The Beautiful Sound

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I was talking with my friend Leonard about the matter of keeping a house warm in the depths of a northern Michigan winter, and he asked if I knew what the most beautiful sound in the world was. I replied, dutifully, that I did not, and Leonard got a faraway look in his eyes and told me.

“The most beautiful sound in the world,” he said, “is that unobtrusive, fluttery, pulsating noise you hear at daybreak on a January morning when the electric heat control turns on the automatic furnace. Outside the snow is two feet deep and a howling wind is bringing more, but that isn’t what you hear; you’re aware of it, but you don’t hear it, or feel it either. What you know is that the house is getting warm while you are still in bed. You didn’t get up to start the furnace, and last night when you went to bed you didn’t do a thing except set a little dial that would keep things at a proper temperature during the night and boost the temperature just so when morning came. Pretty soon you get up and you are perfectly comfortable, and it was no strain at all.”

Leonard spoke with feeling which I understood because my boyhood and his were spent in the same frost-bitten village shortly after the turn of the century. Wood was the fuel everybody used. It was cheap and plentiful, coal cost too much, and as far as we were concerned heat derived from oil, gas, or electricity did not exist. Big chunks of seasoned maple or beech burned well and gave lots of heat, but it took a huge number of them to get you through a winter and the man who tended the furnace had to handle all of them, one chunk at a time. A wood-burning furnace called for a great deal of work, all of which had to be performed either by the head of the household or by the ranking boy in the family. At one time or another, over a period of years, Leonard had held both of these positions, so when he mentioned beautiful sounds he spoke with feeling.

Daytimes the furnace was no great problem. You had to keep tending it, of course, and as you did you learned much about how fires should be laid, lit, and kept alive, but it wasn’t so bad; the real trouble came after dark. You had a brisk fire all evening, of course, because everybody was at home, and when the others went off to bed you went to the basement to bank the fire for the night. You had (you hoped) a big bed of glowing coals, and on it you piled as many chunks as the firebox would hold, and then you closed the draft and checked the damper (I think I have those words right: it has been a long, long time), and when you finished you could go up to bed.

Next morning you got up at 5:30, in a house that was definitely chilly, and went to the basement to see how the night had gone. With luck, the banked fire had stayed alive; you opened everything you had shut down the night before, prodded the works vigorously with an iron rod, shook down the ashes, removed same from the pit under the firebox, added fresh wood to the fire, prodded some more, then went upstairs to finish dressing and do whatever washing, shaving, and so on your station in life called for. Then back to the furnace, to get a really good fire going so the house could be snug while the others got up. Then you were through-until after breakfast, anyhow.

On some dreadful nights you failed to close things up tightly and the fire simply burned out, and you had to start a new one. On even more dreadful nights you closed things too tightly and the fire died in its bed. Then you had to fish the half-charred logs out of a cold firebox, lay a new fire, and perform what felt like a good day’s work before sunrise. Only one thing was certain: the man (or boy) who tended the furnace always got up in the chilly dark, every morning in the world, from winter’s beginning to winter’s end. No doubt it built character, or something.

Leonard and I got into this subject when someone mentioned the recent movement to reinstate the wood-burning furnace on the ground that all other kinds waste fossil fuels and contaminate air, land, and sea. We agreed that this probably was true. But we also held that a society committed to a form of transportation which used irreplaceable fuels at a rate that increases almost by geometrical progression has no business asking the householder to fill the gap. This country does not have a rational fuel program. It just has a feeling of nervous unease. Until it works out such a program—

Well, until then I will go along with Leonard in my enjoyment of the most beautiful sound in the world.