Those wonderful whiffs of kerosene

IN a corner on a stand under the stairs we keep a kerosene lamp - cleaned, trimmed, and loaded. Ready to go, it is not complimentary to the electric company, and it serves when needed. Meantime, it gives a memory fragrance to that corner, for if you were fetched up on that kind of illumination, as I was, there are a thousand recollections with each whiff of kerosene oil. There was a time when our whole home depended on kerosene lamps when the sun went down, and after that we were wired for electricity except for my little attic chamber. The rest of the family enjoyed brilliance, but I carried my little lamp up the steep stairs to my boyhood cubicle under the rafters.

My lamp, the saying went, gave the same light as a yellow-eye bean. I had been instructed in the way to blow it out - turn down the wick, hold a hand cupped to the chimney (chimbley!), and heave a gentle puff. That's why I haw-hawed one evening lately when the TV showed a Klondike miner blowing out his lamp. He didn't turn down the wick, and then he typhooned into the chimney - a sure-fire way to lose your whiskers and burn down the cabin.

A kerosene home had a shelf in the kitchen where the lamps roosted in the daytime. One who carried his lamp from the kitchen to his chamber was expected to return it when he came to breakfast, and then after the dishes were done would come the daily ceremony of trimming, cleaning, and filling the lamps. The parable of Matthew 25: 1, 2 was well understood then.

A sheet of newspaper would wipe a chimney if it hadn't sooted, but now and then the chimneys would get a thorough wash in the dishpan. We had a special pair of shears for giving a wick a new burning surface. At our home, however, we didn't use the little bits of colored glass that were esteemed as a safety precaution.

Magazines like Home Comfort ran advertising intended to terrify the people about how lamps might explode. I don't remember ever hearing about a lamp that exploded, but these ads continued over the years. If you didn't want your lamp to explode, send 25 cents for a packet of these miraculous glass pebbles and put them in the oil well of the lamp. With the bits came specific instructions about keeping the lamp clean and trimmed, and we knew that if you kept a lamp cleaned and trimmed it wouldn't blow up anyway.

I still have our antique 1-gallon kerosene can, which could be filled in my youth for 7 cents. Even more exciting, I still have the little screw-cap that fits on the spout. Those screw-caps, always removed when filling a lamp, had a way of getting lost, and a filled can would thereafter spill some oil on its way back from the store. Since spilled oil in the grocer's delivery wagon (remember grocer's delivery?) was not compatible with foods, a capless can would get a small potato stuck on the spout.

My storekeeper uncle, Ralph, had an interesting time with an unbreakable lamp chimney. The glass chimneys snapped easily, and somebody presaging the age of plastic came out with one that would stand abuse. The salesman bounced one up and down like a rubber ball, and caught it on the rebound off the wall. Impressed, Uncle Ralph made what he called a ''deal.'' He would take 10 cases, a gross to a case, on an initial order if the salesman agreed not to sell to another merchant in Somerset County. Done!

Uncle Ralph had a flair for showmanship merchandising, so when the shipment came he put all 10 cases on a top shelf, so he had to climb up the rolling ladder to get one. His regular glass chimneys were put on the floor under the counter. He was now ready for his first lamp-chimney customer, and when he came in Uncle Ralph said, ''Yes,'' and lifted a regular glass chimney up onto the counter, handling it with great care. Then he said, ''Or maybe, for 10 cents extry, you'd like one of the new unbreakable kind?''

Then he climbed the ladder and tossed down a lamp chimney that bounced on the counter in the bug-eyed gaze of the customer. Word went around, and that day Uncle Ralph sold almost all the 10 cases. But next day came the howls. The unbreakable chimneys wouldn't break, but they exploded when the lamps were lighted.


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