FIRE STARTERS OR FLUE SEASON

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Rob’s main criteria in a home has always been security. We recently hired a cleaning woman after I had foot surgery and he ran around the house locking all his valuables up in his darkroom.

“She’s not going to take anything,” I protested.

“If she does, it won’t be my things.”

“You’re being silly.”

“Safe,” he corrected me.

So you can well imagine how happy he was to see that our lake home was wired with an alarm system before we purchased it. The fact that our security company is called Bobs doesn’t seem to bother him. Besides the view, my main selling point has always been a working brick fireplace. Our living room is tiny but the large stone-faced hearth makes up for it. I’ve always found burning logs inside a fireplace on a cold winter day utterly romantic.

As an early riser I used to like to slip downstairs on a Sunday before the rest of the family awoke and whip up a batch of biscuits or scones from scratch. This was followed by a pot of Irish Breakfast tea topped off with the morning paper in front of a roaring fire. It was difficult to get through all the tasks before one of the children discovered me but on one particular morning I almost succeeded. Everything was prepared and in order for the fire to catch and without a lot of bother I overloaded an extra bit of fire starter sticks under the main logs. I stuffed newspaper beneath that and struck the match.

The fire ignited in an instant and by the time I turned around to sit down to my tea and unread paper the room had begun to fill with smoke. Suddenly a loud piercing siren rang through the house and all the inhabitants were awake and shouting. Rob raced downstairs, rightfully screaming with the fire extinguisher in hand. He vigorously doused the blaze, pulled the flue chain, closed off doors, opened windows and within a matter of seconds managed to dig a fan out from a closet to begin blowing the smoke outside. The alarm rang on. Fire engines started to sound in the distance and increased in volume as they collected outside our front door.

Now anyone who ever forgot to open the flue knows that it does not require the assistance of an entire local volunteer firefighting team replete with four full size engines. To make matters even worse, my daughter Quinn stared out at the commotion gathering in front of our house and gasped. Mr. Johnson, the local fire chief, was heading down the front steps.

            “It’s my teacher, Mr. Johnson.”

To have your teacher enter your smoke filled chaotic home with everyone still in pajamas was a fate worse than death for a sixth grader. She started to cry. Jackson who also had Mr. Johnson two years prior ran away and spied the commotion from an upstairs window.Image

            “Get out there,” Rob shouted steering me towards the front door. “You made this mess!”

The happy thought of biscuits, tea and the Sunday Times in front of the fire were gone and I stuffed my bare feet into boots, threw a car coat over my pajamas and went outside to take my medicine.

            “Ha, ha,” I laughed nervously and clutched my coat tighter. “I forgot to open the flue. All fixed.” I shot off a shamefaced grimace and shrugged my shoulders.

The firemen were clustered at the top of the steps like it was old home week and Mr. Johnson peered inside the smoky house relieved that it wasn’t ablaze.

“My husband put it out with the extinguisher.”

He nodded. “Just what I would have done.”  

The infernal alarm finally stopped, but not before every neighbor within a half mile had come outside to see which culprit had roused them so early on a Sunday morning.

Mr. Johnson smiled. “It happens.” He wrote something down on his clipboard and radioed back to the drivers to start pulling out. “Piece of advice,” he said as he turned to leave.

            “Yes,” I answered a bit too eagerly.

            “Febreeze.”

            “Febreeze?”

            “And plenty of it.”

            The next day Quinn skulked into class hoping to go unnoticed when kind old Mr. Johnson called her out and reprimanded her absent mother in front of the entire class.

            “Remind your mother to open the flue next time!” he laughed.

When she relayed the story after school it was hard to feel too sorry for her. After the firemen left Rob had taken Jack and Quinn out to breakfast and then to a museum for the day. I had stayed home and washed the curtains twice, vacuumed the couch with baking soda, polished the floors and cleaned the windows. I also sprayed copious amounts of Febreeze. It was my choice to stay and clean, hoping it would imbed in my brain to never make that mistake again.

As a precaution we didn’t use the fireplace again for remainder of that winter but the following fall with a careful nod to safety I always had Rob check the flue before I lit the first match.

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I SPEAK ICE

 

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Photo by Alice Hagan

The fourth winter at the lake the water froze solid before a single flake fell and we nervously looked out onto a shining, black glass canvas. The ice appeared to be about half a foot thick but you could still see moving water in some places below the ice floor. The ice cracked and cried out as we stamped our boots down on the shoreline and listened to a chorus of vibrations that scared us back onto the dock. It was difficult to tell if the sounds were warning or welcoming us.

All night long the lake moaned a sad and melancholy song. I got up and crept down to the kitchen so I could watch it in the moonlight as I listened to it groan. The sounds were guttural and eerie as the ice, I later learned, was expanding and thickening. The sounds are accentuated in the early morning and late afternoon when the outside temperature is fluctuating.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

The next day I saw a child skating on the lake in great looping circles. I had my answer, it was safe to skate. We made hot chocolate and lugged our thermoses, skates and extra socks down to the dock. Initially we stayed close to shore before we brazenly skimmed over a sheet of black ice that was so beautiful I felt guilty about laying tracks of skate blades across the top. You could see frozen bubbles just underneath the surface and my son often chose to lie down on the ice and stare into the abyss.

Rob ditched the skates, preferring to walk across the ice taking pictures. My daughter and I  skated restlessly to the other side and as we turned around we had to remind ourselves that we hadn’t just skated through water and it was safe to return. There is a feeling of endless freedom accompanied with open lake skating.

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Photo by Robert Forlini

I had grown up skating on a similar sized pond called Butler Lake in Libertyville, Illinois. I remember the thrill of the opening day of skating. The town managed the safety of the ice and hung up warning signs if the ice ever grew too thin. Libertyville maintained a small warming house that sold cheap snacks and pumped WLS radio through a set of loudspeakers attached to the outside of the house and facing the lake. ImageMy mother used to drop us off for the day during winter vacation from school and no matter how low the temperature plunged we couldn’t leave until she was good and ready to pick us up.

One bitter cold day the warming house was packed with kids like us, each hesitant to give up their seat on the bench. My older sister bargained for me to go buy the hot cocoas.

            “You go get them,” she prodded. “I’ll save your seat.”

I stared at the endless line of shivering children in wobbly skate blades waiting for a surly high school boy to serve them while he flirted with a cluster of overly zealous girls. I sighed and took my place in line.

I returned quite a bit later with two partially filled Styrofoam cups that had sloshed down around the cuffs of my snow jacket. My seat was filled by an oversized middle school boy in hockey skates and knee pads. My sister looked at me with one of those “what do you expect me to do?” looks. So I teetered in my skates on the thick rubber mats that ran through the aisles and sipped at the chocolate flavored hot water and wished the day would end.

Out of boredom and the increasing din in the warming house we dressed back up in our hats and scarves and ventured out onto the ice for short bursts. Just long enough to not freeze to death. The ramp down to the ice had a metal railing that you clung to for dear life hoping one of the hockey boys didn’t plow you down before you cleared the path.

After about five minutes of limb numbing exercise we pulled ourselves back up the ramp, our frozen fingers barely clinging to the metal rail.

By the time our mother arrived it was almost dark and most of the other children had left. We stuffed ourselves into the back of the station wagon and our silence confirmed to her that we’d had a great day. She obviously had.

            “Well you must be exhausted from all that exercise,” she’d say. “I bet you can’t wait to go back tomorrow.”

            In actuality we did have fun at Butler Lake over the years but the area you were allowed to skate on was cordoned off  and if you ventured too far out someone skated after you with a bull horn and made an example of you.

           “Hey kid, you in the stocking cap,” he announced to every turned head on the rink. “Whatya want to die out there?” You’d nonchalantly pull off your stocking cap and skate back looking at your toe grips hoping you could blend back in.

My memory of the color of the ice on Butler Lake was always a dull grey, never the jet black color that spread out in front of us that winter or the expanse of a rink that was as big as the lake was long. Butler Lake may have called out long heart wrenching cries of expanding ice but any sounds it produced  were drowned out by Larry Lujak  playing  songs like “Harper Valley P.T.A.” or “Little Green Apples.” You expect to hear these things at an indoor rink even today but out on a lake you should just be listening to the ice speaking.

Last winter, my children grown, I skated alone on my lake through a thin crust of snow and watched the late day shadows grow long. A lost seagull was circling above me, both of us inadvertently moving to the song of the ice beneath us.

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Skating through thin snow. February 2013

I am ending this blog post with a link to silentlistening that has posted a recording of ice sounds. Enjoy.