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Home Alone furnace

The evil furnace in Home Alone was created with fishing line and flashlights. Not so my real life furnace.

When I first saw the scene in the movie Home Alone where poor little Kevin tiptoes down to the basement and confronts the fiery maw of the furnace, everyone in the theatre laughed at his fear. Except me. Because I remembered a similar furnace from the house where my family lived when I was a toddler.

My parents and I moved into a “B House” on Farrell Lane in Richland, Washington, shortly after I was a year old. My baby brother was born a few months later, and we lived on Farrell Lane until I was three-and-a-half. pic_b_house

A “B House” in Richland terminology was a government-built duplex. Richland was developed during World War II to provide housing for workers on the portion of the Manhattan Project that produced the plutonium for the atom bombs. Gustav Albin Pehrson, a Spokane architect, planned the entire community in less than ninety days in 1943.

Pehrson designed several styles of homes for Richland. The B Houses were one-story duplexes with a basement. Each unit had two bedrooms, so it was a step up from the tiny pre-fab my parents had rented when they first moved to Richland.

T & M outside B house April 1959

My brother and me outside the B house. I don’t think that’s our house behind us, but a similar one.

When we first moved into the house, it had a coal-burning furnace, much like the one in Home Alone. Shortly after we moved in, my father converted the furnace to burn presto-logs, which were made of compressed sawdust. Both with coal and with presto-logs, the furnace door had to be opened for fuel to be put in. When it was opened, I saw the same fiery maw that Kevin saw in Home Alone. I was as scared as he was.

My mother was scared, too. When my father went on business trips, I sometimes accompanied her to the basement when she fed the furnace. That was how I thought of it—feeding the furnace, like you would feed a dragon.

Sometimes my mother told me I didn’t have to go downstairs with her. A part of me wanted to stay safely upstairs. But a part of me was afraid she wouldn’t come back, that she would somehow get sucked into the fire. And yet another part of me wanted to be scared, to survive the ordeal with the flame-throwing beast. So I often crept with her down the stairs.

But I stayed near the stairs, far away from the open furnace door. (That might have been because she told me to.)

presto-logs-002My father later told me why the furnace was converted from coal to presto-logs. My father went away on a three-week business trip shortly after my family moved into the B House, leaving my mother responsible for feeding it with coal. But she didn’t know that the coal clinkers (the fused lumps of coal residue after it is burned) had to be shaken out before adding new coal. She just added new coal on top of the old clinkers.

When my father got home three weeks later, the house was cold and the clinkers had fused into a solid mass. My mother was in tears. She had chipped a small hole into the mass so she could add a few lumps of coal at a time so it provided minimal heat. My father spent the next day with chisel and hammer breaking up the clinkers to enable the furnace to accommodate its normal load of coal.

And then he bought a cone to place in the fire box so it could burn presto-logs, which did not leave clinkers. All that was required to burn the presto-logs was to lean the logs against the cone.

I remember my mother hefting the presto-logs into the fiery furnace, which, dangerous as it seemed to me, must have been far easier than scraping out clinkers.

When has a book or movie brought back an old memory for you?

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