Tuesday, October 15, 2013
They went off just after 6 am, undulating wails continuing for three minutes or so, then stopping for a minute or two before recommencing. It was still dark, and we lifted our heads off the bed to see if we could tell which fire station it came from. Then we waited to see if the big pickups from up the hill would blast past the house, their flashing blue volunteer lights on the dashboard. That would have meant Stone Ridge, or Kripplebush. When that happens you can’t help it; you start to worry that it’s the house of someone you know.
Of course it’s unlikely. We don’t know people who smoke in bed, or fall asleep on the couch with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and those are the most common causes of fire around here, especially at that hour. The coal smolders in the mattress or cushion, until the acrid smoke awakens someone, or the alarm clock sounds and someone rolls over to turn it off and sees the tendrils of flame around the bedroom door.
It’s the late-day sirens that should concern us. Then it’s brush fires that catch the edge of a woodlot, or move through the dried cornstalks of the neighboring field. Or it’s an electrical fire, a snapping arc unheard in the noise of the floor sander or the table saw that overloaded the antiquated knob-and-tube wiring in the ceiling or walls, the insulation long rotted off the wires set too close together back some eighty years or so ago. Most everyone with an old house has some knob-and-tube somewhere, even if the electrical has been upgraded. The weekenders, probably not: they had everything ripped out before they moved in, at the recommendation of a local contractor, maybe Brian, or Clint, or Kurt, or Will, who knew these clients could pay whatever it took for absolute peace of mind, and pitched the job accordingly.
The rest of us live in houses where the electrical has been upgraded haphazardly. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, BX cable came in; it was great for snaking through and around old plaster-and-lathe walls, with its flexible metal outer shield, also rodent-proof. Later materials were safer, but not so resilient or adaptable to the complexities of old houses built in stages by country people without much money but long stretches of time available for home handiwork.
Still, there are places where it’s just about impossible to replace the wiring. In the lofts that were once attics, long ago converted to bedrooms with bunk beds for children too many for the house, who grew up and left, moving to the cities or the suburbs, where there was work and possibility. In the crawl spaces under the kitchens that were built ramshackle atop the clay soil and, after they’d done their initial settling, hunkered down and grasped the main house firmly, holding on more tightly with every coat of new paint on the outside, the work done by the owner or by a neighbor free to do chore-work between seasons, painters who would stop and get a hammer and nails to tidy up where things had separated, or who might add a length of 1x2 furring to close up the draft coming from the crack between parts of the house.
Even a skinny electrician, well-paid with weekender dollars, isn't eager to take on a crawl-space job. First you have to check for mice, but also for possums and groundhogs and skunks who have taken up housing down there where it’s warmer and close to the compost heap or the apple barrels. Then there are the spiders; grown men who wouldn’t think twice about brushing a hornet off their arm will pause before confronting the pale-white spiders who live in that eternal darkness beneath the hum and clatter of domestic life. Then there’s the standing water that accumulates, particular after a rainy fall or spring. It’s not much—not enough to justify a sump pump or some complicated drainage plan, but when you are inching along on your back, with your toolbelt turned around and a spool of electrical wire between your knees, it’s not pleasant to feel the water seeping into your hair.
It’s not that regular electricians charge too much for this work. We’re talking about the ones who know you and have been out before to fix the strange little blackout that hit a ceiling fixture in the living room, an outlet in the hall, and the front door lamp, the crazy breaks that happen when the replacement wiring was done by expediency and not logic, wiring probably done by their father or uncle when they owned the business some decades ago. No, they won’t even give you a price. It’d be too much to do that stretch, they tell you. It’s not worth it to you; as importantly, it’s not worth it to them. I refuse to charge you what it would cost to do it, they tell you.
So that little stretch of knob-and-tube stays there. More than likely, they disconnect it, and they run channel along the walls, low and close to the baseboard, or down where the baseboard meets the floor, to power the outlets and the lights that once depended on that wiring down there. Most of us have that sort of wiring interspersed throughout the house—along the ceiling of the dining room, down from the upstairs hall light to the bottom of the stairs, or leading to the outside light that goes on when guests from out of town are coming in after dark and might run into the propane tank or just keep driving down into the drainage swale, thinking they’re still in the driveway when they’re definitely not.
But of course you don’t know who did the work for the previous owner, even if you’ve had the house for fifty years. Maybe that owner himself, Mr. Pratt, or Mr. DeGraw, did the work, and he left the wiring hot while he was laying in the new channel, so as to have power continuously, especially as he was doing that work between chores and jobs that called him away, and that wire went to the toaster or the floor furnace or some other indispensable part of everyday life. There are back rooms of houses around here, rumpus rooms and tool rooms and tack rooms and junk rooms, where the wiring’s still left, half-done, from 1953, the conduit and the outlet boxes piled in the corner, awaiting the attentions of a man dead for decades or living, barely living, in the county nursing home up in Kingston, the oxygen tank strapped to the wheelchair and the television eternally blaring, a premonition of purgatory, or hell.
Even if it’s finished, there’s always the chance that he forgot to cut off power to the old line, or simply undid the connections at the electrical box, where some later owner, or some electrician called in for another problem, reconnected it to see if that was the quick fix to what might otherwise be a long and tedious search for the real cause.
Hornets build nests. Groundhogs dig past the weak spot in the foundation and, if they’re confronted by a rotted piece of wire dangling across their next venture, they might gnaw it, or maybe just push it aside—push it enough so that, when the next rains come, and the crawl space takes on a little water, the puddle reconnects hot and ground, and the wiring sparks, again and again, against the three-hundred-year-old beam, softened by dry rot or carpenter ants, ripe as tinder for the flicker and the wisp of smoke.
Now’s the season when these things happen. Now, when the first frost is hinted in the silver sheen of the topcoating on the haygrass back toward the creek. Now, when the dry leaves rustle as the bear comes in from the woodlot to steal the windfall apples beneath the tree furthest from the house. Now, when you look up from the firewood splitter to watch the phalanx of geese in their call-and-response arc across the grey sky. Now, when the groundhog moves from his summer home in the cool darkness beneath the unheated barn, and seeks a place where the heat of human comfort leaks down through the wideboards of the kitchen floor. Now, when the mice begin to look for every possible scavenge to insulate their winter nests. Now, when the sirens wail at 6:08, as the sky’s just showing light, and we raise our heads and try to be sure just which station it’s coming from, secretly saying: it’s not us, I know that. I hope it’s not Harry, with the band saw set up in the dining room of the old farm. I hope it’s not Patrick and Cindy in that new house they’ve rented, plugging things into unfamiliar sockets. I hope it’s not Jake. I hope it’s not Ike. I hope. I hope.
Those whispered secrets travel along the circuits of community. They, too, are fragile. Some are old, and frayed. Some are new and untested. Most of them are so ingrained in the everyday life around here that you don’t even know they’re there until the siren sounds and you bring them to mind, and heart, and prayer.