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Before Central

Updated on March 7, 2011

Adventures in Staying Warm

Copyright © G. Wasdin All rights reserved.

“What’s that smell?” asked my Mom. She quickly found out and my baby brother began to wail.

Living in the deep south, we didn’t have much really cold weather but to our thin blood any cold was freezing. To keep warm in our old farm cottage was quite a feat since there was very little to no insulation in the walls, floor or ceiling according to whether you were in the original or added on portion. The front half of the house, the original part, was open underneath from the floor level to the ground which made for some interesting events. In winter, the openness allowed the wind to sweep away any hope of warmth at floor level.

Over the years we had various methods of heating, a fireplace in the living room, an electric baseboard heater in one bedroom, an assortment of portable electric heaters, a small unvented gas heater in the bathroom, a modified tobacco curing burner and the memorable oil heater in the hall floor.

I can still taste the fumes from that old diesel-burning-tobacco barn-heating set up. It did a really good job of warming the house as it was ducted with floor vents in each room. But the smell was awful and it left a funny taste in my mouth. We didn’t use it for very long. It’s probably a good thing as I know those fumes weren’t good for us.

Why did we have a tobacco barn heater in our house? Well, my Dad was a dealer for the heaters and he thought the units would do a great job of heating homes. He was right about the heat but he never imagined that the fumes from the burning diesel fuel would infiltrate the house and make breathing so unpleasant. Forty plus years later the smell of diesel fumes will take me back to that time of experimental central heat and remind me of the smell of my Daddy’s coveralls after he’d been out working on a burner at some farmer’s tobacco barn.

The tiny LP gas heater in the bathroom was only used at bath time or for providing a warm dressing room on especially cold mornings. Mama would always light it with one of those wooden kitchen matches. The three of us kids loved to watch, from an appropriate distance, as the match was struck and sprang to life. Then it was carefully held in front of the firebricks while the gas was turned on slowly and then suddenly with a small whoosh the flames would dance in lovely shades of yellow and orange. Assured that it was burning well, Mom would then adjust the gas to a small blue flame, shoo us kids out of the bathroom and close the doors to allow the room to get toasty before any skin was bared.

The various portable electric heaters never did a whole lot of good unless you happened to be standing or sitting right by them. Besides they were dangerous in the age before automatic cut offs were required to prevent fires if they tipped over. The electric baseboard heater was just that. I think the baseboard was the only thing that ever got warm.

The fuel oil heater was another story. It seemed to be an entity unto itself especially considering all the tending it seemed to need. And it did appear to be alive what with that little round window at the top that we could see through the floor grate. There we could watch the fire dance within.

This heater was located under the house after having been installed in an opening cut in the hallway floor. The metal housing had flanges that rested on the edges of the cut out and suspended the heating apparatus to a depth of about three feet below floor level. The opening in the floor was covered with a metal grate that allowed the heat to come up into the house. As you can imagine, that grate could get very hot.

Walking across the grate was not a problem as long as you were wearing shoes and did not go too slowly when the heater was operating. Woe be unto bare feet in any season. The grate was nothing but utilitarian with no consideration for children who fell or dared to walk across it unshod. Even with no fire below it, that grate was a menace. If one tarried too long when a fire was burning or even if one took a tumble and impressed a knee or hand into the unforgiving metal the result was a neat cross-hatch pattern leaving one looking as if they had been properly seared like a steak at a fancy restaurant. The kids in the family learned to jump the grate which often resulted in a calling down from the adults for being too rambunctious.

Not that everything about the oil heater was bad. It did provide heat, mostly in the hallway and it was kind of neat and scary to have a hole in the floor with fire in it. But the most fascinating part for us kids was the tending of that metal firebox.

Before the first cold spell, Mama would pull up the grate and lean it against the wall. She would then take the vacuum cleaner with its long hose attached and attempt to remove any dust or other items that may have slipped through the grate during the long warm season. With kids in the house I know she must have removed many a plastic toy soldier, pencils, crayons and who knows what else. It wasn’t unheard of to have a mouse somehow get into the metal box surrounding the heater. That was always an occasion for excitement, for us, probably pure terror for the mouse who must have thought himself in a metal maze.

When it came time to light the furnace, all kids were in attendance for the seemingly ceremonious production. First the grate had to be lifted and propped solidly against the wall so it wouldn’t come crashing down during the lighting process. Then the small round door on top of the firebox was opened by the twisting of a little metal latch and a lifting up by the handle on top. Peering into to the dark, cavernous depths of the smutty box with the help of a flashlight, it was then determined whether or not the fuel which was turned on with a little handle like a spigot had filled the ignition chamber.

Now, with all in readiness, the real drama began. A long steel lighting apparatus with a crook on the end, actually a straightened coat hanger bent to shape, was taken up. A piece of facial tissue was then folded and pushed into the crook of the coat hanger where it resembled a bow tie. Holding the captive tissue over the furnace opening, one of those amazing kitchen matches was struck and placed against the tissue which caught up immediately. The flaming tissue was then lowered carefully toward the fuel in the bottom of the furnace and if everything went well, the sound of a muffled mini explosion indicated that the furnace was alive and would soon be sending welcoming warmth into our home. After a few seconds, the flames would be leaping about busily and the small, round door, with its little window would be lowered and locked. As if in benediction to a sacred act, the grate was then gently lowered and warnings were solemnly spoken to us children to not play around the heater, stand on the grate or place anything on or drop anything into the fast warming furnace proximity.

And that brings me back to my little brother. You see, for Christmas one year when he was about three, he received a bright red riding toy, a tractor to be specific. As we were a farm family and tractors were a big part of our lives, my brother was particularly fond of his little tractor and must have driven it hundreds of miles around our house. Unfortunately the longest open stretch in our home was the hallway and it held the heater with its menacing grate and one day when the furnace was burning, he parked his beloved tractor too near the grate. One of the back tires was actually on the grate and it like the rest of the tractor was made of plastic. That’s another smell I’ll never forget!

 Copyright © G. Wasdin All rights reserved.


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    • U Neek profile imageAUTHOR

      U Neek 

      8 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Thanks, Rochelle, I'm so glad you enjoyed the read and that your grate marks have faded. LOL I appreciate so much the encouragement you and other hubbers are giving me.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I had none of those grate marks for many years. It happened before I can remember-- and must have faded sometime during the past sixty or so years. I can repeat after maggs224. I like it too. you are a very natural writer.

    • U Neek profile imageAUTHOR

      U Neek 

      8 years ago from Georgia, USA

      Oh, maggs224, thank you so much for the nice comments. And yes, it is amazing how a particular smell can take one right back to a specific time and place!

    • maggs224 profile image


      8 years ago from Sunny Spain

      I like your writing style very much; I felt like I was peering over your shoulder watching as your mum lit the various heaters. It is amazing how a smell can evoke a memory from many years ago isn't it?


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