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Clyde, Time Was: The most famous interloper of all

Now Christmas is come,

Let us beat up the drum,

And call all our neighbors together,

And when they appear,

Let us make them such cheer, as will keep out the wind and the weather.

— Washington Irving,

Christmas Eve, 1900

Time was, every house had a chimney, or as old people were bad to say “chimbley.” No matter how you made your chimney, the trick was, of course, to make it draw. The solution was to make sure of two things: (1) the throat could be any size as long as the space behind and above it (the scotch back) was larger, and (2) the chimney should close down near the top to approximately the same dimensions as the throat, never smaller.

It could twist, slope, slant, or bulge inside, have a ledge to catch ashes or rain that might come down; anything, so long as it wasn’t choked. Claude Darnell says a good flue can suck a tomcat right up the chimney. In Carolina Dwelling, vernacular houses of the center hallway, I-plan, had chimneys on the gable ends, so only the two rooms on the chimney side were heated. If you were Alex. Long in 1790 and owned what is now Sowers Ferry, you built double chimneys on one end and had yours and your wife’s initials with hearts in the brick pattern of glazed headers. True commitment.

Quaker Style houses had a short chimney on the kitchen ell; Yankee chimneys came up through the middle of the house. Nobody dared ask them why. Even every shotgun dwelling in Dixonville had a flue for a coal stove or a tin wood heater. Chimneys told you if anybody was home or not. Later this month, at the Old Stone House, you can see the largest hearth in these parts — big enough to hold Michael Braun’s 11 children, complete with a pot crane, Dutch oven spiders, trivets and a firebox in the keeping room behind.

Along with chimneys came chimney sweeps of Ms. Poppins’ fame and chimney swifts that circle and swoop down like bats. Where do they go at first light? Now that you know what goes up the chimney, what could possibly come down? It’s the most famous interloper of all. Do you recall, or have you forgotten, never knew at all, or not sure what to believe like Virginia et al? Too tight a fit without cross fit? Too much sooty mortar and grit on those snow-white fur cuffs and sleeves? Are you too old to remember we were often told: “We don’t say ‘sut’ for soot.” It won’t wash out. No landing pad, forklift, or lifting assistance on call? No last minute exchanges at the mall, or costumes too small?

Thomas Nast, German- born cartoonist, etched in our minds forever what the BMOC looks like, long before the Grinch was a twinkle in anybody’s eye and cherry red noses were mostly on party-goers that got high. Throw in some magic dust, a little “imagine” to counteract our naivete and who should appear …

But ho, ho, hold on. What about the chimney capped off for snow or the damper shut tight for the night? And heaven forbid, all these houses you see without even a chimney at all in sight? Will modulars and double wides be skipped outright, or travelers who get a room just for the night? What about our friends at the shelter or under Fisher Street bridge, will they be all right? Will S.C. find them chimney-less in their ill-fated plight?

Will high tech cameras catch him in flight or “in-house” security systems capture him, like a deer in the headlights? Will alarms go off all over the house to wake us up, all in a fright?

For skeptics, it’s easy to find excuses and reasons, to their own selfish delight. Who wouldn’t want to do anything they could to make everything go just right? To ensure a visit in and out in a flash, with speeds up to 1,000      Fibrant Gigabytes per second, faster than the speed of light. Alas, with all the perils and catastrophes that could go wrong in our own promised land as we safely sleep, why would he even risk showing up this crazy year in hindsight? Will anybody bring hope and good cheer to the “challenging world we live in,” as Father Black recites?

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear; he will show up again with the help of those pesky reindeer. Like the saints of old, O Nicholas dear, please bring us new toys for a good ???? this next coming year and a handful of wishes for things far better off than the way they are now and forget this past fretful year. Here’s hoping, you have things to have and to hold dear, people you want to be near, and fewer or not even a single tear.

The chimney is dear, the embers are glowing, glistening on the hearthside brass, a wisp of smoke rises like a white curly beard. The shadow of light fades on our worries and fears. It is a time for a visit to a home where the heart is so dear. Go to bed, say goodnight and now —

“At Christmas, play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year.”

— Thomas Tussen, 1500’s

Clyde is a Salisbury artist.

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