The embers I remember

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About three years ago I bought a lovely French parlor stove - complete with enameled curlicues - from an acquaintance. Then I waited for a brisk day before firing it up. I remember that morning, when ice coated windshields and the grass crackled underfoot. I hurried to my stove and performed the requisite ritual of loading in newspaper, kindling, and a couple chunks of maple. Then I fired it up.

As I watched through the stove's little glass door, the flames leaped about and licked at the wood. Within a few minutes the whole shebang was ablaze and the stack thermometer was on the rise. I retreated to a comfortable chair, opened a book, and remarked, "Now what could be nicer than this?"

The warmth soon reached me, but about 10 minutes later it seemed to recede. I got up, checked the stove, and saw that the wood had been almost consumed. So I loaded it up again, opened the damper, and it blazed anew. I resumed my seat and my book, waited for warmth, received a touch of it, but within 20 minutes was up handling wood again.

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I immediately realized that no wood stove worth its salt needed stoking every 20 minutes.

I made a friendly call to the seller and asked, "Did it eat a lot of wood?" in as diplomatic a tone as I could muster in the burgeoning chill of my house.

"Well, I don't know," he said. "I never burned wood in her."

"Well, what did you burn?"

"Coal."

Coal? Did people still burn coal? Was it still possible to buy coal?

I thought back over the years and recalled that all the houses in my New Jersey neighborhood had had coal furnaces in their basements. Ours was a huge, gray, hulking thing with ductwork reaching out from it like some sort of mythological beast.

I remembered the coal truck making its way down our street. We kids would watch as men hauled canvas sacks of coal on their backs and dumped the big, black, shiny rocks into chutes that stuck out of basement windows.

That's where my father came in. Laboring down in the basement, he would take his coal shovel and heave the newly delivered coal into the bin, which he'd then visit twice a day to heave fuel into the ever-hungry maw of the furnace.

Part and parcel of this ritual was the need to periodically "shake down" the coal ash. When done in a correct and timely manner, a coal fire never went out: You started it in the fall and it warmed you until spring.

And so, in a fit of necessity seasoned with nostalgia, I set out to look for coal to feed my stove. There are no more residential coal trucks, but the stuff is still sold by the 40-pound sack in some hardware stores. I bought two trial sacks and headed home.

I didn't quite know how to start a coal fire in a stove, but I found instructions on the Internet and printed them out.

The counterintuitive preamble stated, "First make a wood fire." This was in order to create a bed of wood coals hot enough to ignite the coal itself. Then I followed the successive steps, all the way to the part about filling the stove with coal "all the way to the top."

I did this as well and was amazed to see that the red glow of real heat actually crept up the column of coal - slowly but inexorably - until the whole 40 pounds was afire.

Now came my first misstep. I went out on an errand, and when I returned a few hours later, my stove was glowing red. The temperature in the house was 96 degrees. I quickly closed the damper, seized the instructions, and commenced a frantic read of the section entitled "Precautions."

I discovered many things. First and foremost, coal fires take a while to get going, but when they do, they are the next hottest thing to uranium 235. Second, coal fires are like teenagers: They do best when they know they are loved but are not fiddled with more than once or twice a day.

I had already intervened. Soon the coal fire was on the wane (but not before its heat had bubbled the stove's enamel finish).

I tried opening the damper, but the coal didn't flare any brighter. So I jabbed it with the poker. It hissed back at me. I jiggled the shaker and a mat of ashes fell through the stove and threw a cloud of dust in my face.

By evening the whole operation was a tepid mess of unburned coal, ash, and a few valiant, still-glowing cinders.

I picked up my instructions and skimmed down to the bitter end, where I found the wisdom that should have been stated up front: "Once a coal fire goes out, it is almost impossible to get it going again without starting from scratch."

I still had a 40-pound sack out in the garage. Should I try again? A last glance at the mess in and about my stove convinced me otherwise. I put the sack out by the curb and wrote "FREE" on it. Within an hour it had been claimed. I wished the scavenger well, but I didn't envy him.

Coal might have been good enough for my father, but the byword for me was now "wood," 20 minutes of warmth at a time.

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