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M Stevens-David

The Kerosene Can
By Martha Stevens-David
May 13, 2014 - 12:17:20 AM

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Mother swore as she hit her thumb on the side of the iron grate of our old kerosene cook stove that she was cleaning. She wiped her hands on her apron and examined her thumb more closely. "It hurts like hell but it's too far from tha heart to kill me!" she said to the room at large and to no one in particular and continued polishing the old stove.

The ancient Glenwood range held a prominent place in our kitchen and as the old saying goes, "It was the heart of our home." It stood in the far corner in the same place where dad had placed it when we'd moved into the house nearly twenty years ago. Old Walter McCormick had given it to mother when he'd broken up housekeeping after his wife died and it was the one thing in the dilapidated house that mother treasured above all else.

Mother loved that stove. Twice a year, she'd disconnect the kerosene supply and go over that stove from top to bottom. She'd drain the water out of the copper-lined hot water tank that was located on the right end of the long black stove and clean the mineral deposits out of the bottom. Then, she'd dump a combination of hot water and vinegar into the tank and give it a good scrubbing with a pig bristle brush. She'd take everything out of the oven and scrub the racks with steel wool until they too, shone like new.

Then she'd remove all four round iron burner covers and scour them with steel wool pads and wipe down the inside of the burners with rags until they were clean. She'd dig out her favorite can of stove black and go over the entire stove from stove pipe to the apron. Finally, she'd take an old rag dipped in kerosene and she'd rub this over all the chrome handles until she could see her reflection in them. When she was finished, that old Glenwood stove looked just like a brand new range. She'd stand back and gaze at it and one could easily see by the satisfied look on her face just how much she loved it.

Mother swore by that stove. She'd told all of us girls that that old Glenwood stove was "far more dependable than any man she'd ever met!" She said that if you followed a good recipe and put it in that oven, you really couldn't go wrong. On the day it had been carried by four strong men into our home, she'd made dad shift and move that heavy stove until it was perfectly level. And just to make absolutely sure, she'd filled a pie pan with water and slid it into the oven and looked at it carefully. If the water was level all around, she'd nod with satisfaction and tell dad that it was fine. Dad, after having slid that heavy stove all over the kitchen, heaved a sigh of relief and headed for the woodshed and a cold bottle of beer.

The stove could burn either wood or kerosene and most of the time mother preferred kerosene. There was a large round oil tank located at the front end behind the stove and mother, depending on the weather, used to have to fill it up every couple of days or so. She'd lift the tank off and carry it by the handle out to the woodshed to fill it up again.

There was one small problem with the stove and try as he might dad wasn't able to ever fix it. The oil line where the tubing connected to the tank kept leaking onto the linoleum floor and time after time, after some heavy bitchin by mother, dad would disassemble the long copper tube from the oil tank and replace the washer and reconnect it, but the line still leaked. After trying so many times, dad finally gave up and put an empty coffee can underneath the leak to catch the drips. He warned all of us kids to leave the can alone but it was always a constant source of fascination to all of us.

My two older brothers, Walt and Jake, were especially fascinated with what the kerosene oil could do to objects that were "accidentally" dropped into the half-filled can. They used to steal the rubber nipples off the baby bottles and drop them into the oil. They'd watch as day by day the kerosene soaked nipple expanded until it was triple in size. Then they'd dig the nipple out and run out door with it and set it on fire. Or, they'd take a baseball bat and bat the swollen nipple around the yard until it disintegrated into small, rubbery, smelly pieces.

The can also served as an attraction to the little kids who were crawling around on the floor. If mother happened to look the other way for a minute or be out of sight of the crawling kid and can, then you never could tell what was going to happen. Mother and dad spent many a long night sitting up with three of us kids who drank kerosene out of that very can.

They knew what they had to do after the first kid drank the stuff. Dad would hold the child on his lap and bounce it up and down on his knee to keep it from going to sleep, while mother tried to feed it warm milk because the milk would neutralize the kerosene. The danger was if the baby vomited, the kerosene fumes would burn the baby's lungs and it could get pneumonia.

Dad always knew that he was going to be in for an extremely long night, if mother came into the living room and handed him a squalling infant who smelled profusely of kerosene. He'd grab the small child and mother would hurry to warm some milk and the ordeal would begin. Dan would carry the screamin kid back to the kitchen and drop into his old green rocker that was always next to the stove. He'd hold his offspring in his lap and gingerly caress the crying child with his work-worn hands. Dad had a gentle touch with the potatoes he'd grown all his life but he really wasn't too sure what to do with a squalling baby.

Anyway, out of eight kids, three of us drank kerosene and survived without any noticeable ill effects, that we know about anyway and after each crisis was over and the kids were finally old enough to be trusted around the kerosene drip can, mother told one of her relatives that she didn't know which was worse, kids who drank kerosene or a husband who drank beer. All in all, she reckoned, one was just about as bad as the other. Somehow, dad just couldn't win.

Martha Stevens-David

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All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.

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