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Published on May 18, 2021

Memories are made of this

We set fire to Grandpa Ruffo’s chimney

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, about 1950, the clan descended on Grandpa Ruffo’s farm, outside of Tennessee Colony, Texas.

A Texas blue norther blew in from the Arctic, through the Panhandle, and settled over Anderson County. The temperature was just below freezing, and the wind was out of the north, whistling along at 40 to 50 miles per hour. It was beyond cold.

A dozen or so assorted nieces, nephews and cousins were trapped in the house with a like number of aunts and uncles. Tensions were running high between the adults and the kids; an explosion was imminent.

Grandpa Ruffo sat in his rocking chair in front of the fireplace, reading his newspaper. He seemed totally oblivious to the situation in the house.

We kids got together and decided to do something nice for a change. Knowing that if we did, we just might prevent the impending meltdown. Somebody suggested if we tended the fire in the fireplace, some of us might live to see Sunday morning. There was a nice fire, a stack of firewood and a dozen sub-teens wanting to be pyromaniacs. What could go wrong?

Using the poker, the ash shovel and the ash bucket, we cleaned out the excess ash and coals. We rearranged the burning logs to make the fire nice and level and hot. Next, we carefully selected a new piece of firewood and added it to the burn. Although it was probably a result of all the exercise involved, we agreed that the room had warmed up a degree or two.

We added another piece of firewood. Because we were quiet and doing our own thing, the adults started leaving us alone and quit getting on our case. Elated with outsmarting the adults, we added another piece of firewood.

Then one more log, followed by a couple more. Now, we had a roaring fire in the fireplace. The room was hot enough that the adults started to sweat and left for cooler places. Everybody left except Ruffo and his “pyro” grandkids.

Suddenly, there was a “whoosh” sound. Immediately following, a roar like a jet plane taking off ran up the chimney. The sound reached a sustained roar of at least 200 decibels. Bits of paper and assorted dust bunnies flew across the room and were sucked up the chimney. We had started a chimney fire. Oh no, we were going to burn the house down!

Half of us stood still, frozen in place, mouths open and eyes bulging. The rest ran in circles, screaming. None of us remembered that the fireplace and the chimney was two- to three-foot-thick, made from large rocks gleaned from the surrounding fields, or that the house had a corrugated metal roof. The chance of setting the house on fire was very low, but we didn’t know that.

All the kids there thought we were trapped in a burning house and would be barbecued to death. We were all raised in hard-shelled, hell’s fire-and-brimstone Baptist churches. We had sinned, and a fiery death was only a prelude to what was to come; we would go straight to hell.

The preachers had told us that wide is the path that leads to eternal damnation.

We would be on that road on a downhill slope with a tailwind. If, by chance, some of us survived, we knew that the adults would kill us before sending us down that path.

Then, Grandpa Ruffo, completely unruffled, folded his newspaper, leaned back in his rocking chair and slid the paper under the rocker. He had not finished the sports section, and he did not want his paper to be sucked up the chimney.

He rocked back straight, pinning his paper under the rocker. He slowly rose from it and ambled into the dining room, coming back to the living room with a one-pound pasteboard package of Morton’s table salt.

The blue label sported a picture of a little girl in a raincoat carrying an umbrella and splashing through a puddle, illustrating Morton’s slogan, “When it rains, it pours.”

Ruffo walked to the fireplace and opened the metal spout used to pour salt into teaspoons and tablespoons. Holding the container, he poured a handful of salt into his left hand. He threw that handful of salt into the fireplace, just above the top of the flames.

Instant quiet. The chimney fire was out in the blink of an eye.

Ruffo turned to me, stuck out his hand containing the salt container and spoke the only word he uttered throughout this ordeal. He said “table”, noting where to return the salt. He sat back down in his rocker, leaned back, retrieved his newspaper, unfolded it to the sports section and resumed his reading. All the kids lived.

To us kids, Ruffo performed magic - he was the greatest magical firefighter that ever lived.

What actually happened? The salt smothered the fire by robbing it of oxygen - its fuel. Baking soda works as well. But unless you have a chimney and a roof constructed like Ruffo’s, call the fire department immediately because chimney fires are dangerous.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)