Rural Living

Fire in the Hole

Lessons Learned in Damper Deployment

by Margo Oxendine, Contributing Writer


Margo Oxendine

Nearly deadly surprise overcame me in early November. I will not be back to my new par, whatever that may be, until February or March. I will probably tell you all about it sometime. But not right now. The best I can offer is something from what turns out to be the good old days:

You dont have to live in the country to have a fireplace. Plenty of city-dwellers have them. A city fireplace is usually a secondary heat source. In the country, it might be a fireplace or wood stove, period.

I had a girlfriend who, for a time, had only a wood stove to heat her house.

She was a city girl. She moved here with that starry-eyed look that says, Hey, yall. Im here in the country! Aint it grand?

With the first frost, she found out what rural living is all about.

She arrived with soft, pale hands and red, manicured nails. By the middle of that first winter, her hands and forearms bore burn marks from errant embers. Her nails were ragged and unpolished, with a little grit and ash ground underneath. She had bags under her eyes, rather than lavender shadow over them. Her cheerful demeanor grew grumpy as winter wore on; shed discovered, you see, that wood stoves require stoking in the dark of night. And again around 5 a.m.

Ive spent some time house- and dog-sitting in front of fireplaces. I, who never created so much as a campfire, have had to learn the art of building a fire and keeping it going. I have learned all this in million-dollar homes that are not my own.

Ive learned about kindling and fatwood. Ive learned that newspapers are useful for more than reading.

Ive learned to appreciate those long-handled butane lighters.

And Ive surely learned about dampers.

My first big lesson came in a meticulous manse that included valuable antiques, a psychotic cat, and two big, lumbering dogs.

Id gone a few rounds with that fireplace before never could build a fire that stayed lit and lively.

This particular day, it was snowing as I arrived. I was delighted to discover the makings of a perfect fire already stacked, arranged, and waiting for me.

Ah, I thought. Ill just light this baby, make some tea, and read. The snow will fall, the dogs will snooze beside me, and all will be right with my world.

I lit a match, tossed it near the kindling and newspaper, and went to the kitchen.

Halfway there, I stopped in my tracks. The damper! Was it open or closed? How could I tell? And, where was it, anyway?

I darted back to the fireplace to discover the logs already ablaze. And smoke streaming into the tastefully decorated room. I hunkered down and peered into the flames. I saw the damper. It was waaaaay in the back. To open it, I would have to sear my right arm.

The dogs were in an alert state, running around the room. I opened the door, and screamed at them to flee. I ran to the teapot, and threw what amounted to a cupful of water on the blaze. It sizzled. And continued blazing. I grabbed a vase of flowers in water, and tossed it on the fire. The effect was minimal.

It was becoming difficult to see. Or breathe. I ran to the phone. I called the store down the road.

Martha, I shouted, Im at the McClung place and I need a man, fast!

Martha chuckled. I explained my predicament, and asked that she send someone pronto. The nearest fire department was dozens of miles distant.

I ran from the smoky house and up the long driveway. Hoping for help, I jumped around beside the road, waving my bright pink beret at passing pickups full of hunters. They waved back and kept driving.

Finally, some local fellows arrived. While I was happy to see them, my heart sank. These fellows and I did not get along, due to some friction involving my news-reporting.

I babbled about the fire and the damper, pointing toward the house. They ran in, quickly assessed the

situation, and looked at me as if I were some stupid city girl. One rolled his eyes, rolled up his sleeve, reached in and flipped open the damper. The smoke swiftly began to clear.

Ill bet we dont read about this in the paper, he said.

Im sure I made their day. And I know they sure made mine.


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