The Hokkaido earthquake in early September stirred a lot of discussion among my neighbors about disaster preparedness and how to deal with loss of power if it should happen during the winter. It also stirred up a personal memory of one particular winter disaster.
The stove that heated my childhood home was a Hokkaido version of the Russian pechka, once used for both heating and cooking, and probably introduced to Hokkaido via Siberia. Our pechka was a thick brick wall built between the two main rooms of our house. There was a firebox attached to one end of it for burning wood or coal. Smoke and heated air traveled through a system of pipes inside the wall, gently warming the rooms on either side of it.
The horizontal pipes had metal caps that could be removed at one end of the wall for periodic cleaning. The cleaning process was entertaining to watch. My father scraped out the sooty inside surface of each pipe with a special tool. Then he set small fires inside each pipe to burn away any residual soot. I called them “fairy fires” because the bits of soot seemed to dance in an orange glow until they disappeared.
We lived in the coal-mining town of Bibai, so coal was the obvious choice for fuel. The delivery truck dumped coal through a window of a shed that stood a short distance from our front door. At 9 years old, I was the eldest of five siblings, so it was my job to drag a big metal bucket to the shed and fill it with coal for the pechka each day.
Very early one morning, when my father was out of town, my mother started the usual fire in the pechka firebox. Soon we noticed the house was roaring and vibrating in a strange way. My mother thought it was an earthquake. My siblings and I were still in our pajamas, but she threw coats over us and pushed us all out of the house. We had made it down the driveway to the big road when we heard an explosion.
The fire department arrived to inspect the house, and eventually they let us back in. The pechka was in ruins. There were piles of bricks and soot all over the floor, our breakfast and freshly washed laundry. Our poor cat was cowering — but safe — under a bed upstairs.
In spite ofregular cleaning, the pipes had accumulated soot and gases, causing the pechka to explode from the inside. It was a close call for our family, and we were lucky not to get hurt. But sometimes I still miss that pechka. (Deborah Davidson)