Shuffling Cards, Feeding Fire

I HAD heard of a winter in our Colorado town, years back, when no snow fell until late winter. Without that insulation on the surface, cold penetrated deep, and many water lines froze. The people hauled water to meet their needs all winter. There was no way to thaw the pipes four feet underground. We had snow the year two service lines froze, but it was obvious what happened. It was exceptionally cold. The snow plow bared the roads. The cold penetrated deep, and if the water in a service line was motionless for too long, it froze.

First, Mrs. Matthews' line froze. Mickey and a couple of other workers laid logs across the road and kept a fire burning all day and night. I didn't think that would work. Heat rises. It would take something covering the fire to reflect the heat down, or there would be little possibility of it penetrating four feet of soil. That was my theory.

Several days after the large, unsuccessful fire, I had the opportunity to test my theory. I stopped by to see how my mother was doing, and she said she was doing fine, except that she had no water in the house. The water master had turned the stop-and-waste valve at the edge of the dirt street, and water from the house had drained, so we knew it was frozen under the street.

I had some used metal roofing and plenty of firewood, so I went home and got some of each and came back and built a small fire the street side of the stop-and-waste valve. I wanted to build it in a hole, but the frozen ground just bounced my pick back at me, so I built the fire on the surface and propped the metal roofing over it and around it. I went in, and Mom asked me, ``Will it work?'' and I said, ``It's too soon to tell. We'll just have to see.''

We played cribbage. I went out and added fuel to the fire between games. Mom won 3 out of 5 that first day. By dusk, I had a good mound of coals. I added wood and covered the fire with several layers of roofing metal and went home, but I was up and ready to go by daylight.

I moved the metal and raked ashes and coals aside. The fire had softened enough ground that I was able to dig a hole about eight inches deep and a foot and a half around. I knew a fire down in a hole would work better. I started one, covered it with the metal, and left. I shoveled snow one place up the hill and replaced a broken window another and walked back down the hill at noon. The sun shone, and the temperature was up to 15 degrees. The fire had burned down to a mound of coals. I pondered for a moment, dig now, or add to the fire. Hunger decided me. I added wood and walked home for lunch.

Midafternoon, I scooped ashes and coals, dug out dry, dusty, hot dirt, then swung the pick for a little more gain.

Now I had the beginning of a trench, 18 inches deep, over two feet long, and two feet wide. I shoveled hot coals back in, added kindling onto the coals, and the kindling quickly ignited. I added bigger wood to the growing flame. I put sheet metal over the fire several layers thick, with space left for air to enter and feed the fire and exhaust to escape.

TWO things to do before dark. First, I found the water master and told him what I'm doing. He had doubts. What if the pipe is frozen all the way under the road? I couldn't dig up the whole road, could I? What if it took me all winter? Nevertheless, he said sure, he'd bring by barriers and flashers so no one dropped a wheel into the excavation. Then I went home, spent some time with my wife and daughters, then rummaged around in the shop until I found some 4-inch steel pipe. A fire in a hole burns better if it has air delivered. Just at dusk, I added wood and put a pipe down into the hole and rearranged the metal cover until I had the fire burning well, with a minimum of openings in the metal cover, so that the heat was held in and reflected down.

Mom and I played Scrabble. She won. I haven't the patience to be a good Scrabble player. I'll play three tiles before I'll sit and study to find I could have used six. I don't like most games, but Mom enjoys them, and it's something to do together while we visit, so I do the best I can.

The next day, the trench was longer and deeper. I left the surface intact and tunnel under. I kept it as narrow as I could and still have room to dig, and I moved the metal down into the trench, with a pipe to feed air to the fire and another for smoke to escape. There was interest about town. Some said it will never work. Some said it might. I was content to keep working and see what happened. Mom said, ``Aren't you using an awful lot of wood?'' and I said, ``No. I've only burned about 24 hours' worth of wood for the house stove. It doesn't take a lot, if I keep the heat directed where I want it.''

``It's taking a lot of your time.''

``Not that much. You couldn't talk me out of doing it now if you worked at it. I have to see if it will work, and I'm having fun doing it. Stop worrying about it and draw your tiles.''

She did. She beat me by 75 points and had to settle for a card game the next time I came in, between digs, when the trench was three feet and two inches deep and 7 1/2 feet long, with a hot fire in the bottom, pipes leading in and out, saw horse barricades around, a pile of powdery dirt, with ashes mixed in beside, the shovel and pick leaning against the picket fence, the thermometer up to 15 degrees again, and clouds moving in for another snow storm.

Several people stopped by to see how it was going and ventured opinions on what would happen. I just nodded and kept digging.

By dark, it was almost four feet deep, but I didn't see any pipe. I knew I was close, but even if I saw the pipe, that didn't mean I could thaw the ice in it. That night, I left a larger opening in the metal cover, and I got up at midnight and walked up the road. New snow squeaked under my feet. Clouds cleared, and the thermometer read minus 35.

I fed wood into the fire and then sat there on the side of the trench, my feet down into the end away from the fire, soaking in the warmth radiating up through the metal, absorbed in thinking about nothing at all and watching the firelight cast through openings between pieces of sheet metal I'd bent around the fire. I was cold behind, away from the fire, and too warm toward the fire, so I fed it two more pieces of split pine, covered the opening and walked home, feet squeaking on the cold snow again.

IN the morning, I had several things I needed to do, so I didn't dig but just fed the fire. Mom was working at the store. When I went in at noon, water ran full force in the kitchen sink. No water surfaced in the hole, which meant we had no broken pipe.

I got back up to her house before she got home. When she came in, I reached over and turned the faucet and let the water run while I sat down at the kitchen table and shuffled cards. She was too pleased to do anything but cheer and dance around. When she slowed down some, I said, ``I'll play you one game of cribbage, just on the chance that I'll win. Then I have to fill a hole while you put your groceries away and leave just a small drip running until spring.''

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