Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 1-09-05
By Jeff Gill

“Three removes equal one fire” said Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Old firehorse that he was, Ben knew a bit about fires, and his earlier poorer days gave him and Deborah his wife some familiarity with moving.
The Lovely Wife and I have moved now ten times in not quite twenty years of marriage, five of them with the Little Guy and the appurtenances that come with a young’un (most of them clearly labeled “Matchbox,” which they are emphatically larger than, worse luck). By Mr. Franklin’s count, we’ve had over three fires together . . . but wait, there really was one fire (with flames and everything), just not in a house. Yes, I’ve managed to misplace one church I once served through conflagration, but it wasn’t me; at least, that’s what the arson squad said. LW still is thankful that we don’t have those hundreds of books still to move that added a nice blue tinge to the flames over the building, what with all the pretty colors in the covers.
Still, we have progressively more stuff each move, one way or another, which is a sobering experience to assess, and my back muscles have assessed very accurately that we either must never move again, or get rid of stuff.
She of the loveliness at home sayeth: Both.
And, of course, she is right.
More on getting rid of stuff in some future column, you can be sure.
But what about this “(re)moves and fires” business? Well, you have to recall that both fires were more common and moving was much more challenging in 1757.
If you visit Ben Franklin’s house site in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from Independence Hall, you’ll find just that, a site. The architect Robert Venturi designed a very nice steel framework that evokes the outlines of the building once behind the print shop which would have been his longest domicile, but it fell (as did most Colonial era homes) to a chimney fire.
Out in the wilds of a place like, say, the Ohio country in the 1700’s, the chimney was oftimes literally built on a slant, a pile of stone propped up with long poles that could be kicked out by a householder when the first whiff of fire was in the air.
In the city, where structures were so close, this simple method of fire protection was generally not possible, and so they tended to catch more often. Still, with large solid timbers, it wasn’t unusual for homes and buildings to catch fire many times over their lives. Smoke damage, singeing, and the stray splash of water from one of the volunteer fire companies (another area in which Franklin was a pioneer, perhaps out of no little self-interest); this would be the worst most fires would bring to your three linen undershirts, two waistcoats, and extra breeches and buckled shoes. Pottery rode out your average house fire quite well, and even the family Bible, thick and bound in thicker leather, might just pick up a stray scorch or two as a souvenir.
Moving, on the other hand, with wooden crates a precious commodity, meant goods heaped into the back of an open wagon, buffered by a few burlap sacks if you could find some not in use.
If you didn’t have a sharp eye and quick hand riding the tailgate as you bumped through the narrow, crowded streets of town to your new address, a sharper, quicker hand might filch a pitcher or plate.
On arrival, you could find that the jostling against the wagonbed could not only scramble your goods, but dent, scratch, and smash even pewter.
So it was that Franklin could say, to knowing nods of agreement, “Three removes equal one fire.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher in central Ohio; if you have tales to tell of moves gone well or awry, e-mail him at disciple@voyager.net.

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