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A ‘City Boy’ Finds a Chilly Reception When He Comes Home

So, where was this city boy (that’s sort of how you feel if you grew up not in Norwich, not in Lyme, not in Thetford or Hartford or Lebanon … but in Hanover — at least in the ’60s) when the rest of you were in a deep freeze? In the big city. Los Angeles, actually, visiting my fiancee, Susan. A city where it was in the high 70s and constantly, almost annoyingly sunny while everyone I communicated with back here was saying, “MAN, did you pick the right week to be in southern California!” Nice, I thought. Good thing I take care of my house. Nothing to worry about there.

Let’s see: minus 20 in the Upper Valley; 78, pushing 80 in LA. No iPhone calculator required for this Hanover High alum. That’s 100 degrees warmer. (If I’m not mistaken.) Or, if you’re the glass-is-half-empty type (and hopefully it’s not frozen), 100 degrees COLDER.

So, you know those sci-fi movies like Event Horizon or Aliens? Where eventually you find yourself (well, actually you find Lawrence Fishburn or Sigourney Weaver) on a broken starship inching, terrified, down a freezing cold, lonely, dark, steel-encased, ice-encrusted passageway that leads to God knows where? And God knows what? And there’s always that omnipresent klaxon piercing the otherwise frozen silence; and those ubiquitous fan blade shadows?

Well, you guessed it. That’s what I walked into late Saturday night, Jan. 26.

Pretty much. Stuck in the storm door is a delivery ticket from the oil company.“Expletive,” I say to myself, knowing that shortly I’ll be getting another bill for about $9,859. But then I think, as I turn the key, at least I didn’t run out of oil during this cold snap. (It’s still really cold. But then I just got off a plane from what the Beach Boys called “…where the girls all get so tan.”)

Something seems not quite right as I see my breath in the dim, cold light of the kitchen (this city boy thinks on his feet!). I’d never actually had an opportunity — nor the inclination, I suppose — to test how electric lights function in a deep freeze: not particularly well. This is not the 63 degrees that I turned the thermostats down to a week ago. (Or is it? Please?)

And then I see it: it came from above… a dark, dirty something, formerly liquid, now in a sand-dollar-sized frozen splatter on the kitchen counter. A shriek of Hitchcock-like, dissonant violins and, I think, trumpets fills the kitchen. (Or should.)

I pull myself together (in slow motion, given that it’s still about 15 below inside the house) and slowly remember that this is a frozen house, not a starship plying the void laden with iron ore from some asteroid. I will likely not walk around the corner to find the frozen crew sitting silently in my living room. But still, this is really creepy.

I don’t think my life passed before my eyes; but how the next couple of months might unfold certainly did. Better call someone, a frigid, disappointed little voice in my brain manages to suggest in my cold ear. I see the lights on next door at Laura and Philip’s, so I call to ask if I can crash on their sofa. Bless their hearts, they will put me up in their warm, well-lit guest room. Next: breathe on fingertips and call the oil company’s 24-hour emergency service. (It is now after 11 p.m. And Saturday.)

Within 10 minutes, Rob calls back and asks if I’ve shut the water off where it comes into the house (nope) and turned the emergency furnace switch off (nope). (Oooooh… sounds kind of city boy-like.) I’ll cut myself some slack here, though, and chalk it up to it being the end of a long day of travel. And not all neurons functioning at minus 15.

Within minutes of that call, Christian and Craig show up, as cheery and ready to problem solve as if it were 8 a.m. Eighteen minutes later Craig holds the culprit in his hand: “There’s your problem right there,” he says. To me, under the dim basement lightbulb, it looks dark and slimy, like something that might have burst out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach in one of her deep-space nightmares.

Wait. You’re in your basement. Craig’s voice comes back to me as he explains that sludge can build up in fuel oil, which can then clog filters, which then shuts down the furnace. But apparently only when it’s Bloody 20 Below Zero And The Homeowner Is Hiking In The Sunny Canyons Of Malibu. Holy moly, I say. (Not really.)

Minutes turn into hours turn into days turn into weeks. Every radiator, save two, is cracked (one cannot repair these babies). Three of them are majestic cast-iron Victorian beauties, and are probably irreplaceable. It was SO cold that instead of the house sustaining massive water damage, the contents of the broken radiators oozed across the floors and froze about two feet out, like cold lava.

The pipes in every section of baseboard in my studio were split. And only after the latter were repaired and being pressure tested did we learn (announced by a muffled “can’t write-it-in-a-family-newspaper” phrase coming from the basement) that pipes behind the walls were also split in five or six places. All of which had to be found by cutting into the walls and ceilings where they thought/hoped the breaks might be.

The details of overseeing and coordinating and writing emails to far too many insurance people in New Jersey; matching old paint colors; refinishing floors where old radiators once proudly stood, or where cork tiles got stained; cleaning the house after battalions of workers have hand-trucked out tons of cast iron … it could fill a book.

Or better yet, a guide for others who forget that houses, like people, have arteries that can clog and hearts that can stop beating.

But at least I am warm again. It’s sugaring weather now, so of course the temps aren’t exactly challenging anymore. It will be two-going-on-three months from the date of The Big Freeze before the ship is completely — and safely — back on course to Earth. For now, though, my house can ply the void of a northern New England spring; and oh, the lessons I will have learned!