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Burning Memories

Once again, I'm a contender in the boo-boo of the week contest. A couple nice burns, a few days old, have stirred up some old memories.

This tale is from my tween years, that wonderful age, of growing, and learning. I was the garage kid, spending every possible minute in my Dad's shadow, feeding on his knowledge, and experience, like a hungry puppy.

One fine day, he had me follow him to the cellar, for a lesson on lighting the hot water heater. The old farmhouse only has a partial cellar, you can't call it a basement, it's something you have to see for yourself, to truly appreciate. One day, almost 200 years ago, my forefathers started digging a hole. As they dug, they piled up all of the rocks that they unearthed. It must have been a chore, as they dug the big rectangle, 6 feet deep, and as big as a house.

Hard digging, it's all wicked boney gravel, around this part of Buxton. Crude shovels, shoes that would pass for slippers, today. It was quite an undertaking, I'm sure. Next, they started stacking those rocks, in a foot thick, rock wall, around the perimeter. No big granite slabs, no good flat ones, even, they used the hodge podge collection at hand. It was an art form, back then, weaving them all together, fitting stones like puzzle pieces. You'll see old stone walls, in the local woods, from this same era, and some have held up pretty well, considering. The old house hasn't settled, much, after two centuries, so I have to give them credit.

When we took the wobbly, narrow staircase, down to the cellar, it was just like stepping back in time. We flipped the big, old fashioned switch, with a loud snap, and the dim, dusty 25 watt bulb, at the foot of the steps, came on. Dirt floor, of course, with boards put down, to keep you up, out of the dirt. Dirty dirt, it's hard to describe, but it wasn't like any that you'd find outside. They burned coal, here, at some point, and wood, before that. Blend in some dust, and must, and cobwebs, with just a hint of dampness, and you get cellar dirt. A certain smell.

We hit the bottom step, where the shelves were, full of dusty things, that didn't get moved, much. Our old chemistry sets, missing all of the fun chemicals. Mom didn't allow them upstairs, I’m sure there’s a story behind that rule, but it’s been lost to time. Dad had some six packs of bicentennial beer, sure to be worth money, some day. I think they froze, and split, somewhere around year 15. Wallpaper paste. Trowels. Odd light bulbs, that didn’t seem to belong anywhere. A handful of screw-in fuses, some good, some bad. An aged can of turpentine, adding to the overall aroma. A spare belt, for the furnace, and another, for the water pump. Yes, we had a belt driven water pump, and it made a peculiar ker-phlunk ker-phlunk ker-phlunk noise. The first board path went straight over to the old water pump. Those boards were essential, it was always a little wet, over in that corner.

The board path to the left led to the old furnace, way over on the dark side. A tired, rickety old beast, the kind of furnace that you need to have your buddy service, because the guy from the oil company would definitely shut it down.

You'd always catch a little movement, out of the corner of your eye, maybe a mouse, maybe a snake, a little spooky. Poor lighting, not many outlets, a flashlight was essential. My job, on any cellar mission, was holding the flashlight. I took it seriously, and tried to keep it focused right where he wanted it, all of the time. Kids tend to lose focus, especially on a long job, but he was always very patient with me, always teaching, sharing stories, and lessons, that he had learned, the hard way. He would try so hard, to share his experiences, hoping only to save me some grief, and make my life easier, learning from his mistakes. The basic theory of evolution. Unfortunately, humans aren't wired that way. After so many generations, if we truly learned, from our parent's mistakes, we would all be perfect geniuses, by now. We don't do it that way. We will listen to your advice, and reason, and nod in agreement. Yes, Dad, that story's moral makes perfect sense, I will never make a mistake, like that. Lies. We will eternally make our own mistakes, take our knocks, and form our own opinions, and values. That's the spark, the color in our life. The fire.

My story takes us halfway to the dark side, another left, behind the chimney. The water heater. The dirt here is dry, not as dirty, with a high ratio of orange, crumbles and dust off the old bricks.

The water heater sets up, on cement blocks, with a little access panel, down low.

Dad had been giving me propane safety tips, all the way down, all stuff we had been over before. Important lessons, he would drill us, over and over, until we couldn't help but remember. Road safety, gun safety, electricity, fire, things that will get you killed.

I don't remember why we had to light it, I don't ever remember running out of propane, that old water heater was probably just used up, on borrowed time.

We went over the lighting routine, hold the red button down, light the pilot, with a match, then keep holding the button down, while she warms up. It’ll take a minute, with that tiny, flickering, flame. Hold your breath, and be patient.

Once the little sensor bulb has warmed up, it knows that the pilot is burning, and it will stay burning, after you let go of the button. Now, it has 'proved' to the gas valve, that's it's ready for action, and when you turn the big knob, it lets the real gas charge in, and with a Flooof, the burner gets a hot, happy, blue flame.

That's how it's supposed to go.

We were prepared, and didn't really make any mistakes. I was off, to the side, a step back, but still in strategic flashlight holding territory. I think my eyebrows had probably been singed, previously, playing with something that I shouldn't have been playing with. I didn't like the smell of propane, the stinky ethyl mercaptan, added to get your immediate attention.

There was a pack of matches, right there, on a brick. Dad grabbed a couple, and plucked them out of the paper pack.

SPATCHHH, his wee torch lit right up, a little mini blaze of sulfur smelling flame. He mashed down the red button, and Phflit, a little yellow pilot light, the size of a birthday candle flame. Step one; Check.

He held the button down, longer than he needed to, just to be safe. We waited, and stared, as the cute little yellow flame turned to orange, and then blue, as it leaned out, tuned up, and reported for duty.

We both held our breath, as he slowly let the button up. The pilot stayed on, all systems were go. Step two; Check.

He reached over, to turn the big knob, and light the main burner. I'm not sure how it happened, but right when he turned it on, the cute little pilot flame went out. Flit.

I could hear the gas, whooshing in, but there was no flame. Just smelly gas, coming fast.

This is when a licensed gas technician would immediately shut the valve off, and start the whole proving process over.

I think Dad went for the valve, but then made a split second decision, to go for the matches. They were right there.

Gas was still coming. Life shifted into slow motion. I took a big step back, and pulled my face back, a little. At the same instant, I caught his eye, and it told me a lot, in that split second.

I'm going for the match.

You should back up a little more.

Maybe shut your eyes.

He ripped another match out, made the strike, but there was no Splitch, no Splatch, just Sssssh, and another, frantic Sssssh. Sometimes, you get a dud, especially in a damp cellar.

Now it's sort of a panic, a frenzy, as he snags a clump, of 3, or 4, and goes in for the big strike, from way back, using every bit of the sad sandpaper striker.

He's in too far, now, and we both know it.

I'm thinking it's going to shoot halfway across the room, there's a lot of gas, by now. He swivels, like a major league catcher, getting out of the dragon's mouth, while putting his shoulder to me, pushing me back, even further, and shielding me, from the inevitable flash. Prepared to take the heat.


It lit up the entire dark side of the cellar, a bright blue, like a cannon firing, without all of the smoke. Almost as loud. I felt the percussion of the blast, and the heat, on my face. The flame reached the far wall, and deflected, off the rocks.

Strangely, the thing I remember most, was the crazy, eerie, flash bulb image of the whole cellar, illuminated by bright, blue flame. I had never seen it, properly lit, and it looked really odd, a little flash, like a scary movie.

Dad missed the brunt of it, with his last second shuffle, but his hand, the match hand, was roasted. I would have been waving that burned hand, like a Japanese fan, but Dad was cool. He held it in the flashlight beam, and it was pretty bad. His fingers looked like the skin was too tight, like sausages, just starting to cook. His nails were yellow, and curling, at the edges. The hair was all burned off his hand, and his shirt cuff was all distorted.

It smelled like burnt Dad, the smell of burnt hair, with added toasted flesh. Gross. Repulsive.

It had to hurt, like Holy Heck, but he wouldn't ever show it. There's a little strain, around the eyes, that you can't really hide, but he would stay cool.

Cold water. Upstairs. I didn't know what else to say. He was stunned, a little bit, I think. He checked the burner, it was behaving, I told him I’d put the little cover back on. He hurried upstairs, and got it in the sink, but it would be a bad one.

His fingers would look like way overdone sausages, before it was over. It would blister, and hurt, for weeks, and his nails were messed up all summer. Of course, it was his good hand, your dumb hand never seems to take one, for the team.

We would discuss it, after the fact, it was a good teaching moment. Eventually, we would laugh about it.

Gas needs to be respected, the dragon must be feared, with so many horror stories, tragedies on the news. There's one simple rule, easy to remember.

Gas Goes BOOM!!

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