Dwindling: June 2008 Archives

The Shower


[by Thomas Shelley]

Ithaca, New York, late July, 2039

The thermometer just inside the shed read 104 degrees. Streams of sweat were rolling off Riley's forehead. He found himself in disbelief that he was working in this heat. The Old Guy was even more unbelievable to Riley. The Old Guy was standing in the yard near the retort, his large homemade straw hat his only shelter against the blazing late July sun. As if the heat from the sun wasn't bad enough, the retort was now burning full-force and Riley was only able to get about five feet from it without feeling like he was going to burst into flames himself.

They had been lining up since early morning. The Old Guy and the folks in the old Cederstrom place had even let a handful of the Wanderers camp out overnight near the retort. They came from nearby neighborhoods, the big box stores and the parking garages. Some local farmers even rode their horses into town just for today's firing. Each came with an armload of sticks or a few pieces of firewood. Some brought a bike-drawn cart or backpack full of logs or firewood. Each in turn helped the Old Guy load the retort. The retort held five cords of wood so it took from 100 to 120 small contributors to mostly fill the retort.

The retort was a funny looking thing, but well known to the local populace. The thousand-gallon tank, held up by railroad ties braced together, was positioned above what looked like an overgrown brick outhouse--an outhouse on fire. The tank was once part of a fuel oil depot on 5th Street. Several years ago a work crew organized by the Old Guy had moved it to its new location. It was quite an effort all in all, especially cleaning out the inside of the tank, most of which was done before it was moved. The ties came from an abandoned nearby spur of the old railroad line. Bricks for the retort came from the chimneys and foundations of the many collapsed or burned out houses in the area. The Old Guy, who was the son of a brick mason, and who had learned the trade from his father, always said there would probably never be a shortage of used brick. This was a good thing for the participants since the Old Guy had to rebuild the retort after every few firings. The old red bricks were fairly soft and didn't last long under the heat of the retort. The Old Guy kept looking for firebrick, but they were really hard to find. Fortunately he had a good source of lime for the mortar he used to build the retort. Two or three times each year he would trade a firing of charcoal for a cart of lime from the Lime Man in Enfield. The arrangement worked really well for all concerned. The owners of the local iron forge and the several blacksmiths in the area were good customers as well and had participated in the original construction of the retort many years ago.

But most of the participants were local folks and the Wanderers who showed up with their armloads of sticks and logs. Many of them didn't care much about the charcoal but some of the local women were eager to have some of the charcoal for cooking. The artists in the line would eventually pick out the hardest, darkest sticks of charcoal for drawing on their handmade paper or for grinding with local walnut oil to make carbon black pigment for painting and decoration. But most of the line was there for a shower. Each participant received ten gallons of hot water, so one hundred or so folks, some in pairs got a really nice shower. There was no other source of hot water for most of the locals, yet alone the Wanderers. A few homes still had solar hot water installations from the teens and the twenty's that still worked. Some of the locals had devised all sorts of ad hoc solar and wood heated water heating systems since then, but most of the local population, especially those living in the parking garages and the former big box stores, not to mention the Wanderers, had little access to running water let alone hot water. All of their water was carried in from the creeks or collected in homemade cisterns of sorts. A hot shower was a real treat.

The children who operated the bellows received a shower as well. Usually it took two or three of them, especially on a really hot day like today. They took turns and it was more play than work, especially since the Old Guy would be joking with them along the way as he supervised the whole operation, making the long afternoon go by a little quicker. The bellows, made of leather and canvas salvaged from old houses, supplied air for the downdraft air supply of the kiln. The forced air system devised by the Old Guy allowed the retort to develop a high enough temperature to gasify the volatile components of the wood, leaving the charcoal behind. The "wood gas" produced was then burned in the upper stage of the retort to heat the water in the thousand gallon tank. It took several hours to heat the full tank, but no one much cared. The hot shower in the late afternoon was worth the wait. Most of the afternoon was like a carnival anyway--the air was filled with music and dancing; women told stories to small clusters of children covered by tarps pitched to shade them from the afternoon Sun. The Old Guy's wife sat in her special place, in the shade of the shed, teaching a small circle of children to read. Some of the women helped Sylvia work in the garden. Riley and a couple of the Wanderers carried on a brisk trade with the crowd in tools and other small useful items. The Old Guy supervised the cooking of a deer and local beans and rice in an oven constructed in one side of the kiln. This was then shared by all of those assembled at the end of the shower.

The shower was the high point of the afternoon. By late afternoon the water was hot. The retort would be sealed for the cool down and the fun would begin. The line of 100 or so participants would take their shower one by one or in pairs at times. The Old Guy furnished his homemade soap which everyone enjoyed using. The crowd would clap and cheer for each participant as they finished their shower. This had become sort of a ritual of the shower. Some of the women used some of their hot water to make teas or infusions with herbs they brought from their gardens. The Old Guy was always the last one to shower. He would toss his straw hat to a row of boys and girls waiting nearby and the one who caught the hat would replace one of the bellows operators for the next shower. Everyone applauded and cheered the loudest when he was finished. The party would continue into the early evening with all assembled making short work of the venison and other food provided. The music and the crowd would slowly drift away, leaving the retort and its precious product to cool.

Two or three days later, once the retort had fully cooled, the Old Guy and his helpers from his household would dismantle the brick "doors" of the retort and remove and sort the charcoal into piles. Repairs were made to the retort as needed and it was readied for the next firing and shower. Over the next couple of days the providers of the wood interested in the charcoal would come by to pick up their portion. There was always lots left over for Riley, Sylvia and the Old Guy for cooking and trading. There was always someone coming by to trade surplus charcoal for vegetables, grain, or whatever items they had to trade. But the lasting memories of the locals and the Wanderers alike were of the hot shower they had on that July afternoon.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Dwindling category from June 2008.

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