Of Snow. And Fathers who go out in the cold

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It’s been cold around here, or so my Facebook feed keeps reminding me.  Anything below freezing seems to be an event in these here Southern parts, and I resist the urge to laugh out loud.  I mean, just because I grew up on top of an Appalachian “mountain” doesn’t mean I get to make fun of the Southern response to any hint of winter storm.

Real snow!  In Pennsylvania.  In late April. (not lying. But this was a while ago)
Real snow! In Pennsylvania. In late April. (not lying. But this was a while ago)

Before all my Southern friends get their panties wadded: calm down. I’m actually here to reminisce about my dad.   That, and everyone I know from the West is already pointing and laughing at my reference to an Appalachian hill as a “mountain.”

I grew up in a house heated by wood.  It wasn’t my parents’ original intention; when they built the house in the 70s, having bought property for the first time in both their lives, they installed an oil furnace (heating oil). And a big ol’ tank for it under the back yard.  Living the big life.

Then the Oil Embargo and The Seventies and The Carter Administration and Inflation got all up in there and messed up oil prices for everybody forever.  Or that’s how they told me.

I think my dad started building the house sometime in 1977 — in fact, if I’m getting the story correct, the house (which was actually one of those Sears House Kits … I am not making that up….) came in a pile of building materials during The Great Winter Storm of ’77.  Something like 30 feet of snow dumped in a short time (ok, I’m exaggerating, but I was a toddler and I don’t remember, ok?)

The idea was, you ordered your house via floor plan through Sears (was this a catalog item? I bet it was!) and somebody would show up at your land with a big truck full of trusses and shingles and timbers and wiring and everything you need to Build Your Own House.  Because that, my friends, is the American Dream™!

The Great Blizzard of ’77 was on its way, and my dad called Sears to get them to delay the delivery.  Who wants a delivery on top of a mountain in a blizzard?  Well, Sears didn’t believe, so some poor lackey of a driver found himself climbing treacherous hills in thick snow, racing to get the stuff delivered before he was stuck.  And his method for “unloading” was (according to my dad) to back the truck up to the top of our driveway, pull the “dump” lever, and drive away. My dad and mom (and maybe brothers?) hand-carried as much of the lumber and materials down onto the build site, what they could.  Since all the snow dumped on top of what remained, my dad had to wait till the spring thaw melted the snow drifts to discover just how much of the building materials were damaged. (Answer: a lot, including windows and roof trusses.)

But I’ve digressed.

We tried the oil furnace thing, but the house was chilly around all the edges in the winter.  And it was hella expensive.  So they decided to switch to wood. (We lived in 12 acres of hardwood forest, and plenty of people sell firewood.)

my front yard, on a snowy day
my front yard, on a snowy day

Our roaring living room fireplace (an entire wall of the living room was field stone picked up from our property and mortared in place – it’s the best feature of the house) accepted a fireplace insert which was truly the hub of our house in the winter.

The wood stove kept the house between a chilly upper 50s (in the wee morning) and very cozy mid-70s (especially if my mom was badgering dad to warm things up).   Dad became the chief fireman of the house, building expert fires and keeping them blazing.

The rule of winter heating by wood stove is tyrannical.  You can’t leave for more than 3-4 hours; you can’t stop cutting trees (or buying wood); you can’t fail to attend to keeping your firewood supply dry and accessible.

To make matters even more interesting, my parents utilized the water well drilled on the land by its previous owner. He had built his little cement block cabin on top of the pump house so he could keep it heated in the winter (to avoid the pipes freezing). And he heated with wood too (potbellied stove).  When my parents bought the land, it would have been really expensive to re-drill a well closer to our new house, and they didn’t want to use the “cabin” for our house.  So they dug a pipe safely underground (below the frost line) from the cabin to our basement. And thus began my dad’s life of tending fires.

When the temperature drops below zero, you can’t rely on anything except a true heat source to keep those pipes form freezing.  So dad had to heat both our house (because we lived there) and the cabin (to keep the water running and the pipes from breaking).

All winter long.

My dad kept a nightly vigil of banking fires, restocking fires, tromping through cold and snow and wooly winds and below zero temperatures every 4 hours to tend both fires (actually 3; we eventually added a second wood stove in the basement to help keep the house warm on the coldest winter days).  Every four hours.

All those fires demanded wood, and at one point dad had to harvest whatever we needed for winter fuel from our own forest. For reasons I don’t fully understand, he didn’t cut wood in the summer; he cut trees each day in the winter, hauled them up, chopped them down to size at the block by the basement door, and stocked the wood piles.  On the coldest of days, we burned a tree a day to keep everything warm.

I know this sounds cliche, but honestly – though I’m sure he was tired of the unending watch – he never complained.

One of my very favorite poems about wood stoves and winter cold is Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden.   Give it a read.

You have never eaten minestrone until you’ve had it cooked all day on top of a wood stove, from 7am till 4pm.
You’ve never smelled such heaven as walking into a house wafting that smell of The Best Supper Ever For A Snowy Evening.

The house I grew up in, built pretty much by hand by my dad and brothers.
The house I grew up in, built pretty much by hand by my dad and brothers. The window you can see clearly was my bedroom growing up.


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