A Home Lit By The Glow of Kerosene
FOR 8 1/2 years, when we lived in Whitney Valley in northeast Oregon, we had no electricity. We cooked on a wood-burning stove, winter and summer. We did get a two-burner propane stove to keep the house from heating up as much from cooking fires, but that wasn't until the last couple of years. We also got a propane refrigerator, so we wouldn't have to bring ice out from Sumpter or cut it from the river in winter and store it for summer use. But that also came only in the last two years.Always, we used kerosene lamps. We tried a propane lamp for a while. We appreciated the brighter light that it gave, but none of us liked the hissing sound it made and the heat it produced. When the orifice the propane came into the mantles through became gummed up, we didn't attempt to fix the lamp but went back to kerosene lamps. Kerosene lamps give limited light. In places where any of us sat and read, we set up two or even three lamps, and the light was adequate. Kerosene is expensive. It cost more than $3.00 a gallon. A friend, another user of kerosene lamps, said that the best grade of stove oil was the same thing. We found that it gave as much light and did not soot up the chimneys any faster, so we bought five gallons at a time, and paid about a dollar a gallon. Using kerosene lamps requires a routine. We checked the lamps, and if they were low on fuel, we filled them before dark. During the longer days of summer, the lamps needed filling every four to six days. In winter, they needed filling every two or three. Wicks needed trimming at unpredictable intervals, influenced by how carefully the flame was adjusted. Too high a flame produced oily smoke and burned the wick more rapidly. Allowing a lamp to run out of fuel charred the wick and meant a large part had to be trimmed off. Wicks of the right size for our lamps were hard to find, so we made them last as long as we could. A straight edge to the wick, with the corners slightly rounded, made the best flame. When we moved to Whitney, our daughters were two and four. We said, "Be very careful of the lamps. If one ever gets knocked over, it is almost sure to start a fire, and one that is hard to put out, because the fuel burns rapidly and soaks into wood or any fabric." They were very careful. An occasional reminder, "Keep the rough play away from the lamps to avoid knocking them over," was all that was necessary. After three or four years living there, my wife, Laura, and I were in the kitchen one bright and sunny day. Juniper and Amanda came at a full gallop from the back room into the kitchen. This was not unusual, but the urgency in their voices and the terror on their faces was. "We knocked over a lamp. We knocked over a kerosene lamp." I had to hold the laughter in until I could get them reassured. "It's okay. It won't burn. Calm down. All these years we've been telling you it'll start a fire if it gets knocked over, we never thought to say, if it's lighted. If the lamp isn't burning, there's nothing to set the fuel on fire. Everything's all right. We just have some smelly kerosene and a broken lamp chimney to clean up. No fire to fight." I hugged them both. m not laughing at you. I'm laughing at myself for never realizing I should tell you it won't catch fire if there isn't any flame to set it off. Come on. Let's see if we can get it cleaned up." Clean chimneys allow for the best light. We tried several methods and settled on washing them in hot, soapy water, rinsing in hot water, vigorously shaking excess water off and letting stand until dry. (Keep a tight grip on the chimney. I let one slip out of my hand as I flung it downward to shake the water from it, and it shattered spectacularly. Everyone in the family wondered momentarily if I had invented a new and expensive recreation.) I took care of the lamps most of the time, unless I was cutting hay or cutting firewood, any job that kept me going all day, and then Laura took care of them, except for trimming wicks, which she never learned how to do. A dear and subversive friend came to visit one day when Laura had decided to learn how to split wood and was about to begin. "No, don't do it," he said. "If you need to know how to split wood, you can learn then. If you learn how now, you'll always be doing it." Laura listened well, and I have rarely succeeded in transferring any of my duties to her. He was right, of course. She has always had plenty to do that fell to her as the only mother in the family, and the main teacher of home-schooled children. We left Whitney and moved to an electric house. The differences took some getting used to. Electric refrigerators are noisy. They send vibrations through the house. We had an electric furnace with a fan that was bolted to the floor joists, so its vibrations shook the house. I had trouble sleeping. I'd fall asleep, and the refrigerator would come on, and I'd snap awake. The refrigerator would go off, I'd drift into sleep, and the furnace would come on, and I'd awake with a jolt. Gradually, I adjusted and could sleep through the noises various machines made as they pursued their duties. But more than adjustment to the noises was required. Compared to the soft light of kerosene lamps, electric lights are harsh and invasive. There is no need to have light anywhere but right here on the desk where I'm working, but electric lights illuminate every corner of the room, leaving no softly shadowed areas of mystery. These houses we have lived in since Whitney are convenient, but they are too independent. They don't need me to maintain a thoughtful routine of buying five gallons of stove oil when I'm in town, to watch the lamp reservoirs chimneys, to cut and put away wood through the summer and fall, to feed the stoves, and to cut ice from the river in winter. I appreciate the conveniences, but I miss the feeling that everything necessary to our survival depends on keeping to an orderly, carefully thought-out routine. I miss sharing with the house the responsibility for light, warmth, and shelter on a very basic level.