In 1968 our family moved to a Dutch Colonial three-story house built in the 1920s. We only lived there for five years, but the memory of that house is etched into my mind like veins of quartz in granite. Some other time I’ll write about how cool the entire house was, but right now my concern is the old oil furnace that lived in the basement.
Yes, it lived there. It wasn’t hard to imagine that furnace was alive. It had a personality.
Its squat rotund body stood in the sooty gray-concrete corner like a Russian sentinel from a lost age. Its concrete exterior had been painted what appeared to have been white in the distant past, but had turned a dirty tan with age. Rust stains snaked along it like varicose veins. Tumors of soot embedded themselves here and there and filled its crevices. The furnace was covered with guages and meters relating information about the furnace’s internal state my young mind couldn’t understand.
Snaking from the furnace were too many old iron pipes to count. Some were painted what had once been white but were now pock-marked with rust the color of old blood, others were unpainted and rusted over completely, and a few had been replaced with more modern steel pipes that looked out of place. All these pipes stuck out of the furnace like limbs, and converged along the ceiling, delivering their payload of heat to the house that was home to the inhabitants that that served it so lovingly.
The furnace chugged along in the cold months, clanking and blatting and hissing in its corner. Sometimes it leaked hot water all over the peeling painted cement floor around it. Other times it farted black smoke. There were a few times the entire basement was filled with its sooty miasma, and you couldn’t go down there. It was probably dangerous. I used to wonder sometimes if the old furnace might explode when it did that. I was assured it was safe but I never was sure.
Sometimes the furnace scared me when it did that. It also scared me when it made more hissing and clanking sounds than normal. I used to think it was angry that it had to live in the ugly damp unfinished basement and the only light it ever saw was the dim gray light that filtered through the filthy slit-like windows that dotted the white painted brick wall near the ceiling. Those windows were veiled with spider webs and caked with soot. Even my clean freak mother, who had a meltdown if she saw so much as a gum wrapper anywhere else in the house, never did anything with the basement windows. The basement was the one place she allowed to get dirty, except for the laundry room, which had been partially modernized with a carpet, fluorescent lights, and acoustic tile ceiling. The rest of the basement was lit–barely–with bare incandescent bulbs screwed in between the ceiling rafters and operated by metal pull-chains. An old rusted (but working) toilet sat in a tiny closet with only one bare bulb screwed overhead, and no sink.
I used a tiny room that at one time had been used for canning as my escape from the dysfunction that regularly went on up above. My bedroom was too close to the master bedroom, and offered little refuge from the oppressive tension and constant arguing. My basement room was outfitted with a metal desk with wood grain Formica where I did all my homework, and an old piece of salvaged carpet. The canning shelves housed my Barbie dolls and all their accoutrements. The cinder block walls were painted mint-green. A small painted shelf sat above the desk, and my favorite books made their home there. I loved my books. They opened parallel universes in which I could escape from my painful reality.
I’d stay in my little room for hours at a time, barely aware of anything except the world of my books and Barbies. Although I had a probably healthy caution of the furnace and didn’t like to get too close to it because it was so unpredictable, its clanking and hissing noises, when they weren’t too loud, were comforting to me. Its grumpiness and isolated loneliness reflected my own state of mind most of the time. I could relate to it.
Occasionally after one of its sooty temper tantrums, a serviceman would come and minister to it like a doctor on house-call, and then the furnace would be happy again. If a psychiatrist could have given the furnace a diagnosis, I bet it would be Borderline Personality Disorder.
I remember taking a picture of it shortly before my parents’ divorce. I kept that picture for years, but somewhere amidst my many moves, it was lost. I know the house is still standing and was updated at some point (my family never updated anything in that house), but I would be shocked if that old furnace is still there, and even more shocked if it still works. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened to it. I hope it was treated well.