I haven’t had much experience with chimney sweeps. In fact, until that week, my experiences had been entirely from literature. Bert in Mary Poppins was probably the most memorable of these, with ”I chooses me bristles with pride, yes I do,” and the sweeps’ rooftop ballet across London. But there was also the knowledge of Victorian sweeps who sent little boys, often later affected by black lung and scrotal cancer, down chimneys. On the lighter side, Mr. Puffert and the vicar with his shotgun in Busman’s Honeymoon had me grinning as much as Lord Peter.
So when the furnace repairman pointed out on his annual check that the cap was gone from the furnace stack, and that consequently rain was getting into the firebox, I wasn’t sure what to do. I am certainly well beyond climbing on a roof, even if I knew what to do once I was up there.
“Get a chimney sweep,” was the furnace repairman’s advice.
A chimney sweep? Well, I’ve lived in Fairbanks long enough to know that lots of people up here heat with wood, and wood causes creosote buildup which has to be gotten rid of to avoid chimney fires. So it stood to reason there’d be chimney sweeps, but how did I find one?
The Yellow Pages, of course. Chimney sweeps weren’t listed as such, but chimney cleaning was, with three entries. The Woodway was the one I was familiar with (and the only one with a live human being on the other end of the phone) but they no longer swept chimneys even though they are one of the largest suppliers of wood stoves. I left messages at the other two, and eventually got an appointment for sometime after 2 pm Monday to get the cap replaced on the stack of my oil burner and the stack itself swept—it turns out that oil burners need that service occasionally. It meant missing an afternoon of Festival, but I wanted to get that cap replaced before I went Outside for a week.
The young man who knocked at the door that afternoon was almost as lean as Bert, but a good deal cleaner. I showed him the furnace, explained the problem, mentioned that my own previous knowledge of chimney seeps was gleaned from Mary Poppins, and did he mind if I took a few pictures? He countered that sweeps went back to Roman times, and proceeded to clean up the outside of the chimney in the garage, and set his shop-vac to suck in any loosened soot. Then he leaned his ladder against the door side of the garage, on the other side of the garage from the stack. “Why carry stuff any further than I have to?” he asked.
Finally he was on the roof, studying the beheaded chimney pipe. “It’s sound,” he called, a dark silhouette against the pale, drizzling sky, “though it could use some calking. I’ll do that when I’ve swept and capped it.”
He picked up the rods at his feet—that was what had made me think there was something wrong with the dark gray shingles—and screwed the first into his brush. Then another and another, now with the brush in my chimney, until he became the iconic shape of a chimney sweep, working his brush up and down in the innards of the wide pipe. When I moved so his background was trees, rather than sky, he became a surprisingly neat figure in a blue coverall. Almost before I realized it he was pulling his brush up and strapping the rods back together. “Now the cap,” he said.
The old cap had resembled a hub cap—in fact when it showed up in the dog run, that’s what I’d thought it was. The new one was double flanged: a shallow-crowned bowler on top, then a gap, then another rim below it. He attached the new cap swiftly, and then ran a bead of calking around the base of the chimney.
“All done,” he called down, and vanished to the far side of the roof and his ladder.
“My kids love Mary Poppins,” he said as he left. “They call me Bert sometimes.” And he stuck out his clean hand to me, grinning. “Lucky, you know.”
This was actually written during Summer Arts Festival in 2008. I hope you’ll enjoy it — and get a feel for Alaska.