About the second week in an early-60s January, my Grandpa and I went down in his basement. Time to put aside the parties and get back to mixing paint. The old dining room table was still fully extended with all the leaves from the family Christmas dinner which took place two weeks before. In the corner of the room was a Christmas tree, all dried out. The needles were mostly on the floor by then.
It was cold at first in the basement, but we soon took care of that. There was a combination stove in the kitchen. Two gas burners and an oven were on the right side, and on the left was a wood-burning stove section. The cast-iron top had two beveled burner tops that could be lifted with a removable handle so that more wood could be added. Grandpa brought home scrap lumber from the construction sites he was working on (he worked for a commercial painting contractor). On weekends, there would be a copper boiler where Grandma would boil his overalls, to get the paint out. The stove kept the entire basement warm enough to work, at least.
Grandpa had an idea. The tree was so dry - why not saw it up and use it for firewood, too! So, he brought out a pruning saw, and we sawed the branches off the trunk, and sawed the trunk into manageable sections. The branches were messy and cumbersome, so we put those into the stove first. The dry needles would instantly flash into flame as we inserted each branch, so we had to be careful. The smoky smell in the kitchen was replaced by a pleasant pine smell of the balsam sap.
We brought in the first sections of the trunk and stacked them into the corner where the firewood was kept. Meanwhile, we kept feeding in the branches, more to get rid of the mess than to heat the kitchen. Dustpans full of swept-up needles made a satisfying crackling sound as we tossed them into the stove.
Then, something happened. The inside of the stove was suddenly sucking in tremendous amounts of air when we raised the burner. The flames inside were fanned almost white-hot. There was a low roar from the wall. The creosote inside the chimney had caught on fire. Chimney fire! We heard Grandma hollering down the stairs terrified - the roaring sound was a lot louder upstairs, and the walls were very warm, the wallpaper charring from the heat. Grandpa moved fast, looked at the situation from outside, then came in and called the fire department.
There was not much that could be done - the chimney was built well, and the fire burned itself out while the fire department watched. Grandpa was very upset - although there was no damage outside of the charred wallpaper, technically he had set the house on fire. And there would be much to live down.
Donny from the fire department, who was an asshole in real life, would razz my Grandpa every time he saw him thereafter, at the Dew Drop Inn or at Larry Wallace's barber shop across the street. He could usually shut up Donny by buying him a few beers. That was just practice - comic relief in comparison with what was to come . . .
Tomorrow: Part two - the terrifying conclusion