Gas heat, hydronic heat, oil, radiators: all work, but none are romantic. No, not even radiators, with their banging and damp rust smell and burns. For true postwar Seventies wintertime nostalgia, you need electric resistance heat.
1978 was not a rapid winter, or at least the new Texas I was learning didn’t have an autumn anything like Ontario. September came and went and people still went out to swim in the evenings; pavement still held comfortable warmth late into the evening. Late in November the sky at last muddled and temperatures dropped enough for breath to show. I remember bouncing off the couch because Dad was starting the first fire in the fireplace. It would make up for sweating under a Halloween costume and leaves doing nothing more interesting that turning the color of kraft paper.
First electric heat of 1978 I still remember. Instead of the furious cool breath pumped out by the air conditioning, that dark night with the TV on Barney Miller and my father reading a newspaper far thicker than today’s two sheets of toilet paper, the heat clicked on. I heard the click-whunk of the relay close and the blower start spinning, the density of things shifting as the air was gathered and thrust out again. And then the smell.
Singed, you could call it, or toasted, but it had more smoke to it, not like wood but the leaves neighbors burned. My eight-year-old hair stood on end, breathing it in. It was exciting, energizing somehow. What’s that? Nothing, just the heater.
Every year after I did two things to mark the final stake in the heart of relentless summer: a lot a few streets over where the scrubby oak trees turned more golden than the rest, and that sharp tang of the heater’s first run. I imagined every strand of hair, flake of skin, puffball of dander, thin film of airy dust sparkling away, leaving only heat and long crisp nights. It was a promise time moved ahead.
In my older enlightenment I realize electric resistance heat is the least efficient possible and to be avoided, and gas heat works better, all things considered. But the furnace heats the whole house, which seldom seems worth the bother. In college I had what was called a little milk house heater–in my parents’ Seventies all-electric house the little heater was the one way I could save. Now, in the land of carbon-neutral electricity there’s even less guilt. Today with the temps in the mid-fifties and the sky murky, I get the cheap plastic heater out of the closet and plug it in. It rattles awake with the same startled sound and I get the smell.
I’d forgotten that gift, turning away before smelling it, getting a dilute blast as I moved. The smell! Images of my childhood room yellow with incandescent light, the windows dark nowhere blanks: white walls, Mom yelling in the kitchen, the one TV on, everything overrun with an opulent wonder. Then, it is now and I smell the city’s dust burn away, summer’s indolence, escaped dryer lint sparkling away. Red tan cream grey brilliance for a moment, then the red glow fan rattle.
Heat is a comfort we forget over summer, gladly sometimes. Winter brings the sharpness back to the world.