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Quest for Fire

West Hill Bike Shop

I SAW A LAND DEED that showed that a relative of mine, also named James Langley, purchased land in Durham, New Hampshire about the time the Pilgrims were settling New England. But neither my Yankee heritage nor the fact that I was born in New England and lived there for twenty-nine years prepared me for the winter of 1982 in Putney, Vermont, where I lived and worked at the time.

For three weeks, the thermometer was pegged at seventeen degrees below zero, or colder. And at month’s end we received a $360 heating bill!

I’m sure any New Englander, or any intelligent person anyway, would brace himself against the elements and don Canadian felt-lined boots, a thick wool cap, polypro undies and a Michelin-man down suit. But not me. I had a mental block. I hated winter because it meant I couldn’t ride my bike outdoors except for an occasional short spin, if the temps rose and roads cleared. So, in a futile rebellious gesture toward Mother Nature, I dressed for spring-like weather. Even if the big thaw wouldn’t come any sooner, I at least felt summery, my sneakers, sweatshirt and jeans reminding me of balmy days and dry blacktop.

Unfortunately, at the time, I worked at a great bike and ski shop in Putney, called West Hill Shop. Though the business is a veritable institution on the east coast to this day, it hardly resembled modern retail establishments in my time there. For example, there was no bathroom or even running water. If you had to go, you trotted next door and used the neighbor’s facilities, remembering to put the “back in a minute” sign up on the door if you were working alone that day.

Actually, the shop was more shed-like than building like. The structure stood on short pilings, so air passed right beneath the floor. The windows were single-pane and the walls simple wood. This rudimentary construction gave West Hill Shop a class all its own but some of the worst insulation of any shelter (almost a misnomer) I’ve spent time in. In the summer, it was blazing hot inside. In the winter, the place was a walk-in freezer, until you got the wood stove cranked up.

I was usually the first person to arrive in the mornings. Consequently, I’d experience West Hill at its coldest. Forget answering the phone! Putting that frozen receiver against my ear was torture. And I’d never pick up tools because they were too painful to handle.

Anyway, those things could wait, because the most important job every morning was lighting the big sheet-metal stove in the center of the shop. We had a foolproof system. I’d swing the stove lid aside, insert several logs, liberally drench them with kerosene, drop in a match, and in minutes, I could start backing away from the stove and getting some work done without risking frostbite.

You get spoiled by a system like this. So, one morning that winter, I was surprised to find the kerosene can empty. I considered removing the wood, chopping some kindling and trying a boy-scout fire build, but then was too impatient, and cold, to follow through. No, I figured, there’s gotta be something flammable in that shed that’ll do the trick fast.

With just a little searching, I found another metal container filled with some stinky fluid standing near the snowmobile. I decided to try it.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I realized that if it was gasoline in that container, I’d be taking a serious risk dousing the logs with it, and tossing in a match. But, I only thought about that for a minute or so and decided it was worth the chance. It was either that or freeze. I remembered something about flammable liquids and sealed containers, so I decided to open the stove’s lid half way. I then liberally wet the logs, stood back, lit a match and tossed it at the stove. It went out. I tried again.

The second match never made it into the stove. Instead, it was vaporized by the explosion it set off when it ignited the gas fumes. The impact knocked me down, and made a deafening “B-O-O-M!” I was lucky to have been blown backwards because the blast shot the twenty-five-pound cast-iron stove lid straight up. It slammed into the ceiling leaving a deep dent and then fell hard just a few feet from me.

Mesmerized, I lay there and watched a thick black smoke cloud pour out of the stove, then spread and contaminate all our new ski clothing. I noticed that the stove, which used to have straight sides, now looked pregnant, all bulged out as if something inside had tried to punch its way out. Realizing the danger had passed, I got up and went over to take a look and discovered to my disgust that the stove was stone cold, no sign of fire at all!

Now, not only did I have to open every door and window in the shop to let the smoke out; and take each piece of clothing outside to fumigate it; and do some major body work on the stove; I also had to remove all the wood from the stove and start the fire from scratch, with newspaper and kindling.


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