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Charms of fireplace lure writer indoors in fall

Friday, October 1, 2010
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Autumn, finally.

The heat, bugs, loud barking dogs and musical ice cream trucks of summer are beginning seasonal fades. Cool air, fall colors and dark skies by late afternoon are on the way.

Time for people to move back into their living and dining rooms, and leave patios, front porches and backyard picnic tables to the frost and chill of October.

It's all good news for me. I'm glad to spend most of fall and winter camped out near the fireplace in my Albany stronghold.

I bought this house, a 1915-era side hall colonial in the city's "campus" neighborhood, during the fall of 1992. I used to think "colonial" meant a house built in the style of early American homes. That's not the case -- house experts say "colonial" just means all the bedrooms are upstairs.

And "side hall" colonial means the front door is on one side of the front of the house, with the stairs also built on one side.

I didn't buy the place for the front door or the stairs. What really sold me were the brick fireplace , untouched woodwork and large, wood-framed colored glass windows.

Fireplace first. The red bricks are in the center of the first floor, and the hearth and mantle dominate the living room. When fireplace season arrives -- for me, the first fires will be lit during the Major League Baseball playoffs this month -- the house becomes cozy and dark. I don't like any lights burning in the living room when I've got pieces of maple and ash burning under the chimney.

NO gas

I'll never convert to a gas fireplace . I've seen the new designs, flames rolling over pieces of composite firewood. The heat output is better, and these models are safer than traditional fireplaces , but you give up the crackle and smoky smell of a real fire. And a gas fireplace is the same fire, night after night. With different sizes of firewood in the old-fashioned firebox, you've got a different hot stuff movie playing every night.

Real fires also bring me back to the days when I was just a kid, watching my father start a fire in his fireplace . One of Dad's tricks was to get a used milk carton and stuff it with envelopes, stray scraps or paper and other combustibles. He'd punch a few holes in it, and place it under the wood. He called it a "bomb," and once the carton began burning, the wood would be cooking a few minutes later.

There aren't many ways to jazz up a fire, but I finally found color crystals last year. I had been looking for a while, and grabbed them at a fireplace store in Rochester. A few sprinkles of these combustible chemicals -- I think they're assorted zinc, copper and other chemistry -- puts blue and green flames into the troupe of orange and yellow.

There are other nice things in my home besides fire. The wood -- staircase, French doors, molding and trim around doors and windows -- was never painted. Former owners never saw the need to update decor by painting wood a color that would complement paint on walls and ceilings. Removing the paint with chemicals, heat guns and putty knives is a long, messy process.

The two colored windows in the house generally get the longest looks from new visitors. Panels of green, pink and dark yellow are framed in the wood, one window located in the wall near the foot of the stairs and the other in the dining room. When the sun hits these outside walls, the panels light up. I'll occasionally notice a few beams of colored light on the stairs and dining room table.

Candles would look great on both window sills, but they'll never get the chance. I don't think open flames are safe on these narrow ledges, so candles in my house mostly light up the mantle.

Candles can be tricky. I never burn tapers; my flames are always confined to bowl-shaped jar candles, and the jars always have rubber or ceramic plates underneath them. People who visit me during the fall and winter must think I'm a vampire; I'll have 10 or 20 going when the wind is gusting outside. Maybe more, as Christmas approaches.

But I treat the small fires with respect. I always blow them out 20 minutes or so before hitting the sack, just to make sure nothing's burning overnight. The bigger fire gets even more respect. I cover the opening with two metal mesh screens and cover them with a large piece of sheet metal left by my predecessor.

For now, weekends will be spent outdoors in the backyard, in the Adirondacks, maybe on a golf course or two. But once we're deep into fall and winter is approaching, I'll be at hearth and fireside, with ample supplies of both wax and firewood.

 
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