Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Big Boom Below

 Not too long ago, I came across one of those links on Facebook that was posted by a group with a name like "Remember the 50s," "Things That Used to Be," or "You Know You're Old When..." Pictured there was a floor furnace, with a caption that read, "Remember these?" How could I forget?

For those of us of a certain age who grew up in parts of the country where gas heat was the norm, the floor furnace was a standard feature of many post-WWII homes. It consisted of a rectangular grille which sat level with the floor and a compartmentalized gas burner structure beneath the floor. In Memphis, where I grew up, most people's houses had foundations, not basements, and thus the inner workings sat between the floor above and the bare ground below. A small window atop one of the compartments provided a view of the pilot light below. The only way to access all the floor furnace innards was by crawling under the house, which of course chanced encounters with all kinds of insects and other beasts. Such endeavors were always best left to the professionals. The whole thing always looked a little dodgy to me, but it did keep the house warm.

One unique feature of floor furnaces was that due to expansion and contraction of the gas compartment, they would periodically produce noise. For the most part, we adapted to the sound such that it became part of the collective creaks and groans of the house, but every now and then, if the furnace experienced major metal motility, it would emit a large and very loud boom. It was always necessary to warn first-time visitors about the boom, and if we didn't, we'd often find them emerging from the guest bedroom in a panic, fearing that Nikita Khruschev was about to come to blows with Homeboy Elvis. It was unsettling, to say the least.

A considerable amount of focused heat emanated from the floor furnace, such that standing on its grates with thin house shoes, or worse, barefoot, was taking a calculated risk. On several occasions, a guest would hear the loud boom, then flee in their nightclothes, stepping on the furnace along the way, certain that they had, as both Catholics and Presbyterians would say in their Apostle's Creed, "descended into hell" within what appeared to be a cozy little 1949 house. It could inject a fair amount of anxiety into someone's visit, but after that first night, it generally became a source of amusement to all.

Nowadays, heat comes from all over the place. Our current HVAC system features all kinds of blinking LED lights to let you know that it has everything under control. The house stays warm, and no one ever burns their feet, so there's that. But sometimes late at night, when I awaken at 3:15 AM, I wonder -- if both Khruschev and Elvis have passed on, are we really out of the woods?