This story is about our chimney fire, but it will take a long time to get to it, so just be patient.
We bought the farm in the '30s for about the price of a car today. It has six giant bedrooms, a suite for a hired couple, a library, a living room with a fireplace, a dining room and sun room, and a broad porch running halfway around it. Forty acres of orchards, pastures, cornfields and woods came with it. Superb elms soared above its classic pre-Revolutionary clapboards, its mossy shingle roof.
The people in the village called it the Ginnity place because that was the name of the farmer who sold it to us. His cowbarn had burned down the year before, and the volunteer firemen had permanently dried up his well in fighting the fire.
For the village, our appearance was a sensation. Imagine, here was someone who not only had $7,000 to spend, but then followed that up with a whole program of expensive improvements, all of which involved the local artisans.
Fred Gobel the painter would meet Big John Garrison the carpenter - names are changed - at the counter of Allen's Hardware and they'd chat with the clerk: "Kernans? Well, they've took out that oval glass in the front door, and the stuffed owl on the newel-post. And they're pavin' the cellar and puttin' up a stone wall by the garden and fixin' up the roof . . ."
We were only dimly aware of the uproar. A lot of the things were not planned. My father found a stack of old shutters in the haybarn, so he had them cleaned and painted and installed. This made the house look more properly Colonial, except that the windows were all big single-pane jobs, the latest style in upstate farmhouse. He had to send to Albany for old-fashioned six-pane frames, and then he had to argue Ralph Dishaw into cutting the panes and putting them in, dozens of them. Ralph made so much money he went on two-week drunk and almost got divorced.
Then there was the mantelpiece. My father found it under the shutters, a lovely walnut Federal-style antique. There must be another fireplace, he reasoned, and after a few minutes of knocking on walls he found it in the library. Great excitement. Mr. Wetmore, the one-eyed stonemason, was called in. He knocked down the covering bricks and restored the beautiful fireplace. We had to have the room repapered.
About the same time my mother ventured into the haybarn, got a good look at the stanchion in which our Guernesy cow Millie resided, and announced she wouldn't stand for it. So John Garrison built a special stall with an interior window so Millie could watch the action in the barn.
People also talked about our special stove, a remarkable Swedish AGA which ran on two cups of coal a day.
By now we were turning into something like a legend in the village. There would be a hush when my father came into Hogan's corner store after the 11 a.m. high mass on Sunday to pick up his carton of Regent cigarettes, specially ordered for him. He would also get a Herald-Tribune, which marked us off from the everyday village intelligentsia, who all got the Times. (The reason for the Tribune was that it had funnies, but who at Hogan's would believe that?
Sometimes my mother came in too and bought a quarter-pound of the fancy chocolates which languished in a glass case. This established her as an exotic with my own crowd, the fourth-graders who knew only the Mary Janes, Guess-Whats, Walnettoes, marshmallow peanuts, candy hats and whips at the penny-candy counter.
(Once I met hiking down the road near our house a couple of classmates who lived at clark Mills nearby in English Black-Country rowhouses. They asked me why I was there, and I mumbled that I lived in the house up the hill.For a long moment they stated at the great white building, its sloping lawns and vaulting trees. Finally one said, "You live upstairs or downstairs?" Shamefaced, I lied, "Downstairs." Then they asked me who lived upstairs, and I muttered, "I don't know." They looked at me in total bafflement.)
It was October. The first cold night of the fall. We all sat in the library enjoying our first fire in the new fire-place, my father in his deep new arm-chair, my mother stretched on the sofa reading her Theosophy.
Suddenly sparks crackled among the flames. They burst and showered embers on the hearth. They seemed to be coming, not from the logs, but down from above.
My father rushed outside and dashed right back in again.
"They chimney's on fire!" he shouted. He phoned the fire house, then grabbed a tiny hand extinguisher from the kitchen and attacked the fireplace.
Standing on the lawn in our coats, we saw brilliant sparks geysering from the chimney, dropping on the roof. Willard, the hired man, trained the garden hose them. Down in the valley we could hear the sirens, faint in the crisp night air, their louder.
Then they were swarming up the long driveway: two engines, the wrecker from Nichols' Garage, the Herman's meat market truck and a long straggle of cars. It looked like a lynch mob.
Already the sparks were dying. Men in rubber coats and iron hats clumped into the house. One of them was the mayor. My father greeted him with enthusiasm, and he shook hands diffidently.
"Lucky you caught us tonight," he said. "Our meeting night. We were all down to the firehouse playing cards."
The fire was out. The firemen were still pouring into the library. Everyone was talking and shaking hands.
"You boys use some beer?" my father said.
Beer! Smudged faces glowed. Next thing you knew there were 20 people milling around the kitchen.
We always had a few bottles of Utica Club thrust among the ice chunks in the ice box, hardly enough for a round, but someone had thought to bring a case out from the firehouse.
"Anyone for coffee? Doughnuts?" Coffee! Doughnuts!
It was time for my father's famous demonstration of the AGA stove. Expertly he filed a coffee pot with scalding water from a spigot in the stove.
"Perks coffee in eight seconds," he said.
It did, too, and everyone paid attention while he explained the wonders of our stove. From there the entire fire department trooped downstairs to see the new paying job and the cistern. Some stayed a long time to hear the saga of the cellar; the rest faded upstairs. But when I wandered back up the kitchen was empty.
Uneasily, I went into the living room: Three men were examining an Italian genre painting of some gypsies. In the library, four more were studying the titles on the bookshelves. Everyone whispered.
Upstairs I ran into a strange woman visiting my sister's bedroom.
"I'm Herb Smith's wife," she volunteered. "I came out to pick him up."
Two more wives were roaming around the master bedroom feeling the curtains and poking the matresses. Outside, cars were still arriving. In my own room I found two fire men and their wives. They all smiled and walked out when I appeared. Maybe they were looking over my collect of Big Little Books. Down in the library my father was handling around Regents, accepted in silence and puffed with reversnce.
It was 2 in the morning before we got all the people out.
There was, as I says, a matching fire place in the living room, but after that, in the 15 years we had the farm we never once tried it.