Quest For Smoke

Copyright 1989 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.

This is another early piece. There really is a cabin, it really does have a wood stove in it, and Laura really doesn't let me anywhere near it. This piece almost, but not quite, comes together (it seems like it doesn't quite reach a climax). Comments?

I have no knack for making fires. Other men saunter out to the barbeque, pour in the charcoal, apply lighter fluid and a match, and inside of ten minutes they have a glowing bed of coals.

I stumble out to the barbeque, choke on the charcoal dust, add a quart of lighter fluid, apply a match, and inside of ten minutes I have three fire trucks surrounding the house, convinced that the plume of rising smoke could only signal a major blaze. Which it doesn't. It only signals major smoke.

When I announce that I'm going to build a fire in the fireplace, the first thing my wife does is remove the batteries from the smoke detector.

My wife recently convinced me to go to her parent's cabin on the Olympic Peninsula. She assured me that it had indoor plumbing, cable, and the other basic necessities of life.

What she neglected to mention became painfully obvious as soon as we walked in the door.

"Where's the stove?"

"Right there."

"That?!?" That was an old wood-burning stove. Not an electric stove with nice clean even heat, but a stove that cooked by burning dead trees.

I had heard about these stoves, and even seen old pictures with surly-looking pioneer women staring grimly into the camera standing by one of these stoves. But I had never expected to come face to face with one.

Things were fine until the afternoon, when my wife went foraging into the local countryside to bag a few wild clothes at the local Sears reserve. I decided to stay and limit my foraging to the refrigerator.

Unfortunately, the refrigerator was not nearly as well stocked as the local Sears reserve. Apart from a two gallon bottle of pickled peppers, the contents were limited to some bacon, a head of lettuce, and a tomato. I briefly considered the prospect of an RBLT (Raw Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich), but finally decided that--lurking wood burning stove or not--the bacon should be cooked.

The wood stove was about twice the size of a normal stove, with a stove pipe leading to the roof. The top part of the stove was a large cast iron plate, as big as a kitchen table.

On the left side of the cast iron top were two round plates, with notches in them. A metal handle fit neatly into the notches in the round plates to lift them out of the stove top.

Below the round plates was a long rectangular opening designed to hold logs. Apparently, this was the fire box--a crematorium for dead trees.

The fire box could also be accessed from the front of the stove, via a cute little door that was supposed to be hinged. Around the turn of the century, the hinge had rusted away leaving the cute (and heavy) door precariously propped against the front of the fire box.

Despite my previous experience with fires, I figured that if an 8 year-old child could burn down a house, a grown man should be capable of starting a fire in a stove.

I knew enough about fire making to know that I needed some easily burnable stuff to catch the logs on fire. This was the easy part. If building fires involved just burning newspapers, I would be a world class fire starter. I wadded up a bunch of newspapers and stuffed them in the fire box. Then I ventured outside to gather up some wood.

Fortunately, there was a lot of wood available, all neatly stacked in piles near the cabin (isn't Nature wonderful?). I lugged in some pieces, and put them in the fire box.

I stepped back to examine my handiwork. A layer of newspaper on the bottom and logs stacked on top. What else did I need? Lighter fluid!

I scoured the cabin for lighter fluid. Unfortunately, in this age of butane lighters, nobody uses lighter fluid any more. But I did find a can of paint thinner that had a big warning label about keeping it away from flames.

I poured the paint thinner on top of the logs and newspapers until everything was nicely soaked. Some of it spilled onto the top of the stove, but I figured that would be okay, since the top of the stove was cast iron, and didn't have any paint to be removed.

Then I had to decide if the little round plates should be back in the top of the stove. On the one hand, the fire would burn better if it could just burn normally. On the other hand, the stove pipe at the back of the stove seemed designed to draw away smoke. I came to the conclusion that the designers of the stove probably knew what they were doing better than I did, so I put the little round plates back into the top of the stove.

That meant I had to start the fire from the front of the stove. After dropping the non-hinged door on the floor, I inserted a match. The paint thinner caught hold at once and started to burn. I turned to locate a frying pan for the bacon. The hard part was over, in a few minutes I could start cooking my lunch.

Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed that on the stove pipe was a small valve designed to control the flow of smoke. Why anybody in their right mind would want to close the valve and keep the smoke inside was beyond me.

Somebody, however, did. When I turned back to the stove large amounts of smoke were gushing out the front and rapidly filling the room.

Naturally, I assumed that something was plugging up the stove pipe. Since it was a pipe, and my previous experience with plumbing had shown that sharply rapping a pipe is the best way to unclog it, I sharply rapped the stove pipe with a handy log.

Stove pipes are not nearly as durable as water pipes, and this one responded to my rapping by falling apart. I now had a stove pipe eagerly pouring smoke into the room, which certainly didn't need any more smoke.

Drawing deeply on my knowledge of fires, I realized that smoke was caused by a fire not burning very well. Since the stove pipe was no longer an important design element of the stove, I figured that now would be a good time to remove the round plates from the top of the stove.

The first round plate came up easily and just as easily slid off the handle and aimed itself at my foot. I removed the second round plate, and, with this additional exposure to the air, the fire started flaring up much better.

It flared up enough to ignite the spilled paint thinner on the top of the stove. I thoughtfully reacted by leaping back and launching the second round plate straight towards my previously abused foot.

There is some innate sense of timing that wives have. Regardless of the length of any particular event, they have the ability to enter at absolutely the worst moment.

My wife chose this moment to open the door. Clouds of smoke poured out. Peering through the smoke, she could see me standing in front of a blazing stove jumping up and down holding my foot.

Through the smoke I could see her standing by the doorway looking in. "Hi honey," I said, "Say, we don't happen to have a fire extinquisher handy do we?"

Later than afternoon, as we sat in a deli in the nearby town, I enjoyed my almost-but-not-quite-as-good-as-if-I-had-actually-been-able-to-cook-it BLT, and tried to explain to her what had happened.

She just shook her head. The expression on her face was exactly the same as the pioneer women had in the old pictures.

And, for some odd reason, she insisted on lighting my cigarette for me.

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Copyright 1989 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.