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When It’s Cold Outside, the Furnace Breaks: Thoughts About a Big Chill

The winters now aren’t as cold as they used to be. When I was young it was not uncommon to have a week of 20 below zero weather and sometimes it even went to 30 below. Now such cold snaps are uncommon, but the other day it did go to 10 below, and our furnace chose that day to break.

I didn’t realize the furnace was broken right away, because I went outside to tend to the chickens. The icy air froze my nostrils and nipped at my lungs. I was glad to see that none of the chickens had frozen combs (this happened one other time to a flock of mine) and that they seemed unfazed, perched in their frigid pen.

When I went back in I noticed the house felt chilly but thought it was because it was so bitter outside. I got my coffee and curled up under a blanket and read. I couldn’t seem to get warm, so I got up and felt the forced hot water heaters along the wall. To my horror they were stone cold! I rushed upstairs and woke my partner, who, fortunately, fixes and installs propane heaters for a living. He thumped downstairs and confirmed our worst fears: the furnace was dead.

When it gets to 10 or 20 below, bad things happen in houses.

Pipes freeze and old furnaces give up the ghost. Plumbers and furnace technicians are suddenly busy around the clock. Peter, fortunately, had no other calls that morning so he took the cover off the furnace and worked on it all day. He found he could keep it going by frequently “jumping it out” (whatever that meant) so he stayed to babysit it while I went for parts. The parts did not work, so he changed all the water in the pipes to water with antifreeze and hooked up two small space heaters with which to keep the house warm.

We have a small house so you can imagine what it looked like by this time. There were buckets of tools, pipes, buckets of antifreeze, dirty boot prints and two small heaters stuffed into our already small downstairs. Once we had averted the fear of the house freezing up, I gave up trying to organize everything and went back to reading under a blanket. Peter got a call to go out and fix a heater and I went to Dan & Whit’s to get a CO detector. Then we settled in for the night.

It’s hard to imagine what people used to do in Vermont and New Hampshire when it got to 20 and 30 below. Back then there were no furnaces, just wood stoves and fireplaces. Of course, there was no plumbing either, so that worry was eliminated. I imagine people just dressed warmly and did their chores, and then sat around the stoves with blankets and told stories, maybe made popcorn and warm cider, but that may be a glamorous vision of the past.

I think it is invigorating to live in a place where it gets so cold, because it reminds one of how treacherous the earth can be. The cold squeezes the lungs and freezes the nostrils, and you are aware, when you are outside, of how short a time it would take for your own small body’s pipes to freeze. The world suddenly seems less benign.

When it’s cold I always also spare a thought for the deer. One of my earliest memories is of me and my siblings going out into the winter woods with stale bread to spread around for the deer. I’m not sure now if deer eat stale bread, and I can’t remember if my mother countenanced this errand of mercy, but I do remember the empathy I first felt for the deer on that winter day so long ago. Now, during an Arctic blast, I imagine them yarded up in some area of pine thickets, lying on the ground with steam rising from their nostrils.

In weather like this they don’t move around, which would use up much needed calories. Instead they get still and wait out the freeze. Though I know they are equipped to live outside in winter, even in a very cold winter, I still feel bad for them.

Peter fixed the furnace the next day. In no time I again took my warm house for granted. I knew the cold weather killed some ticks so we’d have fewer next summer. Then both humans and deer would find some truth in the saying that there is no cloud without a silver lining.

Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.