Discover more from An Irritable Métis
A Christmas story
I woke up the other morning and it seemed the house was colder than usual. I experienced a brief moment of panic. I went to the thermostat and the temperature was indeed about six degrees lower than usual, so I tapped the buttons to boost it a little and waited for the furnace to turn on. It took forever but finally, after a bunch of grumbling and muttering and banging and clanging—mostly by the furnace—there it was, blessed warm air. Just to be certain, I went to the kitchen stove and turned on one of the burners; the lively blue flame whooshed cheerily to life. I breathed a sigh of relief. We aren’t out … yet.
Running out of propane this time of year remains an anxiety of mine, and for good reason. To explain, since this is the holiday season and the following is something of a joyful-overcome-the-hardships-style Christmas tale (*cough*), I’ve decided this week to share the essay “My Life in Propane” that appears in my first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large. Hopefully you’ll find some levity you don’t usually expect around here….
My Life in Propane
EARLY IN MY teens I received a hot air popcorn maker as a Christmas gift. This gift arrived in the midst of my infatuation with the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which my friends and I burned hours and hours playing. Without a lot of disposable income and my home miles away from any convenience store, popcorn was a favorite snack. The ingredients were cheap and it was easy to make on the fly. Consequently, the fuel powering us through marathon sessions of imaginary adventure was typically a paper grocery sack (or three) full of popcorn and a near limitless supply of Kool-Aid. Weekend subsistence via butter, salt, and sugar.
Right away that popcorn maker took on a second, equally critical role: emergency heat source.
For much of my youth my family home was a single-wide trailer with a built-on addition that nearly doubled its size. It sounds rough by today’s standards, especially for a family of five — as we were when my folks bought the place — but it was gorgeous. Ten acres of pasture in the mountains with Six Mile Creek running behind the house, a large beautiful yard and garden, and thousands of acres of public land accessible right from the driveway. Walking, running, and horseback riding in spring and summer, and cross-country skis and snowmobiles in the winter. It was a perfect place to run amok with an unfettered imagination. We had a rotating menagerie of pets, farm and 4-H animals as well. There were always dogs and cats, but at any time there might also be goats, chickens, peacocks, maybe a couple cows, a steer, three or four pigs, and even a horse or two. Looking back, it was a magical way to grow up.
It got cold in the winter. For heat we had a wood stove in the living room. It was cozy and warm with logs blazing away, and we often had to keep the sliding door open a crack. The trek down the hallway to my room at the far opposite end of the house was a different story. When it got exceptionally cold, the linoleum floor of the hallway would make cracking noises as I walked down it, like the surface of a frozen lake, and once in my bedroom I could see my breath in big clouds of vapor. The windows would ice over, and inside my closet the walls would cake with frost.
Sitting bundled up at a card table playing D&D through January and February, my friends and I learned that the popcorn popper would warm the room quickly if we turned it on for just a couple minutes. I would fire it up, then we would take turns rubbing our hands under the plastic hood the air blew out of, like transients at a burn barrel, then shut it down and resume our game. It wasn’t that big of a deal for dedicated nerds like us.
The house had a propane furnace, but my dad would only allow it at night during the coldest stretches of winter. He was paranoid about it catching fire and burning the house down, so he was pretty resolute in limiting its use. When he did turn it on, my gratitude was unmeasurable. The sound and the smell of the air being forced through the grates in the floor of my room would wake me up in the middle of the night, and the sensation was luxurious as the breath of any goddess from the books of mythology I’d collected, blowing over my body like a warm, soothing blanket.
That propane goddess was a bringer of life when it came to the furnace, but she was one of destruction as well. All too often the propane ran out, and that meant no hot water. There was no fury in hell like that which my sisters could unleash if they took to the bathroom in the dark, early morning before school and there was no hot water for the shower. There was only a thin wall separating my room from the bathroom, and when the hissing and cursing erupted, I knew better than to emerge from my lair until footsteps thundered away down the hall.
It wasn’t an infrequent occurrence either. We had a large propane tank out near the driveway, but to my memory it was rare that we ever took delivery to it. Sometimes, yes, but all too often my dad would just take the little five-gallon tank, like what we use today for propane grills, and get that filled for use with the house. Those tanks didn’t last all that long (though they must have lasted longer than you might think, or maybe Dad was a master at rotating bottles in and out, because as I reflect now we didn’t run out all that often given the small source for gas), so it was something, especially in winter, that was always on my mind. There was plenty of grumbling about the stupid propane and my dad’s methods and everything associated with it among me and my siblings too, but never within ear shot of the old man.
Fast forward to me moving out on my own and learning about electric heat, or natural gas heat that arrived through pipes, or some other thing akin to sorcery which required no bulbous eyesore or metal tube surrounded by weeds all but forgotten in the backyard. Apartments, a house or two, all with warmth and comfort just a twist of the thermostat away with no worry of it ever running out so long as the bill was paid on time (which was, a time or two, a dicey situation of its own). No makeshift heaters, no repurposing of kitchen appliances to keep the blood circulating. It was a revelation of adulthood.
Until about four years ago. The house my wife and I live in now is a manufactured home in a little subdivision about halfway between Missoula and my old stomping grounds in Frenchtown. In our backyard is a 500 gallon propane tank. We have a propane stove and a propane furnace. It shouldn’t be a big deal because I’ve been an adult for decades now. I’m half a century old, for crying out loud. Yet if you thought it wouldn’t be a problem, you’d be wrong.
We bought the place in February of a mild winter and were all moved in by March. The propane tank was over half full, and that lasted all the way into the fall. I had a couple hundred gallons delivered in October, or maybe November, I don’t really remember. Some cold weather hit and lingered, but we stayed nice and snug. I took a couple work trips, which contributed to me forgetting to check the gauge on the propane tank. That’s the distraction which gets the blame, at least.
Christmas morning I got up and it was 50° in the house. I didn’t understand how that was possible. The thermostat was set to allow a temperature no lower than 60° overnight and it had worked perfectly all fall and winter. Was something broken? The furnace would start up to run but wouldn’t fire. After trying and checking several settings I didn’t really understand, I put my boots on and trudged out through the snow to the propane tank. The gauge was at zero. The gigantic thing was empty. When I closed the metal cap that protected the gauges and valves, it set off a clanging echo from inside that rang like a holiday bell. The first Christmas in the new house, and I had to go inside and inform my wife, two cats, three Jack Russell terriers and a German shepherd/golden retriever that we were going to have to suck it up. The goddess of warmth and succor had abandoned us, like some kind of Santa groupie, to slip away in the night. No heat, no cooking. About the only thing we could do was brew coffee and warm cinnamon rolls in the microwave.
In my defense, the entire propane market is a pain in the ass. It’s a commodity. It’s another nefarious scheme perpetrated by The Man to keep common folk down. Propane is traded on a world market, and prices fluctuate, sometimes wildly. Prices will typically skyrocket when we need propane the most, like in the middle of winter, or during a modest family’s feast-less Christmas holiday. Buying it in the cold months involves paying the “poor tax”, i.e. that additional high rate that you only face when you don’t really have money in the first place. If you’re flush, you fill the tank in the summer when prices are low, then just kind of coast through the winter. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to spend that $800 - $1000 in the middle of summer, even if it will save you at least that much in the long run. I admit my failures in propane management are more a result of a certain blindness when it comes to domestic realities than to bad money management, but still, I don’t see how some folks with fewer resources manage to get by. It’s got to be rough.
We survived that first year. Christmas wasn’t a complete loss. I mean, coffee and cinnamon rolls, right? I drove up to my parents’ place and borrowed a couple space heaters. We huddled around them in blankets and sang Christmas carols. That’s actually a lie, I don’t remember what we did to be honest with you. I just know we got through it, and the next day we received an emergency delivery of propane (with a hefty emergency price tag added on to accompany it, more poor tax, or stupid tax, whichever, ho ho ho). I haven’t run out of propane since, though a couple times I swear we’ve gotten deliveries just as the tank was gasping its last desperate, coughing fumes into the wavering, dying flame of our pilot light.
I do my best to stay on top of it.
But it makes me crazy too.
Thanks for reading. Just so you know, the gauge on my tank is, as of yesterday, just under 50%.
Speaking of Holidays
Give the gift of Irritability! Take some of the burden off ‘ole Santa….
You can also get One-Sentence Journal, still going strong more than three years later, HERE.
And the new one, Descended from a Travel-worn Satchel HERE.
Both books make wonderful gifts.
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