May 30, 2024

The beast below the floorboards

Moving from the Deep South to the extreme North, as we did this past August, has afforded our family many new experiences. Some of these experiences – ones like seeing fallen autumn leaves that are so bright they look like drops of sunshine on the concrete – I eagerly endorse.

Other experiences – such as putting two children who have never even roller-skated, much less ice-skated, on the ice for the first time at hockey practice – I strongly discourage. Nevertheless, I’d like to share some of the more memorable lessons from our first three months in Maine.

The Furnace: It’s like a (very expensive) beast in your basement.

My husband, Dustin, was not here the first 21/2 months I lived in Maine. He was finishing his tour in Pensacola, Fla., where he teased he was getting a jump-start on acclimating his body to colder conditions by wearing short-sleeved shirts when it was a “chilly” 80 degrees outside. I came to our new duty station early to get the kids settled in their new school.

Luckily, the temperatures in August and September did not call for my indoctrination – sans capable and much more qualified husband – into the world of heating oil and furnaces. There were many times, in fact, that I was hot. But my kids had a much harder time adjusting. Especially Owen, 5, whose life force is PediaSure and Goldfish crackers, and therefore has very little body fat.

I received some criticism for writing in an earlier column that my children were cold when it was 75 degrees outside. Consider though that they had just moved from Florida in the middle of the summer, where the heat index can reach into the 100s. By mid-September, Owen was wearing a ski hat and gloves to bed at night.

Yet turning on the heater so soon, when most Mainers were still wearing flip-flops, seemed ridiculous.

Well, OK; the truth is that I was afraid to turn on the furnace. I have never had a basement before (“Having a Basement: It’s Cool … Literally,” coming soon in another installment of what I’ve learned), so I didn’t know what a furnace and the underbelly of vents, pinned to the ceiling like giant, steel spaghetti, really looks like. And I’ve never had an oil tank, either. Every time I ventured into the basement to fetch a load of laundry, I made a deal with the oil tank-furnace duo: “You stay in your corner and I’ll stay in mine. No one gets hurt.”

The oil tank, a big barrel of a thing, which looks like something people in my hometown in Virginia use to cook pigs, seemed very ominous. “You mean it’s full of oil, right there in my basement?” I asked my friend Stephanie. “Is that safe?”

But the furnace … Oh, the furnace! The furnace scared me the most. It was like a dragon coiled up in the middle of the basement, and I had no desire to wake the beast. Every military wife knows that appliances break while their husband is away on duty. I was not going to test the furnace’s ability to make my life miserable by malfunctioning while Dustin was gone.

Then, in October, the temperatures started to dip more. Even the Mainers were putting on coats. It was time to turn on the furnace. And Dustin still wasn’t home.

The first time I set the thermostat and the dragon woke up, it hissed and clanked and grumbled. An awful smell – dust mixed with mildew and … gas? – rose up from the floor vents. The wooden floorboards seemed to vibrate. I shut off the furnace and told the boys to put on another layer of clothes.

But it was getting cold at night.

I had a talk with the dragon, I mean, furnace: “Look, you stay in your neck of the woods, and I’ll stay in mine. Just give us some heat. And try not to be so angry, would you?”

One month later, I’ve made peace with the furnace and all of its racket. I’ve even grown quite fond of it. Jet noise may be the sound of freedom, but furnace-clanking is the sound of warmth. I even fixed a broken vent all by myself. No, I’m not afraid of the beast in the basement anymore. In fact, I hardly notice it anymore.

And then I got our first bill.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying… ,” is available at bookstores. Sarah may be reached at

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