A month ago, I didn’t have a pen or paper to hand, much less the will to sit up in the dark, fumble with the lantern, and wake up my boyfriend. I also haven’t taken the chance yet to sit down and write anything about it. But I started this October tenth, around 9:30 or 10 in the morning. I’ve cleaned it up about as much as a post this length could be. We also just had our first good freeze last night- it dipped into the 20s. This week won’t break out of the 40s. Our (gas) heat’s been on for over a week now. This seems appropriate.
It was late. We’d just arrived back at the cabin after eating at a bar in town, gotten a fire going, and blown out the Coleman lantern. I was lying in the bunk, inside my sleeping bag, waiting for sleep to come. The smell of dry firewood catching in the wood stove permeated the cabin as the fire crackled and popped into life.
It isn’t just campfires that spring to mind when I smell wood smoke. Or grilling, though both of those things are there in the background. The house I grew up in had central gas heat. But we never really used it. In fact, sleepovers at grandma’s, or at friend’s houses, my mom would warn us to pack sweatshirts and thick socks with our warm jammies. We wouldn’t be used to the 50-60 degree temps in houses warmed by electricity or gas. Our house was a steady 75+ degrees. And dry. We never had a problem with mold or mildew, especially in the basement. That’s a problem I’m still slightly perplexed by it when it happens. The floors were always warm. The smoke stained the walls, though.
My grandfather lived in the hills in Kentucky in the warm months. It was the middle of nowhere. He had electricity that he used sparingly, and no plumbing. He loved it. But as he got to be an older man, he couldn’t get around as well in the winter. Never even mind that George had smoked Lucky Strikes like a chimney for 30 years after leaving the Army once World War Two was over. He had emphysema to boot. So, in winter, he would spend time at his daughters’ houses in Illinois. When he stayed with us, he didn’t mind taking the spare bedroom in our unfinished basement in the least. It was warm as could be down there.
Our house wasn’t big, fancy, or all that pretty. My hometown had been a coal mining town when it was founded in the 1800s. The mines had been just outside of town, though town would eventually grow up around the mine shafts when they closed. In fact, just down the road from us, one of my childhood friends grew up on Shaft Street, which had one of the only steep hills in town (Illinois, remember)- it was a boarded up, back-filled mine shaft entrance. It was fun to ride our bikes down. Our house had been a coal miner’s shack. Only the kitchen was original; it had had a basement dug underneath it, and the livingroom, bathroom, and two bedrooms added onto it. It was sided in pebbledash stucco. The front porch was a concrete slab that was slowly collapsing.
My parents bought that little house when I was two, right before my younger sister was born. It was on a double lot- right around an acre of land, even though we were in town. The house came with a tree trimming and felling business. A big, yellow, aluminum Morton building at the back of our yard housed an old, white GMC boom truck; an ancient International dump truck and the industrial sized, yellow Eureka wood chipper it pulled parked in front of the shop. Dad would add to the collection of Stihl chainsaws and old dump trucks, eventually purchasing two smaller trucks: an old red Ford that ran like hell, when it wasn’t running entirely too rich, and an old red Dodge, which had a gas tank so rusted on the interior that my dad and his crew would take extra fuel filters with them on jobs outside of town, and swap them out on the side of the road. He got the dump trucks from salvage, making them run again with trial and error and memories of high school auto shop. He also maintained the old GMC and the International. He could stand up inside their engine cavities to work on them. We joked that they were all Flintstone trucks- the floorpans of the cabs were rusted through in places, and when we begged my dad to accompany him when he dumped the wood chips and mulch, we could see the road passing underneath us as we drove down the road. He would let us control the hydraulics of the truck beds at the dump sites sometimes, too. I learned to steer sitting on his lap in those big old trucks.
The wood Dad hauled home from other peoples’ yards in those ratty old dump trucks was our heat. The tree trunks that were straight enough came back intact, and dad would sell them to a guy with a mobile saw mill. But the branches and other assorted chunks would be chopped to heat the house in cold weather and be grill wood in summer. Large branches and chunks were placed on the diesel log splitter, and once they were more manageable, Dad split them by hand with his maul.
I can remember playing outside in the Fall and Winter, out of sight of Mom in the house, behind the International and the yellow building. Dad keeping an eye on us while he chopped- set the piece upright, wood grain perpendicular to the ground, lift the maul overhead, pause, swing, chop, thunk. The two smaller pieces would fall to either side. Helping him to stack it into piles. Covering it with tarp. We would run after or alongside him in the afternoons and evenings to stack firewood into the beat up old steel wheel barrow, and try to keep up as he pushed it, bumping along, up to the house and carried the wood downstairs. I remember him building the fire up to burn through the night, and I remember hearing him waking up before dawn every morning, starting coffee and clumping downstairs to build the fire back up. Through the floor and register: the creak and groan of the stove door opening, the clunk of firewood being tossed onto the coals, and another creak and groan before the door banged shut. He remembered getting up as a child to go milk cows in the winter, without having a fire going yet. He hadn’t liked it.
We would come in from playing in the snow: snow suits, boots, mittens, socks all soaked. The wood stove was tucked into a corner behind the wooden staircase for the basement. We’d leave all our wet clothes on the steps in front of the furnace. They would be dry in an hour. Sometimes, we’d have weenie and marshmallow roasts in the middle of winter over the fire. At Christmas, my parents put our letters to Santa into the furnace, telling us they flew up the chimney and to the North Pole. We were gullible kids. Most winters, the snow within two feet of that corner of the house and the chimney melted away to bare ground.
Our favorite wood to burn in the winter was dense, hard oak and hickory. I can still pick out oak and hickory smoke when I catch a whiff of it. Someone on our street here in Madison has a wood-fired stove, too, and sometimes they burn oak. That chilly October night up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, 419 miles from where I grew up and lived most of my life so far, we were burning oak and hickory. The sharp, clean smell of the dry wood burning tripped old memories in that hazy space between wakefulness and sleep. I was warm, and my wet clothes were drying on the steps near the stove.