The Fire Down Below

Recently I enjoyed a successful episode with a fireplace, and it reminded me of a less happy confrontation a number of years ago. In 1978, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was lucky enough to rent a small house on Lake Samish, just south of Bellingham. It was the first time I had ever had my very own fireplace, and I was determined to get a fire going as soon as possible.

Having grown up in the Washington DC suburbs, to look out a window and see a beautiful lake was a completely new and wonderful sensation. Every room had a window that either looked out on the lake or had a view of trees — it was a gorgeous setting. The fireplace was icing on the cake.

There were logs in the basement, provided by the generous landlord, and I brought up an armload. I was excited at the prospect of sitting by a roaring fire, watching the flames dance and listening to the music of wood popping and crackling. I located a box of matches and inspected the pile of logs, brown cylinders laden with potential thermal energy. Starting to get a little nervous, I grabbed a hefty log and layed it onto the grate.

Then I pulled out a match and lit it.

Many matches later, the log still sat there, looking at me indifferently. What was I doing wrong? Tom, the landlord, had shown me how to open the chimney flue damper, so I had taken care of that. (If you didn’t open the damper, the room would fill with smoke, and a room filled with smoke is looked down upon in House and Garden.) Unfortunately, I had no Boy Scout badges in fire-building, because I had never been a Boy Scout. The suburban homes where I grew up had furnaces instead of fireplaces, so I was out in the cold as far as flammable skills were concerned.

Then it hit me: newspaper!

That was the missing link — I needed newspaper. Now, news print was what I had in abundance, due to my addiction to newspapers. There was a big stack of papers in the corner, filled with articles I had not yet read. I grabbed a New York Times and began to crumple the front page into a ball. C’mon, fire!

After a while there was a pile of burnt up newspaper ashes below the log, which was still sitting quite contendedly on the grate. Wisely I changed tactics, and began to construct twisted configurations of newspaper, since clearly a spherical shape was not conducive to thermodynamic success.

That didn’t work either. After a while I had gone through most of the matches, and the pile of newspaper ash had grown, but still there was a paucity of fire. This was becoming a contest.

About that time, Scott Sandsberry showed up for a visit and took one look at the fireplace. To my chagrin he dissolved into laughter, forming a sort of lumpy, reddish rug as he rolled on the floor. It’s pretty embarrassing when your oldest friend laughs at you.

“You moron! First of all you need to split the logs, and second of all you need to use kindling!”

This reminded me of the time I had tried to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. The first line of the recipe was, “Start with a roux.” What the hell’s a “roux”?

What the hell is kindling?

Scott explained patiently that kindling is little sticks. To build a fire you need a small pile of sticks in a rough approximation of a teepee, over a core of balled up newspaper. Then as the kindling takes and the nascent fire begins to grow, you add more fuel in the form of bigger and bigger pieces of wood. The logs needed to be split in order for the interior to be exposed, since that inner surface would catch fire sooner than the outer layer of protective bark. OK, let’s get this puppy going.

Soon we had a proper fire, and Scott consented to joining me for a celebratory steak dinner, which we ate in front of the fireplace.

Not only did I learn that a good fire needs the proper preparation, but a fire is even better when shared with old friends.

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