Thursday, August 26, 2004

Don't Call Me the Gate is Open

In 1967 a ten year old English boy was just losing his accent moved from Toronto to a little village called Pefferlaw just south of Lake Simcoe. The television show Green Acres was still new and life paralleled it.
Pefferlaw was a land forgotten by time. Telephones were wooden boxes still mounted on the wall. Party lines, the predecessors of chat rooms, were the only way of communicating with the outside world. This wasn't really a problem as long as you didn't require privacy, Oh one other thing, you couldn't make a phone call if the gate was open. I know it sounds bizarre but the Pefferlaw Telephone company was very resourceful when it came to infrastructure, they didn't set up new telephone lines, they just piggybacked on the top wire of the fence. If the gate was open so was the connection.
We moved from the bustle of the city to a farm. At least to a farm house, lots of room for children to explore, fields and forests streams and lakes.
We moved in December 31, New Years Eve. A huge farmhouse heated by a wood furnace. We called it the octopus because the ducts waved overhead like tentacles. The door of the furnace was about four feet square. With a furnace that big it would seem obvious to an adult that the house would not be heated before we moved in. The house was cold, very very cold.
As the furnace warmed up the ground floor we started to put our things away. My two brothers and I shared a room and my older sister had her own. There were two bathrooms in the house, one downstairs in the warmer part of the house, the other upstairs just away from the heat, where the pipes were very cold. Very very cold. frozen as a matter of fact. Now I don't recall if my parents said don't use the upstairs bathroom, I was only ten. I just know when nature calls you have to come running. Nor was I aware that if you need to find a plumber, on New Years Eve, that they would charge you even more money than normal. Children don't know much of such things. Then there was that gate thing, with the telephone.
Well we all survived the ordeal, and even though I don't remember too much about it I am reminded at all of our family gatherings of my role in christening our new house.
As time went on in the farm house we all got pretty good at cutting wood. Mom could cleave a log with a single blow, but soon the woodpile was getting low and dad knew we would have to fell some more trees. He was a pioneer, two years in this vast land, a land of lumberjacks and farmers. Lumberjacks, now there was a trade that would be awe-inspiring to anyone in England.
Tall trees ready to be chopped down, no chainsaw, a double bitted axe and a Swedish bush saw. A manly task for real men. So dad, Mark, Simon and I trudged off to the forest behind the farm. A wooden toboggan in tow for us to pile the wood on.
The forest was full of birch and maple, snow was well past our knees, well at least the knees of us younger ones.
What an adventure! My father told all of us to stand clear as he wielded the axe. Chips of maple flew all around. Each crack of the axe echoing through the woods. The trunk of the tree was getting thinner and thinner, my father getting closer to his goal.
He didn't want to go through the whole trunk, who would know where the tree would land. So just towards the end he asked us all to stand back, once we were all clear he turned to the tree, Leaned into it with all his strength and cried out "TIMBER"
The anticipation was incredible, silence through the forest, so quiet you could almost hear the snowflakes land on the drifts. There was a shattering crack as the trunk split open. Then nothing, just silence. no rush of wind, no creaking of timber, no crash of wood hitting the ground. Nothing!
We all looked around in disbelief. The tree was still standing. We saw him chop it. We saw the chips fly, piercing the snow banks as they flew by. We saw him lean into the tree, heard the wood split as he did but nothing else. The tree remained standing. Dad started to laugh out loud, we still had no idea why but we joined in. We all looked at the tree from roots to entangled branches. There up in the lofts of the forest, the neighbouring trees locked arms to hold our maple high. The trunk of the tree would swing back and forth like the legs of an injured soccer player supported by his teammates.
The rope we had brought to tie the tree to the toboggan was tied around the loose trunk of the tree, Four cold men, pulling with all their might, and the branches cracked and the tree came tumbling down. Cheers resounded through the forest, we had conquered nature. We then got the saw and bucked up some of the branches, bound the logs to the toboggan and set off back to the house.
Hot chocolate seemed to taste extra special that day. The winter dragged on and we got pretty good at felling trees, That furnace had an insatiable appetite, the more we fed it the more it wanted. There was no way dad would put up with that furnace another winter.
The next year we would get a new gas furnace. That fall the workmen came in and tore the old furnace out, the octopus tentacles dangling without a body. The new modern gas furnace was set up in the basement. The gas line was scheduled to be installed and what on earth could prevent us from enjoying a toasty work free winter?
I had never heard of permafrost before.
When permafrost sets in even backhoes cant dig the soil. So there we were in a hundred year old farmhouse, with very little insulation. No furnace for heating and winter well on it’s way. My father was an artist through and through. Artists se things differently from normal people. He looked at the farmhouse and noticed three chimneys on the roof. One was surely for the furnace it ran up the center of the house. But the others, where did they lead to?
He went in the house and looked at the walls, No fireplaces to be found. In the kitchen he saw one wall much thicker than the others. Rapping the walls with his knuckles he listened intently for the hollow sound of a cavity. A smile lit up his face and he ran to the shop to retrieve a sledge hammer. My mother stared wide eyed as he struck the first blow to the plaster wall.
This is the point that smart children leave the room.
When we returned the fireplace was exposed, the debris cleaned up and a small fire was warming up the kitchen. It wouldn’t heat the whole house but at least one room would be toasty.
Dad made a partition wall around the fire out of cardboard. We would nestle around the fire and stay warm all winter.
Unheated bedrooms posed another problem. On some cold winter nights the temperature in the bedrooms dipped well below the freezing mark. If you stood on the linoleum floor with bare feet the sweat on your foot would stick you fast to the floor.Socks and slippers were kept under the blankets. Each morning Mom would come around and plug in a small portable space heater just to take the bite off the room. As the room warmed to the point we could get up we would smell the pancakes and bacon drifting up the stairs, luring us down to the warm toasty kitchen. There was always a line up for the bathroom, but times were staggered so we could all take a turn. No one wanted a repeat of the first year bathroom escapade!


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