Life Sketches by Terry Berkson
Heart of the House: Uncle Harry’s
Gift of Conversion and Godsend
In 1932, my Uncle Harry graduated from New York’s City College with a degree in aeronautical engineering. For more than a year he tried to get a job in that field but, probably due to the Great Depression, he was unsuccessful. So, he turned to the heating business where thousands of homes and industrial buildings were converting to oil to take the place of coal, which was messy and, in most cases, required a lot of physical labor. Maybe it was for practice or maybe he was just being a good son, but one of his first installations was in my grandmother, Fanny’s, drafty, 12 room “country” house in Brooklyn, where he converted a coal burning steam boiler to an oil fired system.
Up until then, Mr. Lowman, a carpenter from Germany who occupied a room he had built in the basement, would take care of the heating system. My grandfather, Charles, had employed him to enclose the front porch, build a pantry in the back of the house and a small barn which would house a horse that would be used for Sunday buggy rides. But Charles died of pneumonia just before the work was completed and from then on hard times seemed to set in. Fanny began to rent out rooms but she could no longer afford to employ Mr. Lowman, who stayed on anyway. On weekends he’d travel to Hoboken, New Jersey, to spend time with friends from the old country. When he’d return in a merry mood in the wee hours of the morning, he’d shovel coal onto the feeble fire then drop into bed and loudly “di diddle dum” his imaginary violin until he fell asleep.
Once, he got into some bad drink, wound up in the hospital and eventually went blind. My father went to see Mr. Lowman shortly before the old carpenter died. Then Grandma was the one who often had to split wood and shovel coal into the boiler when none of her seven sons were available. So, Uncle Harry’s gift of a conversion was a godsend—not that oil heat was able to warm the old Victorian comfortably—just keep it from freezing on bitter cold days while occupants hugged the banging but soon to cool steam radiators. Like a failing heart, the old boiler intermittently pumped steam through the house’s circulatory system while burning two gallons of oil an hour.
Long before my grandmother passed away, my father took over care of the boiler which had once been Mr. Lowman’s job. But Dad was more of a musician than a mechanic and did little to maintain and lessen the consumption of oil—except when he turned down the thermostat, which made wearing a night cap when you went to sleep a good idea. Fortunately, the inefficiency of the old boiler was buffered by the fact that Uncle Harry’s Peerless Fuel Oil Company supplied oil to the house at a wholesale price.
Years later, and yet a long time ago, I took over the heating job after Dad was gone and—because I had worked for and learned from Uncle Harry—I made several improvements to the boiler that made it a lot more efficient. I lined the combustion chamber with new fire bricks, stripped the loose asbestos, mixed it with water and reapplied it. I eliminated a hot water storage tank and replaced it with an instantaneous coil. This reduced the amount of water that had to be boiled to make steam by 30 gallons. One might say I gave the boiler a bypass. Now, heat would be generated and circulate through the house in a fraction of the time it had taken before—and using a lot less oil. Dad would have been delighted.
Fired up, the boiler builds a head of steam as my grandmother in her double knit maroon wool sweater hugs a radiator, my dad holds onto his night cap and Mr. Lowman feeds a shovel full of coal into a memory.