Fire and Ice

image0A boy growing up found plenty to do in Bear River Country. If he ever ran out of work on the farm, which wasn’t often, he could fish or hunt. If it was warm he could swim in the river and if it was cold he could skate on the ice. But free time without chores was rare as he grew older.

image1Along with many other families, the Stacey children had a mile to walk to school every day. They dressed as warmly as they could, and started out early. When they returned about 4:00 in the afternoon, Bill went straight to work chopping wood before dark with just an axe and a wedge. Cold was no problem: an hour or two of chopping wood for his mother kept him warm even on those days when the temperature dipped to -30 or -40 F.

They didn’t really think about being miserable in the cold. Many times after supper and chores were finished, Bill and a brother or two would put on their coats and walk a mile to the center of town to play basketball in the recreation room of Ezra Putnam’s dance hall; then walk home again. “I never even thought about it,” Bill said. “It was just what we did. It would never have occurred to us to ask someone for a ride. We were used to doing things for ourselves.”

Bill had an unusual concern for his parents. His mother worked so hard, he worried about her. If he ever came home from school and found she had run out of wood that day, he felt terrible. “Better have too much than too little,” he would say, and for many days would chop more than enough every evening.

There were two wood stoves in most houses. The main stove was the big cooking stove in the kitchen, sometimes called a coal stove, though it burned wood as well as coal. Most families kept that stove going all day, and the children centered their day’s image2activities around its warmth. The other stove was a smaller Heaterola in the living room. It was not kept warm all the time, but always in the mornings it helped heat the back bedrooms and was kept warm on special days, like Christmas.

Fred and Christina Stacey planned their house so the kitchen was easily accessible with steps up from the main yard. That side of the house was the main access to parked vehicles and the barnyard. There was little reason to go into the back of the house. Everyone stayed in the big country kitchen on cold days. Half an hour before bedtime Fred or Bill went in the living room to light the Heaterola. By time to get ready for bed, the back of the house was, well, tolerable. At least it was warm next to the stove.

In the three bedrooms along the back wall of the house, it was slightly more comfortable to get dressed, say one’s prayers and jump into the frigid covers, staying as far from the cold feet of one’s siblings as possible. In later years Bill learned to go outside and run for a while so his feet would be warm in bed. The children were usually asleep long before the bedcovers warmed up. If one stayed awake long enough to feel warm, he would almost certainly hear the coyotes howling not many miles away in the mountains. That’s one of the memories that stays with a boy down through the years, and maybe he’d rather go to sleep cold.

image3During the night there was no fire in the house. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how cold it might have been at dawn. For the first fourteen years of his life, Bill remembered hearing his father get out of bed in the dark half an hour before he and his brothers were required to stir out of their warm beds. He could hear the door open and his father leave the house. Then in a few minutes the door would again open for Fred to bring in enough wood to make a loud thump on the kitchen floor. Bill’s ears automatically noted the stove door rattle open and the wood Bill had helped split and chop stacked inside. Then he would hear the door of the Heaterola open and wood stacked inside.

Curled up next to two brothers, he drifted in and out of sleep as he became aware of warmth curling up around the door and reaching into his brain. No more procrastinating; in a minute or two his father would be knocking on the door and asking if he had turned lazy or something. It was time to jump on the icy floor, pull on his clothes, and go outside into the wind and snow to help with chores. In an hour or so his younger brothers and his sister would go through the same routine and race for the kitchen stove where their mother would already be cooking mush and pouring milk. It was the same ritual every winter morning of their lives.

image4Then one day in 1934 something was different. Bill lay there in morning darkness listening for the outside door to open and close. He listened for the wood to be dropped on the kitchen floor. He waited to hear the stove doors squeak. But for some reason he wasn’t comfortable in his warm bed. All the time he was thinking, “My Dad won’t be alive much longer. He’s getting old: (about 45 that year) I’d better do something to help him before it’s too late.” It would not be the last time he was to think of the needs of someone else before his own.

That night as the family lingered at the Heaterola in the living room before running across the cold floor to their bedrooms, Bill said, “Dad, don’t worry about getting up early to start the fire in the morning. From now on I’m going to do it.” And he did. From then on, as long as Bill lived in that house before going on his mission at age twenty, Fred never again had to get up early to start the fire.

“Believe it or not,” said Bill in later years, “I was ten times happier when I thought of other people first. I was even happier to get out of bed on cold winter mornings.”

image5Kindness comes from within, a by-product of the Spirit. It keeps families together and relationships strong. Whenever someone feels the spirit of charity and thinks of the needs of another before his own, the world becomes a little warmer.

Even at forty degrees below zero.