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Tammy Swift, Published January 04 2009

Daughter remembers dad’s furnace know-how when heat is on

There are car guys, fitness guys and tech guys. My dad is a furnace guy.

For as long as I can remember, he has slavishly devoted himself to the care and feeding of our family’s heating systems.

Every winter morning and night, Dad would disappear into the bowels of our farmhouse to stoke, tend and cajole our huge, crusty coal furnace. And, much like the expletive-spewing patriarch on “A Christmas Story,” he could be heard cursing under his breath the whole time.

Curled up under my covers in the only basement bedroom, I often overheard these sotto voce diatribes. It was mesmerizing to hear these venomous, unintelligible rants – punctuated by the angry clank of coal pails – pouring from my normally mild-mannered father.

I could never fully figure out if his wrath was actually aimed at our ancient furnace. Instead, I suspect he used his furnace-tending ritual as catharsis to vent his frustrations about farm prices, disagreements with mom or the fact he hadn’t been able to get into the bathroom since all of his four daughters became teens.

Apparently, he didn’t mind furnace duty too much. After he quit farming and my parents moved into town, Dad launched an HVAC business.

It was the perfect set-up for a “retiree” whose idea of taking it easy was a 50-hour workweek. Customers never waned: There was always some widow or old farmer whose Mayflower-era furnace decided to groan its last rusty breath in the midst of a blizzard or cold snap. And so Dad would help them out, day or night, never charging mileage or emergency fees.

After Irwin and I bought our first home, the rest of the family rushed to check out the custom cabinets or the new appliances. But dad headed straight to the furnace room, where he pronounced our Lennox Pulse 21 fit and ready for duty.

But that was seven years ago. Lately, the Lennox has been ailing. It started as a faint, sporadic buzzing sound.

Forever the “furnace guy’s” daughter, I noticed the sound immediately.

“What’s that?” I said to Irwin. “The furnace is making a weird sound.”

“What sound?” said Irwin. “That’s the water softener. It always makes that sound.”

“No it doesn’t,” I replied. “That’s a different buzz. This sounds strange.”

Irwin looked at me like I was insane and walked away.

Slowly, the buzzing increased, until it sounded like the world’s loudest and most obnoxious joy hand buzzer.

“That!” I would yell out. “Don’t try to tell me that is supposed to be normal.”

“A panel is just vibrating or something,” Irwin said. “I’ll go kick it.”

Was he kidding? Didn’t he realize I was the daughter of Virgil Swift, the most dedicated furnace guy in western North Dakota? Surely, after all those years of hearing my dad talk about furnaces and rant about furnaces, I had absorbed some kind of knowledge by osmosis. Surely I had picked up something from my father besides a few new curse words.

I winced as I heard Irwin actually kick the furnace. “That,” I thought to myself, “is something Dad would never do.”

And so I felt some relief upon seeing a furnace guy pull into our driveway a few days later. Turns out it wasn’t a loose panel or a water softener or my crazy imagination. Instead, a couple of relays – whatever those are – needed to be replaced.

Dad would be so proud.

I have joined his sect.

Call me Tammy, the Furnace Whisperer.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at tswift@forumcomm.com