television sitcom. The Mertz’ sat around a small wood stove situated in the center of the one room cemetery office. Steam rose from mittens, which were hung to dry over the stove. Blowing snow danced around the window, as the wind continued to howl outside. “Ethyl” repeated the question…making a special effort to enunciate each word this time, “What…are…you…doing…out…on…a…day…like…this?” Perplexed by the question, I shrugged and blurted out the only response that came to me…“My father sent us!” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed; Fred and Ethyl stared, unemotional. Given the nature of the job, I assumed it was their only defense. With smiles on our faces, we were, once again, able to focus on what was in front of us and move forward.

My father’s wishes were to be cremated and buried. When the day came to pick up his ashes, my brother and I drove to the funeral home to complete the arrangements. The director was an old friend of my brother and father. He greeted us at the door and escorted us to his office where we, in short order, were caught up in our common reminisces. Time passed as our conversations shifted between the past and present, stitched together by our common connection with my father. But then there was the business-at-hand; the need to focus on what was in front of us. Steadied by the talk and passage of time, my brother and I got up from our chairs, and indicated our readiness to go collect our dad’s ashes. “He’s right there.” “Sorry…what?” Pointing to a box on the desk, the director repeated, “He’s right there…he’s been there the whole time.” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed…all three of us, maybe four.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the surreal nature of our responsibility did not go unnoticed. It was emphasized by the palpable silence as my brother picked up the box holding my dad’s ashes and as we, together, took the long walk to the car.

I opened the car door and my brother placed the box on the front passenger seat. As he backed away, I reached in and wrapped the seatbelt around the box and fastened the buckle. Together we took one last ride through the neighborhood, ultimately arriving at the house, which would forever be full of wonderful family memories. Sitting in the driveway on that day, we listened through the quietness of the present to hear laughter from years passed; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony. We smiled as the front door opened, and our mom stepped out onto the porch.

In those last days of his life, my dad did have a clear-sighted conversation with my mom. In their private moment, he remarked, “You knew life would come to this…but in our life together, we did focus on the important things…to live, love and laugh.”

And we do too…thanks for the lesson, mom and dad!

I Like Not Camping!

“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”  (Krakauer, Jon.  Into the Wild.  New York:  Anchor, 1997)  I slipped the bookmark between the open pages, closed the book, and placed it at my side on the sleeping bag. The consistent pitter of rain on the tent canvas once again filled the claustrophobic void of our reality.

“The black 7 goes on the red 8…” I hinted. My wife continued to stare through the rows of cards spread out in front of her. “Didn’t my mother tell you that I don’t like camping?!” “Ahh…I believe she said that ‘this isn’t the life in which you are accustomed!’ It’ll do you good…I grew up camping; its fun! Anyways, tomorrow’s another day…nothing but sun!”

They called it a stationary front. Five solid days of rain; another two to dry everything out, including us.

Mind you, I had camped my entire life…campers, tents, hammocks, the top of boulders and, sometimes, the ground; it didn’t matter to me…it was the great outdoors…where I belonged. I enjoyed the sun during the day and the stars at night. Someday, I hoped to share that experience with my wife…and while my first four attempts barometrically failed, I maintained that hope that the timing of our next excursion would converge with a nice, stable high pressure system.

My wife is a patient woman. As years passed, that sunny camping day continued to allude us…it rained in Luray VA…Hershey, PA…and Orono, ME. It rained in Stockbridge, MA…Estes, CO…and Bennington, VT. It even rained in Moab, UT ending a three month drought! I believe we were thanked by the local Ute tribe of Native Americans.

With the arrival of our kids, we continued to plan camping trips. I bought supplies…a bigger tent, sleeping bags, a camp stove, and kid’s board games…in case it rained. My wife set us up for quality points at no less than four hotel chains!

I remember our first trip with the kids; we were loaded into a blue Dodge Omni. The kids sat in their car seats tucked between supplies, which filled every available space. I was the self-proclaimed king of packing! Our youngest wore a spaghetti colander on her head. As we turned left out of the neighborhood, the wiper blades swayed back and forth. “Which way are those clouds going?” asked my wife.

As I handed him my license and insurance certificate, the officer said I was driving a little over the speed limit. As he leaned in, rain water streamed from his hat. He looked back at our oldest daughter sitting patiently among all the camping supplies…the youngest with the colander remained silent and, thankfully, out of sight! “You’re going camping?” he asked. “Well…” I started to reply. “In weather like this?!” he finished. My wife looked over awaiting my response. The officer returned my documents, told me to maintain the posted speed limit, and with a slight hesitation and perceived look of pity, wished us a “Good day!” The remaining twenty minute drive to the campground (at the posted speed limit) seemed more like two hours, with the sound of the rain getting louder against the windshield with every passing mile.

Years of camping in the rain don’t pass without the development of a hypothesis; a plausible, science-based theory as to why it rained every time we camped. It was the main topic of discussion between the playing of board games! We employed the scientific method looking for a predictable variable – something that had changed or been added concurrently with the transition from sun-soaked camping to just soaked camping. It was not long before we arrived at that “Eureka” moment…it was us! (Yes, it was really my wife…she was the true variable, but let’s keep that between you and me!)

Arriving at that moment, you would think that would be the end of our camping story. But it wasn’t…we continued to camp. Albeit, we did change our expectations; we stopped looking for that “different sun”…any sun for that matter. We planned for rain and we told others who camped with us to expect rain too. We had insider information and it was just common courtesy to share it; to allow fellow campers to make their own informed decisions! Wherever we were, so too were the rains!

So we started telling our friends our camping story. Hell, we told everyone our camping story. We told our story to the folks from Bainbridge, NY who couldn’t start a campfire due to water-logged logs; we told our story to the family from Scranton, PA who forgot to close the roof vent in their rented RV before they left on a rain-shortened hike. “Hello…we’re here…expect rain…here’s some towels to help soak up that water!”

The idea of a newsletter was borne from the remarks expressed by a delightful, retired couple from Denton, OH, who suggested that the lack of their knowledge regarding our itinerary misled them to our campground, which they would not have otherwise selected. “Put us on your mailing list…send us a notice next time!” “Will do Mr. and Mrs. Hildebrand…don’t forget to mail us that Rainy Day Barbecue Chicken recipe.” But they had already turned, sloshing their way back to their own campsite, under one, rather large, umbrella with a smiling sun motif.

We continued to camp. It continued to rain. We took responsibility by promoting our newsletter to the wet, huddled masses that desperately sought relief. On one occasion we were introduced to some friends-of-friends while camping near Syracuse, NY; we told them our story and the availability of our newsletter. We were all crowded into our friend’s pop-up playing Pictionary®, while the drum of rain didn’t miss a beat outside.

Information is empowering. The more we shared our itinerary, the more we found ourselves camping alone. Whereas, the early camping days were often shared with friends and friends-of-friends, the on-set of the “newsletter” found us geographically and meteorologically separated from familiar faces.

The 1000 Island Region of New York has much to offer…when it’s not raining. But it was and you knew that! Having run out of the dry pieces of paper you need to play Pictionary®, we drove to the campground’s Nature Center to “kill” a few hours. Lots of campers had the same idea. As we perused exhibits on the local, rain-timid wildlife, a shout came from across the room…near the door. “WE DIDN’T GET YOUR NEWSLETTER!”  There, standing in an expanding puddle, were the water-sogged friends-of-friends, which were introduced to us three years prior. “We didn’t get your newsletter…” The words trailed off and were replaced by the sad fixated eyes of their children and the uninterrupted pitter-patter of the rain.

Nowadays, the only evidence of our camping experience is a magnet my wife has placed on our refrigerator. It reads “I Like Not Camping!” From here on, you’re on your own. If you’re camping and its raining…don’t blame us (her)!