The second month of the year is so ugly, its no accident that they only gave it 28 days with which to punish us.
The caretaker was sitting on a stool in the confines of his chilly kitchen with the burners on his cast iron stove fired up to provide almost enough heat to chase the frigid dampness out of the air. On that cold mid-February morning it was like walking into a meat locker, minus the meat.
Mighty slim pickings here today kid. A cup of hot tea is the best I can offer, as I spent my last dollar at The Sportsmans Caf last night.
The long staircase leading from Monty Street to the base of the shore was steep and slippery, with frost accumulating on the stair threads from the heavy frost. We were both thinking about the old vets who would be fearfully hanging onto the hand rail for dear life. One spill and it would be the hospital or a long confinement in the Veterans Home in Bristol.
I pulled the ragged collar of my hand-me-down Mackinaw up around my neck and picked up the coal collard and filled it with ashes from the upstairs woodstove. A quick look around, including a search behind the big rocker, determined that there was not a splinter of wood for a warming fire to be had.
I was scattering ashes on the stairs when I heard the booming voice from the top platform calling out. It was Nick with a big shovel and a few bags of cement sand. That man always seemed to be there when we needed him.
Hey kid, come on up and grab the box of coffee and grilled Danish. I hope there arent any more than four of you down there.
Danish and coffee was a rare treat and, despite the slippery steps, I took them two at a time to get the caretaker some much-needed sustenance. Nick sanded the stairs and joined us.
The old man took our now tepid coffee and poured it into a sauce pan and warmed it for us while he toasted the big mans pastry to insure he had a hot meal.
Only three of us here. Should we share the fourth?
I reminded them that Jimmy was one of the first vets to make it out on bad days and he was losing weight from his illness and the weak tea and toast breakfasts that were occasionally his main meal of the day. They agreed and within 10 minutes I looked out the window and watched him struggling down the stairs. I got to him before he reached the first landing and was greeted with a wide grin.
Taking care of the old man, are you? I hope there is someone to look after you when you get to be my age.
I firmly believed that with my family health history I would be lucky to make it to the age of 50.
Frigid February was a month where most of our energy was spent attempting to keep warm.
With a few other boat houses situated on the nearby shore, there was fierce competition for firewood in the form of driftwood and the nearby Clarksons boat house used all of their scrap wood and shavings to keep their carpenters, glue and paint dry.
I look back on those basic comforts that we now take for granted and thank God for the many indulgences he bestowed on my family and friends.
I can recall the very early days in our Lindsey Street apartment when we heated it with a big coal stove. The Wilson coal company truck would park alongside the curbing and the driver would open the single window leading to our coal bin in the cellar. That storage space was given to my father by the generous landlady who bought her fancy shoes from him and made our life that much easier.
The coal truck operator hooked up the metal chute to the back of his tailgate and ran it through the window and into the cellar. Once that was set up, he opened a lever allowing coal to spill out of the truck, into the chute and into our wooden coal bin. My mother once found me watching this mechanical marvel up close and personal in our cellar, where I was covered from head to toe in coal dust. She rescued me and poured a warm bath to scrub the dust off and I think I blew my nose a dozen times before it ceased soiling the Kleenex with coal dust.
The apartments that did not have a cellar window had their coal bins filled manually by the driver, who would fill large baskets of coal, hoist them up on his back and walk around the house to the rear cellar entry and dump the coal in their bins. That was extremely hard labor.
From that grimy coal bin, we graduated to a 50-gallon drum that held kerosene for the modern Florence heater that now warmed our living quarters. There were two, three-gallon tanks that held the fuel and once that stove was set up in our living quarters the smell of kerosene was tenacious. Whenever that big tank would run low, I would take one of the empty containers and walk two blocks to Potvins gas station to have it filled with fuel.
I can recall paying 11 cents a gallon or 13 cents for a full three-gallon tank. On occasion I would use my brothers wagon, a gift from a relative, to transport the cans to and from the service station. Occasionally, when I was feeling stronger than I actually was, I carried the can a painful 30 to 40 yards at a time, resting before I found the strength to pick it up again.
If Hank McGillick saw me struggling he would heft the can and walk it to my house, where he was usually rewarded with a raisin square or some fresh baked goods from my mothers kitchen.
I think back on that frigid morning in the boathouse kitchen sipping coffee and eating Danish pastry and wondering where the wood to fuel the stove would come from. I recall that was the week of extreme high tides and strong northwest winds.
I asked the caretaker if we could get the plywood skiff overturned and in the water and he shot me a quizzical glance. We were on the cusp of a huge moon tide that lifted and floated much of the driftwood that had been washed way up on the shores during the heavy southeaster of a few weeks ago and I was gambling that the northwest wind and high tides might have blown some of that wood into the cove on the south side of the Brightman Street Bridge and on the rocky shore between the Coca Cola plant and the Naval Reserve headquarters.
The plywood skiff was selected because it would not leak like the oak and cedar skiff, which required they be left in the water to swell and prevent leakage. Both the caretaker and Nick thought it was too cold and dangerous to launch a skiff. Even though it was flat calm the water temperature was so cold that if I wet my hands I would be susceptible to frost bite.
On this short voyage I did not have to cross the river and promised I would remain close to the shore side in very shallow water. They finally agreed and pushed me off on the south side of the beach. I bucked the tide for almost 200 yards until I rowed into the lee of the Naval pier, where I spotted plenty of wood strewn all over the beach. I packed all the pieces I could safely carry in the bottom of the skiff and along both sides of my center seat.
When I looked up I saw Nick standing on the opposite pier with a huge tree limb draped over his shoulder.
Get going. We have more than enough wood and be sure to land the skiff on the sand on the south side of the building.
I could hear Nick and the caretaker on the two-man buck saw making short work of Nicks log while I sat on the kitchen counter with a heavy green wool blanket draped over my shoulders.
Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in a big chair within eyelash-singeing distance of the wood stove pumping out BTUs and driving the cold from the building. While we were enjoying the heat and our triumph over nature, at least for that time being, my youthful mind was planning ahead, wondering where our next supply of wood would come from. There was a forest full of dead trees not far away on the Somerset shore, but it was too far away to cart it out of the woods and we didnt have access to a pickup truck or a chain saw.
Somehow we managed to keep warm.
Today our home has a modern heating system but its our wood stove we enjoy the most.
They say that wood heats you twice, once when you cut it and then when you burn it. Both are correct but its the stove and the need to keep it fed that keeps me active during the winter months when it might be easier to stay indoors and crank up the thermostat and remain idle.
Friends and readers Wally S. and John L. forwarded me a photo of a postcard owned by Fall River photographer, George H Petrin. It reveals the Weetamoe yacht club on or about 1906. It was my first glimpse of a photo taken from the south, showing the shoreline and the private boat sheds where owners stored their boats. The shores of the Taunton river are littered with the same driftwood I used for my campfires but today there is no one around to burn it.
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