First fire of the season. I’ve seen a lot of those posts on Facebook recently as the thermometer has taken that first plunge below the freezing mark.
Not me. I’ve been burning wood, off and on, for a month now. I love an open fire.
The evolution of the fireplace is pretty interesting, just in my lifetime, and I know people almost twice as old as me. Well, maybe not quite that old, but I’m still a spring chicken compared to some.
If you take a ride through Porterdale you will notice that all those mill village houses have chimneys. The one I was raised in has two. But I bet few, if any, of them have working fireplaces. Virtually all of them, I am certain, have been enclosed. Some may still have a circle in the enclosure covered up with a round sheet of metal with flowers or butterflies or a picture of Jesus. Many have been bricked up.
You see, there was time when an open fireplace was not romantic, nor did it provide ambiance. It was just a hard and often dirty way to heat a home.
A lot of people burned coal.
Some, like my Mama Ellis, had stoves they burned the coal in.
Others of us placed it right on a little grate in the fireplace — just like Bob Cratchit. It didn’t burn particularly clean, but it burned hot. Mama would always be scrubbing our walls to get the coal soot off, and hauling out the ashes and hauling in the coal itself was a chore to which I was assigned.
I celebrated when we closed in our fireplace, except for the flue hole, and bought a gas space heater. When I was 12, we moved “across the river” into a house with a floor furnace. We were in high cotton, then.
But when I married and my lovely wife, Lisa, and I set up housekeeping in our first home, we had to have a fireplace. We burned wood, not coal.
The wood was not hard to come by. My wife’s family lived on several hundred acres of woods and pasture land and there were always plenty of dead trees to work up, which we did the old-fashioned way — with an ax, a wedge and a sledgehammer.
One autumn I got tired of swinging an ax and rented a log splitter. My father-in-law — who was much a man, understand — poo-pooed the notion of a hydraulic machine replacing muscle and sinew. Then he watched my buddy and me split a season’s worth of wood in a couple of hours. By the time the next autumn had rolled around, we had gone together and bought our own log splitter.
Honesty compels me to admit that I do not split wood anymore. My friend Hermon does, though, and I am thankful that he still sells it to me at a fair price, because I keep a fire going all winter when I am at home.
You know, most people don’t. I guess it’s just too much work, acquiring the wood, keeping it dry, bringing it in the house and carrying out the ashes. To me it’s worth it. To a lot of folks, it isn’t.
I know a lot of people, though — my own children included — who have nice brick or stone fireplaces in their homes but have installed gas logs. They make some very realistic gas logs these days, and I’ve seen some that look so real you’d almost swear there was gray ash falling from them. They even come with remote controls.
No muss, no fuss. Just press a button or turn a knob and presto! You have the warmth and beauty of a wood fire with none of the work.
You can probably make Alexa or Siri turn on your fireplace for you if you are smart enough with modern technology.
But that’s for young folks. I’m still going to build my fire every morning and tend it all day and keep the ashes hot and build it up again at night, all winter long. When Lisa fusses at me about the bed of ashes getting out of control, I’ll scoop them up and take them outside and dump them on the garden to help prep the ground for next spring.
When Sir Henley the Adorable comes over to spend the weekend with Papa, we will still break out the wire coat hangers and marshmallows and read Uncle Remus stories by firelight. We might even spread our sleeping bags out and sleep in front of the fire.
You can do that with gas logs, but it just isn’t quite the same.
Nothing is, is it?
And somehow, I just don’t think my portrait of Robert E. Lee would look quite right hanging over a set of gas logs.