By Mary Lowengard
ONE MEMORABLE YEAR, spring cleaning at my Bucknoll cottage predated spring by several months. This was unusual, since typically I buzzed around town in my down jacket until June, allowing me to dilly-dally with these seasonal cleaning chores.
It was early February in this banner year when I detected the familiar, pungent odor of Bucknoll hardwood ablaze in my living room fireplace.
Problem was, I was in my basement.
He Didn’t Start the Fire
The cottage already had bad fire juju, having burned to the ground in its first incarnation. My pyroparanoia had been further sparked the previous Thanksgiving. A tiny comet whizz-banged out of the firebox, escaping from the open-topped firescreen and onto a fireside armchair. I happened to walk into the room as my nephew was standing over the chair, gently dripping water from a glass onto it.
I took the glass from him, and dumped its entire contents on the danger zone. I walked immediately to my computer to put a note on the Bucknoll neighborhood party line (a/k/a the Nextdoor blog) to ask if any of my kind neighbors had an extra firescreen they might lend or gift me. Sure, I could have popped over to Lowe’s, likely open for just this sort of errand on Thanksgiving Day, but I preferred the shabby chic of a gently used screen. My prayers were answered. Thanks, Rosemary and Davis!
The fire-smell-in-my-basement dilemma was exactly the kind of situation where apartment living has advantages. In Bucknoll, there wasn’t a super to call. So instead, I invited my BFF (Bucknoll Friend Forever) Danielle to dinner and lured her into the cellar to take a sniff. Upstairs, her husband, Gene, tended to the fire (in the fireplace) and our martinis.
Dani inhaled yogically and advised: “Check the cleanout.” Huh?
I wasn’t sure what a cleanout was (except as it pertained to a quinquennial procedure prophylactically advised for individuals of a certain age). Soon enough, thanks to Professor Google, I learned that Dani was referring to that two-foot-square cast-iron door on the western outside basement wall, about three inches above floor level just behind the furnace. What evil lurked behind the door? I knew what lurked above it: the fireplace.
Access would require squeezing between the furnace and the wall. A literal example of the rock and the hard place.
I realized suddenly why the cute ash-bin-and-shovel set I’d purchased on a Lowe’s binge early in my Bucknoll days had never been needed. The ash I should have been shoveling into it was instead falling through a grate at the back of the fireplace, down a chute into the basement where it awaited me behind that cast-iron door. I had once or twice wondered about the ashes but why trouble trouble?
The day I closed on my cottage, the about-to-be-former owners led me on a detailed walk-through. I followed them around the house, notebook in hand, puppy-eyed as I watched them demonstrate how to wiggle a straightened-out paperclip into clogged window weep holes, and noting which circuit breaker, if left on while I was not in residence, was guaranteed to double my monthly Penn Power & Light bill.
For the record, “cleanout” was never mentioned. Nor was it even murmured by the fireplace engineer (a/k/a chimney sweep) who swung by after I closed (allegedly; another story) on the cottage and, for $703, taught me how to “warm the flue” (very helpful) and did something with or about the creosote. I have yet to figure out if creosote is good or bad for humans and other living things.
Between the Rock and a Hard Place
Playing with fire, metaphorically speaking, is a favorite pastime of mine, but messing around with the real deal has little appeal.
I had two options. Cease and desist building fires, which constituted 98 percent of my raison d’être for weekending at the cottage during the nine (sometimes 10) months of winter. Or, figure out this cleanout thing, which seemed to require the functional opposite of a chimney sweep. Chimney sweeping starts at the top and works down; here I would be taking a bottom-up approach. Chimney sweeps are known to be small and stocky. I’m neither. Perfect.
So, after martinis, dinner, Scrabble and see-you-tomorrows to Dani and Gene, I sat down to watch numerous YouTube videos to educate myself on the task at hand. No wonder these were averaging 14,000 views. The topic is riveting. With so many people yearning to clean out their cleanouts, how difficult could it be?
How to Clean Out a Cleanout
I prepared to clean out my cleanout by assembling a supply of quality shopping bags from Uniqlo, the Container Store and H&M. I took the baby shovel from my UniFlame Olde World Iron Finish Ash Bin With Lid Set and entered the basement. I crouched on the floor in front of the cleanout. I unlatched the cast-iron door very cautiously, as instructed. The space was perfectly sized to cook a personal-pan pizza, I noted. Except it was solidly packed with ash.
I dug in. This would be a dirty job, but someone had to do it. And I was the only one available to do it for free.
My mind wandered. With Chim-Chim Cher-ee as my earworm, I wondered: What if I came upon a half-incinerated bone fragment? Isn’t this how diamonds are made? What exactly are the long-term effects of inhaling decades-old ash?
When I topped up my fifth bag of ash, I decided it was time for a break. I stood up, clocking my bean on the duct above. I shook the stars out of my head and went in search of the gardening gloves that would have been an even better idea two hours earlier. And more bags, just in case.
Ashes to Ashes and More Ashes
By the sixth bag (H&M super-size), I seemed to be nearing the end. But then, I reached up the chute with the shovel and hit a mass of impacted ash about two feet up. I stabbed at it. Another two bags of ash fell to the base of the cleanout.
Question: How much ash could there possibly be?
Answer: Probably 64 years’ worth of (on average) three weekend winter fires. At a pound of ash per fire, that’s almost 200 pounds.
Once I cleared this second coming of ash, I needed a better instrument to reach skyward. Trailing a cloud of dust through the cottage, like Charlie Brown’s pal Pig Pen, I gathered an arsenal. I attempted to probe the upward depths with both ends of a long-handled toilet brush (too short), a deer-fence stake (too long to fit in the opening) and a decommissioned curtain rod (too wobbly).
A chrome towel bar did the trick, liberating another foot of ash. But soon it too proved too short. Desperation seized me. I’d hit rock bottom. Emotionally speaking, that is.
The Perfect Solution
The perfect solution turned out to be a two-foot adjustable shower-curtain rod.
I poked, ash fell, I shoveled. I twisted to elongate the rod and poked again. Lather, rinse, repeat. This continued for another hour or so. I extended the shower-curtain-rod-slash-impacted-ash-breaker-upper up the chute five feet. I was reaching the end of my rope and the shower-curtain rod the end of its extendable length. I made one mighty upward stab and the final cubic foot of ash descended with a mighty thump. Far above, daylight!
What the hey to do with 25 bags of ash?
So now, I had a clean cleanout and 25 bags of vintage ash. My next challenge: what the hey to do with it? Sprinkle it, like fairy dust, on all the hydrangeas in Bucknoll and the surrounding communities? Use it to clear all the pond algae between Boston and Boise? Substitute for the sand in a gazillion three-minute egg timers?
Ash Wednesday was a few days away—might the archdioceses of Pennsylvania and neighboring states like Ohio be interested?
What about the dumpster still sitting in front of the cottage my pal Buzz was still renovating? Would he even notice if I sneaked a few (well, two dozen and then some) bags into his dumpster? Yeah, probably.
In the end, I divided to conquer. I squeezed half the bags into my two large garbage cans. I returned to nature the contents of four bags, strewing them in the gulley behind my cottage. And the balance I disposed of hither and yon.
Then, I turned my attention to my patent application for the “Genuine Bucknoll Ash Decompactor®,” which, between cleanouts, doubles as a shower-curtain rod. And made a mental note to check the cleanout henceforth annually. Because, did I ever want to go through this again?
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. She is grateful to KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. To start at the beginning, click here. To read them all, click on either tag under the headline.