Monday, November 26, 2007


In Which We Get the Engine Going Again...

At any given moment, I have this idea that my life is not really my life, but some kind of skin pulled over the actuality that is my life. Sometimes I think my actual life is that of television show filmed before a studio audience, complete with popular supporting characters who get spontaneous applause whenever they walk on (although if that is indeed correct, I can only guess the show has plummeted in the ratings recently and the network decided to shake things up--like, a lot--and so have handed my life over to a writer known more for drama than for comedy). Other times, I just tend to imagine my life as a kind of ship with a personality and my consciousness and everything I think and feel is represented by passengers and crew and I rarely have to descend below decks to do anything intricate or substantial.

I was living life in the ship mode this weekend, I think, because I spent most of the Sunday before Thanksgiving vaguely aware that something was off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but there was something, some tremor at the wheel, some vibration of the railing, some strange current at work, something that was taking us off-course.

By early evening Sunday, it finally dawned on me what it was: the thrum of the engines.

Specifically, I could hear the blower in the furnace. More specifically, I hadn't once heard it shut off, as it usually does when the furnace heats the house up to whatever temperature I have the thermostat set. It had been running all morning.

It was then that I realized I was just a little cold. I went to the thermostat and checked: sure enough, it was 67 degrees in the house. And falling.

So with flashlight in hand I descended to the, er, engine room. As you may recall from previous writings about household repair, I am not the handiest fellow, but I know enough about household mechanics to spot a problem without (usually) electrocuting, drowning, or immolating myself too much.

In this particular case, I had a pretty good idea what the problem was already. I removed the access panel from the furnace and shone my light into the guts of the thing. There, by the nozzle where the gas comes in, was a little ceramic fork-like object: the furnace igniter. Normally, it conducts current to heat up and ignite the gas that makes my house so toasty in cold weather. But I could see immediately from its blackened, cracked state that it wasn't going to be conducting current or anything else ever again.

I said I had a pretty good idea what the problem was because in over five years of living at the Magazine Mansion, this is the fourth igniter I've gone through. Two of them, I'm not kidding, failed one year to the day from the last time they were replaced. This last one had lasted about two years before it conked out, but come on! As I've since learned, ceramic igniters are one of those parts built on the principle of planned obsolescence so that heating and cooling companies can stay in business. The last time a repairman came to replace the thing, I cornered him with my previous invoices and got him to admit that, yes, this was a fairly common repair for him (in fact, he'd done more than 20 in that month alone).

Now I sat on the basement floor, cursing. How many times had I promised myself I was going to buy an extra one of these at a supply place, just to have handy in case it went out on a Sunday? On at least two occasions, see, I'd had to call repairmen out on a weekend, incurring emergency overtime charges and paying in excess of $150 for the plug-and-play replacement of a part that costs around 40 bucks.

I went upstairs and delivered the dismaying news to Her Lovely Self, the captain of the ship (if we're continuing the analogy). After some thought, we agreed to wait til Monday, at which time I'd head to a local supply house, buy a fresh igniter and replace it myself. It wasn't the dead of winter, after all. The kids and we could bundle up a bit, put extra comforters on the bed, and all would be well. Worst-case scenario, I could always light a fire in the hearth and run the oven to heat up the place enough that no pipes would freeze.

That was that. I shut the furnace down so as not to burn out the motor on the blower. And so we went to bed.

Well, everyone but me.

I spent most that night tossing and turning. Not because I was cold; it went deeper than that. On some primal level, it was obvious to me that I had dropped the ball. I mean, I'm the man. It was incumbent on me to provide a few fundamentals: food, shelter, and fire. Well, where was the fire?

Eventually, I hauled myself out of bed and began roaming the dark, cold house. At length, I found myself on the computer, reading up on ceramic igniters and other secrets of the heating/cooling industry. At one point, I chanced upon a reference to someone manually igniting their furnace. This got my attention fast. Apparently, the way the furnace worked was that the gas jet would emit a little squirt of gas. If the igniter wasn't hot enough to light it, it would emit little squirts at periodic intervals until the igniter popped on or someone shut the furnace down. So all one needed to do was wait for the gas to come on, strike a match and poof! The furnace would ignite, at least long enough to heat the house through one cycle.

I looked at the clock: it was 2 in the morning. I checked the thermostat: it was 63 degrees in the house. If I jacked the thermostat up to say, 75, it would take an hour at least to get up to that temperature, and good little while for the temp to drop. My family could at least be warm as they slept.

So, resolved to my course of action, I went into the garage to find the butane lighter I usually use to ignite our gas grill. Then I headed back below decks.

It was really cold in the basement, like a meat locker. I could see my breath by the light of the flashlight. I carefully inspected the guts of the furnace again, this time identifying the small opening of the gas nozzle, just below the broken igniter.

And I waited.

I was waiting for the hiss of a gas jet. But I wasn't hearing it.

I reached in, feeling around the gas nozzle. It didn't seem blocked. There was a tiny lever next to it. I fiddled with it, thinking maybe it was closed so tightly that I couldn't hear the gas. Still nothing.

Time passed there in the cold, close darkness. I slumped against the hot water heater, waiting, listening, eyes drooping. Eventually, I dozed, deeply enough that I started dreaming. In the dream, I was on the phone with my Dad and he was walking me through the replacement of the ceramic igniter which, in the dream, I was smart enough to have purchased an extra one. But then, I became self-aware in the dream, which was really too bad.

"Hey," I said into the phone. "I just realized I can't call you anymore for stuff like this."

Then I snapped awake and was instantly aware that I was probably going to call the heating guys in the morning, after all. Because I didn't trust myself. What if more than the igniter was blown? Once upon a time, as my dream reminded me, I would have called my dad and he'd have talked me in for a landing. But now? I just didn't trust myself to do it, especially since we were hard against a holiday and I didn't want to delay getting the thing fixed by even a day. It's one of the hardest truths I've had to face in the past six months: I may be lucky enough to have a family who loves and supports me through tough times, I may even be starting to get over my parents' death a little--how else to explain that my usual sad thoughts of them are starting to be tinged with nostalgia? But in all sorts of ways, I'm painfully aware that, even at 39 and a half, I still wasn't finishing needing them.

And as I lingered on this thought, one other realization came to me, totally unbidden: I remembered that I had shut the furnace off earlier, thus shutting off all the automatic functions of the thing, including the sensor that would trigger the gas jets to open. Duh. No wonder I wasn't hearing the gas!

Stiff from the cold and from resting my ass on the hard basement floor, I struggled to my feet, then lurched upstairs to the thermostat. I flicked the switch from "off" to "heat," then raced as fast as I could--which wasn't very--back down the stairs.

I bent to the furnace and cocked an ear. From inside, I could hear the faint hissing of a gas jet. I reached in with the butane lighter, sparked it once, twice. Nothing.

I bent my head so I was eye level with the furnace jets. I flashed my light around to make sure I was aiming it at the right thing. Yep, there was the nozzle. I reached in again and thumbed the switch on the lighter.


The world briefly became an orange and blue light as my whole head was enveloped in a moist, odorous ball of fire, like a burp from the mouth of God. In a half-second I was scrabbling backwards across the basement floor up over the top of the chest freezer, and up the underside of the stairs using only my toes and fingernails. I hung there for a brief moment, heart in my throat, smelling a high, sweet smell I couldn't place, seeing as I was too busy assuring myself that I was still alive. So was the furnace, which was now a blaze of light. Quite a blaze in fact: flames were roaring out of the access panel. Evidently I had opened that gas nozzle all the way.

I detached myself from the stairs and shut everything back down, fiddled with the gas nozzle a few more times, then, finally, and with head turned fully away and my hand in a fire-proof, elbow-length welding glove, reached in once more with the sparker and brought the furnace sedately to life.

It was almost dawn when I went back upstairs, listening to the ticking and creaking of the house as it warmed to life. In the hall, I bumped into Thomas, my early riser.

"Dad, I can feel heat in my room. Did you fix the furnace?"

I opened my mouth before I was sure of the answer. Finally I said, "For now." Then I yawned hugely and trudged back to bed.

"Hey Dad! Wait!"

I stopped and looked at my son. I wasn't sure what he wanted, but I hoped he was going to say something meaningful, like wondering how I knew how to get the heat back on (if only for a while) or lamenting that he'd never figure out half the stuff I knew. Something to make me feel better, you know?

Instead, Thomas simply pointed at me.

"Where did your eyebrows go?" he asked.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, November 01, 2007


An October Moment (in London)...

[Nov. 1: Sorry for the delay, folks. This was meant to be posted last night, but technical difficulties arose.]

20 October 1987


While I was on the train there, I reviewed my mental file of everything I know about the Tower of London. Here's what I got:

--Originally built by the Romans.

--William the Conqueror made some additions. (I guess he put in a rumpus room or something)

--Place where a lot of historical types were imprisoned before they were executed, including Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, those two little princes, and a bunch of others.

--Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand (what does this have to do with the Tower? No idea.)


--Lots of ravens live there, but legend has it that if they ever leave, it means the Empire will fall.

--It is one of the most haunted sites in England.

Yeah, not much, but it's that last detail that's the most important. Aside from my trip to Highgate Cemetery the night before, I have never before sought out a place that I knew to be haunted--all of my supernatural experiences to date has been unsought, surprise stuff. Which I guess is a good thing because it actually reinforces my belief that this stuff is real. Whereas if you go to a place that's known to be a haunt of, er, haunts, how do you know your subconscious isn't just creating a little bit of wish fulfillment for you, you know?

Well, I don't have any doubts about that anymore.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. So, Betty and I arrived at the Tower of London on this pleasantly warm October morning, she with her Nikon camera, me with my camcorder.

First impressions: I was expecting something deeply medieval and gloomy, but the Tower grounds are actually quite picturesque. The moats have been filled and turned into green lawns and the walls and causeways and various towers all seem very sharp, well-defined, and crisp, somehow, as if they'd all been sandblasted the day before. Even the few crumbling remnants of the original Roman walls seem very much in place and tidy in their own way. It seemed a very agreeable place all in all, the sort of place I would be comfortable hanging out in. if I didn't know I was sentenced to be burned at the stake, or hanged, or have my head chopped off, which is apparently what happened to a lot of the folks who did hang out here.

If I was expecting to feel anything like the cold spot I'd unexpectedly felt at Highgate the night before, I was disappointed. Well, at first. I would have expected that a place so old and so steeped in a history of misery and suffering would be totally impregnated with vibes of the unseen, just dripping with it, like an oversaturated sponge. But walking around, I didn't really get that impression at all. I remember living in that 200-year-old farmhouse in New Jersey and being asked by visitors if we didn't get a bad vibe every time we walked through the door. And truly, we always answered that, if anything, for the most part we felt an unbelievably GOOD vibe. There were a few noteworthy exceptions, to be sure, but on the whole that house felt, well, almost as agreeable as it felt to be here, playing hooky on a gorgeous fall day and drinking in the history and spectacle of one of London's most famous attractions.

We wandered. Saw the White Tower and the Armouries (my, weren't knights short back in their day). Also saw the Queen's House where Anne Boleyn spent her last night. Nearby, apparently, guards and others have reported seeing her ghost running down the walk on dark, fog-laden nights. I'm assuming their first reaction was not, "Holy shit! She's got six fingers on one hand!!"

And then we went into the Bloody Tower and things got deeply weird.

I guess with a name like "The Bloody Tower" it's easy to psyche yourself up to think something is going to happen. Plus one of the Yeomen Warders (what you're really supposed to call the Beefeaters, something I can add to my mental notecard about the place) told us that this is where Sir Walter Raleigh lived before he was executed and it's also supposed to be the place where the little prince guys were killed (supposedly smothered or stabbed or both in the tower itself). But I have to admit that by this point in the visit, I was bored and ready to go. Actually, I was more than bored, I was actually feeling a little ill. Ever since I'd come out of the Armoury I'd been feeling a little heatsick. Granted, it was a warm day, but not that warm. Still, I felt like I was in a humid, stuffy room. The feeling didn't go away as we climbed the steps to the tower.

And then we went into this little darkened cell in the tower and all of a sudden I couldn't breathe.

Now let me point out: I did not feel like I was being smothered by a pillow or anything goofy like that. It felt exactly like it does when you step out of an air-conditioned house and into, for example, a steamy, 100-degree humid summer day. The heat just envelops you and you can't breathe. Well, that's what it felt like. Certainly not like I was in any cold spot, which is what I usually associate with supernatural stuff.

Betty said something to me just then, but it sounded like she was speaking underwater. I tried to talk to her, but just then, I felt really weak and my knees just gave out. I sagged and a big guy behind me grabbed me under my armpits and hauled me to my feet.

"Can' breath," I gasped, and it was true. Now it was like there was a weight on my chest. Maybe I was having a heart attack?

But no. Betty and the guy helped me back out into daylight and I somehow stumbled down some steps to a bench on the grounds below and sat there for a long time, head almost between my legs, sweat running off me, trying to catch my breath.

According to Betty, I was something of an attraction afterwards because the big guy--never got his name--after making sure I was okay, went back and told the tour group he was with what happened. Next thing I know, there's a man with a big white beard and a beefeater's hat staring down at me, asking me questions. What exactly had happened in the Bloody Tower? Did I see anything? Did I feel anything? I did? What was it like? When I told him about the feeling of not being able to breathe, of feeling hot and suffocated, of pressure on my chest, he got a funny look on his face.

"Where were you before you went in the tower?" he asked. Betty told him we'd come from the Armouries and with that the funny look vanished and he began nodding.

"'Appened to me, it did," he said, his voice a grumbling whisper. "The Armoury is where people feel it, if they feel it--all the air gets stolen away, like. Wiv me, it was like 'aving a wet blanket wrapped 'round my 'ead. One of the uvva guards said 'e felt like 'e was being strangled. Even 'ad marks on 'is neck. But that's the Armoury. Never 'eard of it 'appening outside of it." Then he gave us a wink and continued on his rounds, or whatever it was he did.

Well, that was enough of the Tower of London for me. I was all set to go, but Betty was otherwise engaged. While I was catching my breath, she had been fiddling with my camcorder. Had in fact put it on Playback and rewound it. She was watching my footage through the little black-and-white viewfinder and in a moment her eyes got all wide and she grabbed my arm, sat me back down, and made me take a look.

Now, the camera never stopped running, don't think that. I have an unfortunate habit of just turning on my camcorder in a place and letting it run. I figure I'll edit it once I get home. On the bad side, I end up with a lot of video of corridors and stairwells (one friend jokingly told me I should just run all that footage together and call it "MM's Stairways of Europe") and it tends to have a kind of staggering gait to it that makes my mom put a nauseous hand to her mouth and dash from the room. On the good side, if something unexpected comes up, I'll usually catch it.

Well, something unusual came up.

As I watched the latest raw footage of "Stairways of Europe," I saw us ascending the (what else?) stairs to the walkway that led to the dark cell within the Bloody Tower. I fished the earplug out of my bag and popped it in to catch the audio. As usual, I was blabbing as we went up, although breathing kind of heavy (never realized how close my mouth was to the mike til now).

And then...

Right as I step into the chamber, the automatic white balance starts to adjust for the change in light, and then abruptly, the film goes black.

Again, the camera didn't shut off. The counter on the camera is still ticking off, see, so it's taping. And on playback I can hear things. It's kinda freaky.

The black screen is interrupted only by the occasional wave of static (odd in itself), but the audio continues throughout. And I'm hearing a strange rubbing sound or squeaking sound. Sometimes it sounds like breathing, other times it's like a weird, out-of-rhythm heartbeat. Then it almost sounds like footsteps. Of course, even if the video had gone out for some rational reason, the only audio that should have been recorded should be me complaining about not feeling so hot, and Betty asking me if I'm all right, and in general we should be hearing the sounds of the other tourists, like the big fella who picked me up when I started to pass out.

But none of that is on the video.

And then, just as though a switch was being thrown, the screen wobbles and resolves and here's perfectly clear (if slightly askew) video of the walkway out of the Tower, and once again I can hear myself and Betty and even the guy who helped me.

"Whoa!" I say. How did that happen?

And of course I have no idea.

But I can't wait to show this video back home. It'll be a LOT more interesting than "Stairways of Europe," doncha think?

Happy Halloween!

[Note: I was hoping to find that footage--the tape has got to be here somewhere--but it has yet to turn up. Soon as I do find it, you can be sure I'll digitize it and YouTube it and we can all see if it is just as freaky now as it was 20 years ago.]

From Somewhere on the Masthead


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