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White Smoke, Pale Owner
by Marvin Pinkis

Old houses lend themselves to repair problems, often intimidating. An old clunker of a furnace in an old house can be particularly intimidating.

We were proud of our first home and conducted visitors on the compulsory tour, concluding in the basement. All commented on the Behemoth of the Basement. “Now, there’s an old timer”, “Have you had it checked?”, “Must run a fortune to repair.” The topper was, “Say, old man, do these suckers ever blow up?”

The seeds were planted. The poison ivy discovered behind the garage, the broken window sash in one of the bedrooms, faulty electrical outlets, dripping faucets, creaky floors – all became subordinate to the furnace.

Each day included frequent, very frequent, stops to sniff for noxious odors emanating from below. The old boy’s ominous rumblings and the raspy sounds of the blower fan, responding to the thermostat’s demands, added no small amount to the anxiety.

With trepidation we embarked on the Great American Adventure of finding a furnace repair service from no less a reference source than the Yellow Pages. The first company reached pronounced us fools to expect that a service man could be spared to diagnose Ol’ Vesuvius sooner than after summer vacations had ended and the busy winter season was over. Similar replies to our importunate inquiries were met with responses close to derision. I should have been suspicious when a cheery receptionist, untypically civil and congenial, succumbed to my whiny cajoling compassionately and said an expert would be out that very day. No personal checks.

In less than thirty minutes a panel truck emblazoned with the company’s name, Acme Furnace Service, with slogans and cartoon figures, pulled into our driveway. Its operator, pad in hand, resplendent in a snappy uniform, cap, bow-tie, smart shiny shoes, presented himself at our door. We saw no halo above his head but it was an overcast day. He appeared too impeccable to be poking around in the bowels of dirty furnaces, but in a crisis, who could be critical?

We chatted about his firm and listened attentively to accounts of the miseries of customers taken in by disreputable competitors. We warmed to this man, this saint whose timely arrival would deliver us from the fury of heating plants gone berserk.

Keeping a respectful tone, I asked evenly if he should now be directed to the lower depths. I escorted him down the stairs followed timidly by the missus who had chewed her nails to the quick. Better times were near.

In the immediate environs of the monster he wished to be with it alone. As we ascended the stairs the furnace belched, an obvious objection to its majesty being challenged. But in the din, we heard the man say, “There, there, big fella. It’s going to be all right.” My wife and I exchanged smiles and glances of optimism.

After an eternity, he emerged ascended into the light of the kitchen, rubbing his eyes as he adjusted to the brightness. He seemed calm as a benefactor should. He commented how nice and big the house was, what kind of work I did, how everything cost more today including the upkeep of a place like ours, a sickly child at home needing expensive treatment, his aged parents to whom he was the sole provider, and, his chronic backaches.

“The truth is,” he stated, “that your furnace is reasonably functional, for now that is, but it has symptoms that spell trouble. Maybe not for a while. On the other hand…”

“How long, doc- , I mean…”

“No telling. With this generation furnace I’ve seen ‘em go as quick as a week after I looked at them. You’ll be lucky if it lasts a year.”

We gasped. “Wh-what can go wrong? What should the concern be?”

His face contorted into a grim, demonic mask and he pronounced with no uncertain forefoding as his voice dropped several octaves. “What will likely happen is the blower motor will go bad. It’s on its last legs.” A pause as he checked his audience. “And, that’s when the white smoke will begin.”

The little woman and I shrieked as one, “White smoke!”

“Yes, white smoke, thick white smoke. Usually happens at two a.m. If you should wake up and your bedroom is filled with white smoke, don’t panic. Quietly,get out of bed, WALK to the closet, get your robes, valuables, then calmly go down the stairs to the basement.”

Dreadful thoughts raced through my mind, critical questions related to his narration begged to be answered. Like, “don’t panic.” Who panics when awakened at two a.m. in a smoke-filled room? Get up “quietly”, so as not to disturb the smoke? “Go down the stairs”, through the smoke?

We journeyed to the basement, me in a trance and a persistent cough and teary eyes. He showed me which fuse to turn off to stop the furnace blower, but to me all fuses looked alike. I hesitated to ask how to dispense with all the smoke until he or the fire department responded to my desperate summons in the middle of the night. I mustered the audacity and he deigned to reply.

“Just go outside,” he said, “but be sure you’re at least several hundred feet from the house. And, wear a hardhat. Do you happen to have gas masks? I have some used ones in the van. Cheap.”

Progressing to an estimate of replacing the motor, (they had a special until the end of the month), his summation evoked visions of personal financial collapse. It made the leak in the toilet and the need to fix the garage door small potatoes. Leaving the furnace in dubious health had to be risked.

On his way out he suggested, “Call your insurance agent to be sure you’re covered for smoke damage. Most policies don’t cover it. I know folks who have had over ten thousand bucks worth of damage.”

So far, white smoke hasn’t been a problem. However, insomnia has been. Every night I anticipate the white smoke. Ever prepared, I set the alarm for a quarter to two and wait.