Sunday, March 30, 2014

Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

 “Are those termite holes?”  Gary looked concerned, given that the massive beam in question was clearly instrumental in supporting the floor above us.

“Yeah,” I replied, reaching up to break off a jagged piece of the hole-peppered wood to demonstrate just how brittle that section of beam was. 

 “Whoa.  Can’t be good,” Gary said, unnerved.

I relented in my cruel little game and explained, “When my husband Dave and I bought this house, the building inspector told us he could drive a key into this beam and still find more solid wood at its core than in a house newly-built.”  My companion nodded, relieved, and brushed aside a swag of cobweb as he turned to inspect the hot water heater. 

For that was our purpose in the basement.  The furnace and hot water heater – one, a cast-iron behemoth hulking in the deep shadows, the other a massive beige cylinder – are old.  Not as ancient as our 1782 house, but they’ve done their time.  They have squatted below for twenty-four years, thrumming audibly to life to keep us warm as long as we've been here.  The furnace is checked and cleaned annually and in recent years I’ve been told, “She’s good for maybe three more years. ’Course, could go in a year.  Hard to say.”  Love that uncertainty.

So, Dave and I decided to be pro-active rather than wait for a furnace blow-back to darken our walls and furniture with soot (as had happened to the prior owner), or a water heater leak to spew rivers across the basement floor.  The furnace will be replaced later, once the weather warms up. “Let’s wait just in case there’s a glitch,” Dave said.  “It’d be just our luck the new one would fail during a cold spell.” 

So the furnace is on hold, but I called the utility company to request a visit regarding the hot water heater.  I was told it was not their policy to come out unless there was a leak. She said ours was an 80-gallon unit installed in 2003.

“Mm, don’t think so,” I said.  “It was here in 1990 when we moved in, and it is definitely a 120 gallon unit.”

“That’s not what our records indicate.”  The woman was pleasant, but firm.  And wrong. 

I’m not sure why I thought to mention it to her, but our cats had shredded the heater’s insulation wrapper and the tall beige cylinder stood nearly naked, strips of pink fiberglass batting hanging from her sides like rags on a beggar.

“Oh!  Well!  That’s a problem, isn’t it? We’ll send someone out to take a look!”  Chipper, agreeable, helpful.  Within two days, I got a call, and Gary was at the door.

I liked him immediately.  He was tall and wiry with close-cropped curly hair and glasses, a New Englander who would have been right at home in a town meeting in the eighteenth century.  And a man who admired a stalwart unit such as the one in our basement.  He directed his flashlight at a metal plate on the back of the heater and guffawed.  “Look at this! This number indicates the year it was manufactured – 1966! This girl’s almost fifty years old!”  He chuckled to himself in noting the information on his clipboard; the information I’d been given over the phone.  “2003.  Right.”

I gave him my spiel about being pro-active in seeking to replace the unit, but added, “It’s served us well.  We’ve always had as much hot water as we needed.”

“They built  ‘em to last back then,” Gary said.  “Don’t count on fifty years with the new one, but this is a disaster waiting to happen. We’ve got to get it out immediately.”

I felt foolishly smug that I’d been right in forcing this visit, but also, a little sad.  Seriously?  Over a metal cylinder?  Yes.  I am prone to personification and somehow, these two warm-hearted monoliths in our basement seemed like old soldiers, guardians who had served us faithfully all these years.  And they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Was it a mistake to cast them aside even as they hummed away, doing their jobs as they always had?

Not according to Gary.  Evaluation complete, we climbed the basement stairs and stopped in the kitchen while Gary leaned on the counter to fill out the paperwork.  He passed on the coffee I offered, but we chatted a bit about the forecast for another snowstorm, some property he owns in Vermont, and my mother’s 1938 Roper stove.  He shook his head at the date.  “She getting’ rid of it?” he asked.

“No way.  A couple of burners don’t work, but she’s still got three good ones and a double oven.”

“There it is again,” he said.  “Don’t make ‘em like they used to.”   He instructed me to call his office and make an appointment for the replacement, and we shook hands as he took his leave.  For some reason, I had to restrain an impulse to give him a hug.

In the days preceding removal, Dave cleared away planks of wood, paint cans, and cases of bottled water to create a path through the basement to the bulkhead. In a flurry of disrespect for our resident spiders, I swept free cobwebs festooning the ceiling beams. And on January 28, I stood in the basement, part of a semi-circular assembly around our heater, with five burly men, each almost interchangeable with the others in dark blue uniforms, woolen caps pulled low over brows, and scarves muffling chins.

“You got termites?’’ A scarf-muted voice asked.  (Must have spotted the beam.)

“Once upon a time,” I filled him in.   

Was I imagining it, or was there an air of reverence as the men considered the venerable cylinder before them?  One, obviously a soul sensitive to my mixed feelings, pried off the metal plate embossed with the unit’s vital statistics – brand, model, and serial numbers – and gave it to me before the men set to work.

I was intrigued that the new unit was hauled in first and tipped upright next to its elderly counterpart, an odd sequence as it reduced maneuver room even more.  In truth, maybe I was nettled on behalf of the 1966 model at having this shiny white upstart thrust so suddenly into its space.  

With canvas straps guiding and much grunting and bracing of shoulders, the old heater was lowered onto a red hand-truck.  Slowly, the men navigated the cylinder around the base of the chimney and lolly columns, under the stairs, past the washer-drier, and through a 29” door that barely permitted passage of the 29” unit.  Down a step the procession continued, into Dave’s music room, where guitars and empty glass wine casks lined the wall like spectators on a boulevard witnessing this final passage.

And then, a challenge: how to get past our black submarine of an oil tank wedged at the bottom of the bulkhead stairs?  As one, the men stood straight, rubbed lower backs and hands, then leaned in to ease the unit past the tank and angle it up and out…into fresh air, across the snowy lawn, onto a lift to the truck, and like an era passing, away…

P.S.  Within nine days, the new unit failed twice.  Yes.  Twice.  Somewhere out there the old 1966 model is smirking.  They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

P.P.S.  At the time of posting this blog, the new furnace has been installed.  It, too, failed within a day.  *sigh*     


Ben Powers said...

Lea, I could picture you down there, hand on beam, proud of two of the things that have made your home warm over the years - and also the twisting path the men would need to take to navigate a space designed for simpler things. I hope you did something fun with that plaque!

Lea said...

Yes! You've had to navigate that path yourself, corralling the kids as you went! You'd think we'd have pride enough NOT to allow anyone to see our basement, much less post pictures of it!

tootsielala55 said...

Shew! So grateful that I am not the only one who personifies things. Anything that once belonged to anyone I loved becomes all-important. Thank you Lea for being so eloquent and elegant in your retelling of a "wrenching" experience. and..OF COURSE the new items failed. You, however, never fail to bring your readers joy.

Anonymous said...

How fun! Somehow, though I do not know this author directly, through the perfectly chosen words, I can just see her and feel what she may have been feeling. All attached and loving something that has provided a mostly unceasing service. Is it New England? Don't know but the men working seemed almost reverent, appreciative of the old workhorse they were removing. Somehow cannot see that happening in say, Mississippi or California. What a fun read, so grateful my friend sent it to me. As someone else said...very elegant in telling of the passing of an era.

A Thrifter in Disguise said...

Loved this, Lea! I didn't want it to end... and honestly, I think I'd like to know more about about Gary :)

Katherine said...

Lea, I am not at all surprised that you'd be attached to your old hot water heater.. remember getting rid of the mini van? And your lovely post on that? I agree, they DON"T make them like they used to... and not surprised to hear of the "failures" that happened so quickly. Your post points out, sadly, how fast and disposable everything has become in our society, from cell phones to relationships. I hope the new systems shape up and fly right! Thanks for such a heartfelt, warm piece. Katherine

gail m said...

Wonderful writing. Everything: the details, the termites, the spiders, the workmen, the past, the present.

Anonymous said...

What a great piece! I love these glimpses of your life - and your basement! (you can come see mine anytime now!) It also houses an old cast iron baby. A beauty we'll try and hang onto even longer after reading your post-scripts.
PS Bet Gary would have loved a hug from you, my beautiful friend! Who wouldn't?

Laurie said...

I love the way you see meaning in everything. That's a true writer. How lovely.

Katherine Schoettle said...

I have been meaning to write. When we sold our house last year, we left behind a 50+ year old heater. It was a behemoth, but it served us well, and it did not fail. I wonder if the new owners will treat it as well as we did. Karl took great care of it, and like you, all of the people who came to work on it recognized its superiority to those made today.

Tommy Hopkins said...

I appreciate how meaningful your old furnace was to you, amidst its failures. It’s just disappointing that everything is just temporary, especially the things that we treasure. Anyway, you are so talented in telling your story, as well as putting your feelings in there. You are such an inspiration to your readers. Thanks for sharing that, Lea! All the best to you and your family!

Tommy Hopkins @ AccuTemp

Brett Rogers said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. You wrote it well enough for your readers to feel whatever you were feeling at the time. Anyway, nothing really lasts forever, and that include our furnaces. How are things doing for you nowadays? I hope you aren't experiencing any furnace-related problem anymore. Thanks for sharing that, Lea! Have a great day!

Brett Rogers @ Flame Furnace

Ambrose said...

They certainly do not make things like they used to. It really says a lot about how greatly built the old one was compared to the new units since the new units ended up failing each and every time. It is annoying that things are no longer made to be reliable because it just puts us all through extra trouble.

Ambrose @ Brown & Reaves Services, Inc.