Monday, February 17

Burning For You.

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I.

There’s a certain combination of chivalry and stupidity in attempting dangerous projects with your wife out of the house.

On one hand, if everything goes to hell, nobody gets hurt but your irresponsible ass. On the other hand, no one will be around to save you when the inevitable happens. If neither of these things transpire, you just may look like a responsible adult and your wife gets to come home to a newly working appliance. I don’t make the rules: If you want to feel like a useful and irreplaceable mate, you sometimes have to risk vaporizing yourself and everything around you within a tri-block radius. These are the risks you have to take.

The Missus spent yesterday evening at the movies with a friend, which left me alone and antsy on the couch. With the house spotless, my anxiety kicked into high gear without her around to tell me to stop moving around so much and watch Degrassi with her (I won’t! Never! NEVER!!!). I needed a figurative fire to put out, and I found it in the form of a literal fire that never got started.

Since we bought our house almost six years ago, the gas fireplace has never worked. It’s beautiful and accents the living room nicely, but every time we attempted to ignite it, the flame would fwoop out after only a few seconds. Eventually we gave up, putting the low priority repair on a non-existent list of things we would probably never fix until the time came to sell the place. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

Then came the bitterly cold Winter of 2014 (of which we’re still inhabiting). We’re lucky; it’s pretty cheap to heat our home, but when it’s -30 outside, you want to hedge your bets with as much toasty air circulating through the house as you possibly can. Without the Missus around to remind me that I wasn’t a handyman, fireplace technician or natural gas expert, I hunkered down and started taking shit apart. She was either coming home to a roasting, romantic sanctuary, or the ashen, glowing remains of her beloved.

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II.

Quick aside on gas leaks: They terrify me. In addition to the fireplace, we also have a gas range, and I’ve fired it up approximately never times. One of the few pieces of advice my father-in-law gave me upon visiting our recently-purchased place in 2008 was, “If you smell gas, don’t even wait around to grab anything. Just get out and call 911.” I took this to heart, and just last year, heeded his words on a rainy autumn evening.

The Missus and I were sitting in the living room when we heard a loud pop come from the kitchen. Thinking it was the cats, we initially ignored it, until it happened again a minute later, only much louder. I went into the kitchen to see if I could locate the sound, and immediately smelled something odd. In a calmer retrospect, I can’t say it smelled like natural gas, but it was close. Like a pungent electrical fire or blown fuse. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it wasn't normal. With my father-in-law’s sage advice ringing in my ears, I threw all logic into the garbage and immediately freaked right the hell out.

Celia, we need to evacuate the house right now. I think there’s a gas leak.

What? Really? I don’t smell any-

No time to waste. Let’s go outside. Chip chop chip.

It was raining hard when we stepped outside. I called 911 from the driveway and explained that I thought I smelled gas (or something) in the kitchen. The woman told me to stand 100 feet from the house and notify neighbors, which is exactly what I did. Nobody was particularly happy about standing in the rain, but it sure beat being explodified. I'd take a few judging glares at the next Condo Association meeting over a lawsuit any day.

The operator told me that the Fire Department was on the way with their natural gas and carbon monoxide-sniffing equipment. Just before hanging up, I attempted to downplay the situation as much as I could:

Um, the Fire Department isn’t going to come to my house with their lights and sirens blazing, are they? A gas leak is more of a…covert operation, right?

Sir…it’s standard protocol.

Goddamn it.

Not more than 10 seconds later, I heard the deafening wail of a fire engine siren bellowing down my street. This was officially an ordeal now. The neighbors that weren’t already standing in the rain with me now started pouring out of their homes just to see what the commotion was about. I live in a cul-de-sac with very light traffic; this was a rare moment.

I, of course, was mortified. The firefighters, in full costume (they call them costumes, right?), slowly teetered and meandered toward my door like a bomb squad on the surface of the moon, while I tried to blend into the crowd and keep people from knowing that it was my house (I would subtly point to the Missus when onlookers began to glace my way). By this point, I was hoping that it was a gas leak, merely to justify such a circus, but it was not to be.

The house did not explode. It was not a gas leak; not even close. A capacitor blew out on the back of my refrigerator. It cost $4 to replace. I caused a fiasco, made my neighbors stand in the rain, and made a few kids cry because of my complete lack of knowledge concerning…anything regarding domestic repair. I never said I was a handyman. Again, let it be noted that gas leaks terrify me.

Fast-forward back to present day, as I blindly began tearing apart the front of my fireplace. I swear to Christ, the guy in Memento had a better short-term memory than I do.

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III.

The pilot light was on as I pulled the decorative screens and insulation out of the way. This was a good thing (I guess); it meant that the house isn’t filling with gas, and the fuel was still being delivered to the valves. Super. Without an owner’s manual to speak of, I did the next best thing I could think of, and went to YouTube on my phone and started searching for random fireplace repair clips. For now, any clip troubleshooting a malfunctioning switch would do; I could focus on specifics later. I was operating under the suspicion that the culprit was an electrical short between the switch and the fireplace, which (logically) meant I would need to call in a professional.

But…just in case, I wanted to fiddle around with everything at least once to see if it was something different.

As I flicked through clips on my phone, looking for anything that even resembled my fireplace model, my cat (unbeknownst to me) began chewing on an exposed wire. I turned, saw what was happening, screamed, closed my eyes and prepared for the tranquility of the grave. This was how it would end for me. I mean, I knew one of my cats would eventually kill me; I didn’t realize it would happen in such a spectacular, Final Destination-esque fashion. Fortunately, I got to her just in time to shoo her away and watch the pilot light flicker out. Oh, no.

Shit just upgraded to Nightmare Mode. I’m no expert, but I knew I needed to either shut the gas off (which I did not know how to do), or ignite the pilot as quickly as possible (which I also did not know how to do), before the entire house filled with gas. What started a few minutes ago as an optimistic project to make things better, quickly turned into a feverish race against the clock to simply put things back to the way they were. Broken I could handle. Dead? Not so much.

There weren't a lot of accessible parts underneath this fireplace, but there was one thing I hadn't touched yet: A giant, red, cartoony button, like the one in the above photo. I didn't know what it did: Self Destruct or Reset Existence were my initial thoughts, but the time for thinking things through was over; I had an emergency on my hands, and whatever this button did was my last hope before once again evacuating the house and calling 911. I could already hear my wife making fun of me. The emergency responders asking me questions like, "Weren't we just here?" The neighbors slamming their doors in my face when I once again try to convince them to come outside if they wish to live.

I shut my eyes and pressed the red button. It was a pilot light igniter, and after the small fireball that went up through the interior of the fireplace (I peed 'em), it proceeded to do its job and re-light the pilot. Everything was back to normal.

I was sweating profusely. "Fine. Good. It's still broken, but whatever," I thought. "Nobody ever needs to know that I attempted this. I'm horrible at life, I'll make a terrible dad and the fact I'm still alive has me beginning to doubt the theory of Evolution. I need a beer." I put everything back together and sat back on the couch; Celia would never know.

When she returned home a couple of hours later, I kept a decent poker face. Then, something happened so delightfully karmic that it defies explanation. "God, it's cold outside," she said, shivering a bit. "It sucks that this fireplace doesn't work..."

She walked over and haphazardly flicked the switch on and off. For the first time since moving in, the fireplace ignited and turned on. Beautiful flames cascaded through the valves and caused the decorative ceramic to glow. The heat was radiant; the sight majestic. I was bewildered beyond comprehension.

Celia took a step back. "Wow...it works now?" she said quizzically. "How the hell did that happen?"

I set my beer on the coffee table, stood up as confidently as I could, and gave her a big hug.

"Surprise!"

There’s a certain combination of chivalry and stupidity in attempting dangerous projects with your wife out of the house.

Comments:
When I at UW a group of my friends lived together all throughout the years we were there, going from being roommates on the same floor of Chadbourne to housemates in a college rental in the Greenbush area, six women under one roof. I lived a few blocks away but spent quite a lot of time over at their place, watching Dawson's Creek or having parties before football games. I also assumed the role of handyman, not because I have any particular skill in that regard but since I had been given a well-appointed toolbox by my father. Their water heater had a balky pilot light and the first time it went out I was duly summoned. It took me a while to sort it out but it was a simple fix - go down into the spider-infested basement, open the access panel, press the piezoelectric igniter, return upstairs to grateful exaltation. I never once volunteered how easy it was to relight the pilot in the two years they lived there, despite the fact it went out every other month.
 
Thank you for letting me know that I'm not the only one who didn't know right away what the hell was going on.

Also, I wouldn't have told them either.
 

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