This weekend is warm for January and there is not as much demand on our central heating system as usual. Heck, we might even leave the windows open this afternoon and let some fresh air in. But yesterday afternoon I was sitting back in my easy chair, basking in the bright sunlight remembering winter weekends back home in Florida as a kid.
Most of the middle class homes built in northern Florida back in the 40s and 50s had simple heating systems. This was long before central heating and air became the norm. In fact this was long before home air conditioning came along. Like the other homes then, ours was heated by a single permanently installed kerosene heater. Ours was about the size of a 50 gallon drum and was nestled into a corner of the main hall of the house. Kerosene was fed to the heater, or “stove” as we called it, through a quarter inch tube from a 50 gallon storage tank behind the house. The top of the tank was about 8 feet up in the air to create a gravity feed for the kerosene to the fire box of the heater which was about 4 feet off the ground surrounding the house. There was a small door on the front of the stove that contained a glass insert.
We would light the heater by turning on the kerosene and wadding bathroom tissue into a roll, setting one end on fire with a wooden match and tossing it into the fire chamber through the glass door. One had to be careful not to let too much kerosene flow before lighting it or there could be a flash up. We would always have to wait for a few moments to make sure the kerosene was burning before closing the door and waiting for the glorious heat to radiate from the edge of the fire chamber. By the time I was six, I had become an expert stove lighter-er. Hmm, that may not be a real word but that was my official title.
Looking back on it, I think Dad had a vested interest in my learning to light the stove at a young age. Like most folks, because of the dangers involved with kerosene heating, we did not burn the stove at night. With night time temperatures in the low 40s and the lack of insulation in Florida housing the temperature in the house would be in the mid to upper 50s when it was time for the family to rise. It became my job to jump out of my warm bed, run to the bathroom, grab some tissue and light the stove. Then jump back into the bed until the house heated up a little. Mom and Dad’s bedroom was right next to the stove but the kids room was down at the northern end of the hall. So our parents would dress in their room while my brother and I would grab our clothes dress in the glow of the heat radiating through the open doors of the stove’s cabinet. It was more like a dance really; we were turning constantly to present one side to the warmth while the other side cooled off. Soon, we were dressed and Mom was in the kitchen warming things up with the cook stove.
The heating systems at school were radiant too. Underneath the windows was a row of radiators enclosed in metal cabinets so those of us who had desks assigned next to the windows were warmer than those near the inner walls. Because most of our teachers seated us alphabetically starting with the first desk next to the front door, I was nearly always somewhere in the row nearest the window. The sound of steam running through a radiator always reminds me of my school days. My first experience with living in central heating finally came at college where our dorms had central heating from a big grill over our dorm room doors. Most of my class rooms still had radiator heating. Even today, when I walk across campus, I still see the wisps of steam coming from the manholes next to the walkways.
You know, I used to roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders whenever someone from my parent’s generation would talk about how rough they had it back in their day. Now here I am talking about getting up in a cold house to light a heater, something most young folks never have to suffer through these days. Maybe it comes with the territory but I would not give up my memories of warming the house in the morning. Whenever I think of those cold crisp mornings, a big smile comes to my face. Oh MY!