Episode 21 From Hubbard, Wisconsin- “Bill Harnack Remembers”

As fall lingers in Hubbard and the leaves are nearing their peak colors, it’s time to do the annual “winterizing” chores before it freezes for good. Such tasks include; putting the paint in the basement, removing the boat battery and putting it inside, shutting off the supply valves leading to the outdoor faucets, putting fuel stabilizer in the lawnmower engine, testing the snow blower to make sure it works, and last but not least, lighting the boiler.

Last Tuesday Bill Harnack made the annual trip to the basement to light the ancient Kewanee boiler. The temperature in the house had fallen to about sixty degrees and Betty reminded Bill, for at least the tenth time this month, to light the boiler. This isn’t something that Bill looks forward to, for it signals in the “reign of the gas company” over his pocketbook for the next six months. The decision to light the boiler is however, inevitable, so Tuesday was the day.

Normally the pilot light burns all year, so Bill simply flips an electrical switch to fire up the boiler. This year, however, there was no resounding “phumph” sound of the gas igniting within. Peering in the combustion chamber, Bill could see that the pilot light wasn’t burning. No pilot light, no combustion. Bill had a problem. As he looked at the combustion unit, complete with gas valve and burner, his mind wandered back twenty-nine years. He and Betty were just “kids” then, in their mid twenties. The boiler was oil-fired back then and Betty’s dad, Laverne, who worked for the gas company, told Bill that it was time to “convert to gas.” This wasn’t a task that Bill was prepared for. It didn’t matter. A couple of weeks later Laverne showed up at the house with a used, gas-fired burner complete with valve and pilot control.

Laverne had found the gas burner in a pile of discarded parts at the gas company. The burner was at least 30 years old. Bill asked his father-in-law if this “junk-pile” burner was any good. “Heck”, said Laverne, “This baby will work for years.” “We’ll just stick it into the belly of this old Kewanee boiler and you won’t have to worry about a thing.” In that dingy basement twenty-nine years ago, Bill watched Laverne tear out the old oil-fired burner and install the “new” gas-fired burner. Laverne explained to Bill how the burner worked, carefully going over the built-in safety devices that are essential in all gas burners. While Bill lacked the experience necessary to completely understand what Laverne was teaching him, he listened dutifully. More than anything, Bill was grateful. He and Betty didn’t have two nickels to rub together and Laverne had gotten the burner free. The installation was also free, another “father in law” favor.

Last Tuesday as Bill stared at the old gas burner his father in law had installed nearly thirty years ago, the pilot light didn’t work. Laverne had told Bill that when the pilot light doesn’t work it is almost always because of a bad thermocouple. Remembering the steps that Laverne had taken years ago, Bill extracted the burner from the boiler and went down to the plumbing shop and bought a replacement thermocouple. Within a few minutes, “ole Kewanee” was up and running again!

In the poorly lighted basement, as he put away his tools, Bill remembered a thought he had as he watched Laverne install the burner twenty-nine years ago. “What am I going to do when this guy passes away,” thought Bill. “Who am I going to rely on to fix this stuff?” This coming February, Laverne will have been gone twenty years. The lessons he taught Bill about gas burners and about life, were learned well. After all, this is the third thermocouple that Bill has installed on the old gas burner.

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