This is another one of those “True Confessions” moments. The names have not been changed to protect the irrational loser, in this case, me.
When I was six years old, we moved from a small nondescript house in a small nondescript subdivision on Glenwood Avenue in Fostoria, Ohio to an older house on Cory Street. 900 Cory Street to be precise. Even though it was a distance that was easily walkable, when you’re six, moving is a big deal and it seemed like a long way away.
The Cory Street house was older. As I recall, it was about 50-60 years old back then which would make it over 100 years old plus or minus today. It was a three-bedroom home with a tiny den downstairs. There was no heat on the second floor, so we all experienced in our bedrooms the extremes of weather that existed over the six years we lived there.
The house also had a basement. It was divided into two rooms. The first was the laundry area and had enough room for a couch that was there for a while, but wasn’t a permanent fixture. The Siamese cat, Samantha, lived down there and so did the associated lingering stench of the litter box, which later became my job to maintain. I was really bad at cleaning up poop — a characteristic of my being which I embrace to this day.
The second room was the furnace room. Dad set up his workbench in there and for a time, Dad actually practiced his mantra of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Of course, his self-compliance was cyclical and I recall the workbench being cluttered as much as it was orderly.
The furnace was a large, old coal furnace which some years before had been converted to burn natural gas. It was a monstrous, roughly cylindrical presence, extending from ceiling to floor, with multiple cylindrical ducts jutting angularly out of the top on their way to the floor above. Samantha used to hop up on top and sleep on top of the furnace for obvious reasons.
Next to the furnace was the blower. We called it the fan box. It was a strong fan encased in a large sheet metal enclosure. When I think about it today, I wonder why it had to be so large but I guess that’s the way they built stuff back then.
When the thermostat upstairs got cold enough, it activated the furnace and fan. The fan in the fan box roared to life and the furnace ignited warming the house and making my childhood memories of that house as warm and as cozy as it made the air upstairs.
I was downstairs in the basement with Dad as he was organizing the workbench for the first time. My six year old self had never really given a lot of thought to the heating system in the house. Unless it breaks, who the hell does that anyway let alone a six year old kid? Anyway, there I was standing right next to the furnace when the thermostat kicked on the furnace.
When the heat kicked on, the gas jet on the front of the old coal combustion chamber activated. It made a loud whirring noise, almost a screech as the methane gas roared and was shot into the combustion chamber. The jet had three louvers on the side which opened allowing air to get in and my little six-year-old eyes could see the first controlled explosion of the gas as it began its way to the combustion chamber.
So put this all together. You’ve got a loud fan, a screeching set of louvers opening up to reveal a fire-breathing dragon looking thing and the roar of the combustion itself ringing in my ears; all in the span of a second or so. So naturally I did what any self-respecting six-year-old might do.
Well, I didn’t really panic. I screamed first. THEN I panicked. Then I kept on screaming. Loudly. Then I ran. The screaming alone probably would have scared me even though I was the one doing the screaming.
I beat feet out of there at warp factor eight, even though Star Trek wouldn’t be thought up for another four years or so. (Even then, I wouldn’t see it regularly until it was well into syndication. But that’s another story.)
I don’t remember what happened after that except to say that I must have calmed down before too awfully long. But the sheer terror of that moment remained behind and I was scared shitless of that furnace for a long, long time.
I eventually got over the fear of that furnace room, eventually setting up my electric trains, my chemistry set and my own little version of my Dad’s workbench in there. But it took a long time for me to make friends with that furnace. I would slowly open the door and peek inside and announce myself out loud to the furnace as though it had been expecting me. I talked to it, told it that I was a friend and that I knew it wasn’t going to hurt me, knowing secretly that this was a bald-faced lie. Over time, though that furnace and I made friends and it wasn’t too long before I barely noticed the roar of the gas jet or the rumble of the fan box when the thermostat issued its orders. I could play there quietly or with my friends in perfect harmony with that big, scary old converted coal furnace.
Earlier this week, I was trying to find the office gym and the locker room. The locker room is in the basement. To get there, you have to leave breadcrumbs so you can find your way back. Much to my dismay, the path from the locker room to the gym leads…
<wait for it…>
… through the boiler room.
The first time I opened the door to the boiler room and I wasn’t expecting it, I about shit my pants. In a split second, that moment of panic (less the screaming, thankfully) consumed me. All of my smarts and education went out the window and I instantly transformed myself into 187 lbs of irrational panic.
There was NO WAY IN HELL I was going to go through that goddamn boiler room.
I slammed the door, eyes wide and pulse racing. (And this was on the way TO the gym!)
Once I recovered a bit, I found a way to get to the gym by going around the evil boiler room which, like its distant cousin, the converted coal furnace on Cory Street, roared and rattled and screeched at me like it knew I was terrified of it and it was enjoying it. I think it was laughing at me.
It was. I swear it. I’d bet a month’s pay on it.
Now, a week at the gym has passed. I’ve discovered that I can get to the gym and back by going around the boiler room. However, that means going from the Turner Building to the Fairbank Building and THEN around to the Annex building and ascending the sixty-six steps to the attic gym where my then elevated heart rate has some real use.
I’m getting a little better.
I can actually bypass the longer trip through the Fairbank Building IF and only IF I cut through a tiny corner of the boiler room. Tiny. It’s literally two steps and two doors. I could do it with my eyes closed if the evil boilers weren’t there. But they are and embarrassingly enough, I still have a hard time opening that first door and scurrying across the smallest part of the boiler room floor. If that second door is ever locked, I will have a heart attack and die right there. Of course, maybe that’s their sinister plan all along.
It’s not any better when I come back from the gym.
I can do it now. I can. I really can. I don’t like it, and I try not to look around. If the lights ever go off in there mid scurry, you can bet your boots I’ll be reversing course and doing my exercise by way of LA Fitness or Gold’s Gym or something.
It’s embarrassing to think that here I am a grown man still unnerved by pipes and furnaces. I mean seriously! What the hell? But for that heart-stopping moment when I crack the door and I dash two steps to the other door, I am not a grown man. I’m six and I’m in my new house on Cory Street.
And I have a new friend to make before it’s home.