This is part of the series, The House on High Street. The entire series is indexed here.
We were concerned about the old boiler in the cellar. We had never owned a boiler before, but we understood that it heated the water that circulated through the baseboard radiators all through the house. Cold air was pulled into the bottom of the radiators and moved across hundreds of soft little metal fins which quickly heated it. The heated air circulated through the room, making it quite cozy, and all was done in a reasonable and fairly efficient manner. Well, it would have been an efficient system if our house had any insulation, but that is another matter altogether.
The thing about that boiler was that it was so old looking. We weren't sure of its condition, and we wanted someone to inspect it, clean it (if that is what one does with boilers), and explain its workings to us, and we wanted all this done long before we would need any heat. So we called up Al, who was in the business, and were expecting him to arrive the next day.
I was dreaming about cowboys. A lot of cowboys, a whole posse of cowboys. They were galloping, galloping, galloping, and they were getting closer and closer. I looked around for something to hide behind, because I didn't want to get trampled.
I woke up from my dream. Hey, the cowboys were still here--the bedroom noisy with a metallic banging that was increasing in speed and volume. Beez was sitting up, trying to figure out what was going on. And then we noticed the smoke...
While I called the emergency number for the fire department from the phone located near the cellar door (almost right above the fire, although I didn't know it at the time), Beez organized the troops for immediate evacuation. Kids up, dogs leashed, cats crated, bird cage in hand--all were loaded into the cars that were then moved out of the driveway and harm's way.
We sat there waiting, looking up at the smoke coming out of the windows of our house. We waited, and waited. Hey, that firehouse was right around the corner, less than a quarter of a mile away. Why didn't we hear any sirens? I scampered back into the house to phone again, wearing an elegant outfit of nightgown, old skirt, and barn boots. When I got through to the dispatcher, she kind of shouted at me--"Where are you calling from?... What, you're inside the burning house?... Get out of the house right now!!" She also reminded me that, although the firehouse was very close by, it was manned by a volunteer brigade and they would be with us soon.
Of course. I had always lived in more urban areas, where the firemen lived at the firehouse, or something like that. Here, in rural New Hampshire, they slept at home and had to jump up, get dressed, kiss their wives or husbands good-bye, stick a flashing red light onto the roof of their pickups, drive to the station, and get the fire truck. Then they could turn on the sirens so I would know that they were coming.
When they arrived, they were calm and efficient and organized and they got the fire out right away. Here is what had happened: That old boiler, which also heated our hot water supply, had one weak leg that had almost been rusted through. The leg collapsed, the thing that squirted the fuel kept squirting it, only now under the boiler. The boiler itself caught on fire, the fuel kept squirting, and the water was superheated and came rushing through the cold radiators, making the metal expand suddenly and causing the clanging cowboy noise. They were known ever after as the Cowboy Radiators, I have to say.
If I had understood the system and had realized where the fire was happening, I could have opened the cellar door, reached in along the wall at the top of the cellar stairs, and turned off the emergency switch that controlled the burner. Of course, I might have added oxygen to the fire by doing so. That meant that the emergency switch needed to be moved to the other side of the door--just another item on our immense "to-do" list.
The damage was minimal--the old bulky boiler had simply destroyed itself, leaving us with a smoky house that was soon cleared out by the fire department's big fan. And here's the good news: The insurance company considered the whole incident an act of the boiler gods, and replaced the burnt-up boiler for us with a nice new tankless hot water system. Just think, if the boiler's leg had held up one more day, we would have paid for a new one ourselves, because Al would certainly have recommended replacement.
The wonderful firemen stood around the cellar after all the excitement was over, swapping stories about the Kelley House. They told us an amazing thing--this house was rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad back in the Civil War era.