When I was little, maybe about six or seven years old, I was deathly afraid to venture down the rickety, squeaky stairs to the cellar. I was certain that strange, evil things lurked in the shadowy corners, things that might do horrible, gruesome things to me. The scary warnings and stories about monsters in the basement from my big brother Bill, didn’t help. He took great pleasure in watching my face go pale as ashes and my hands begin to shake with fright when he held forth. My mom was aware of my fears and made sure that she accompanied me on any necessary visits to that nether land. My dad, however, declared my fears to be ‘nonsense’ and made a point of sending me below on errands with at least weekly regularity. I often wonder if he knew that in this unlikeliest of places we would eventually sit together and he would tell me stories of his boyhood.
The cellar (that’s the name I feel fit the place best…I could have used crypt but maybe that would be too macabre). held some features that were the basis of my fears, the major one being The Octopus! The octopus was a type of furnace that graced the cellars of most homes like ours in the 1930’s, and 40’s. It was a huge, squat, metal cylinder affair with two large openings in the front, covered by cast iron doors with sliding grates in them. The upper door was for feeding fuel, the lower for cleaning out ashes. What gave the monster its name was the array of large pipes that arose from its top and carried the warmed air to the upstairs of the house. To my young eyes the monster had the same menacing appearance of a giant octopus. To top it off, my brother said once that the beast had such bad breath that it could kill you, usually while you slept. He was referring to the potential for coal gas fumes escaping into the house if the dampers weren’t set after adding coal to the inner grate. Sometimes it was hard to love my big brother!
There were other elements of that fearful place that were almost as disconcerting as the furnace. The coal bin was in the far corner from the stairs and had no light. In the winter months, twice a month, the ‘coal-man’ would come to the house and open a small door in the driveway, and at the back of the bin, and empty huge burlap bags of ‘soft coal’ into the bin. On those days mom would cover the ‘cold-air’ register in the hallway and all the heat registers with newspapers and old towels and stuff the same things under the cellar door to keep the coal dust from seeping upstairs. It usually did anyway and she would spend the day cleaning up every counter and shelf in the house. Sometimes she would strip the top covers from all the beds and wash them to get rid of the oily black grime. We usually got several bags of soft coal and one of ‘hard’ coal (anthracite) to burn in the octopus for a month. The soft coal burned quickly but was cheaper, the hard coal was to keep the furnace from going out as it burned hotter and longer but it was too expensive for us to afford to burn all the time. At least that’s what dad said. I stayed as far away from the coal bin as possible as brother said sometimes the ‘coal monster’ would hide under the pile and wait for me to come near.