The Oil Heater

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I remember seeing a soldier open the front of an oil heater at the Unit Police office where I worked for a while and jump back or be blown back by a sheet of orange flame that leaped out at him.

He wasn't hurt, though I think he had an eyebrow or two singed.

In light of this, you may be surprised to learn that I really loved those diesel oil heaters.

They were about waist-high, barrel-shaped devices with a sheet-metal shield around them. The shield prevented the unwary from searing themselves against the hot burner, but the many holes in the shield let the heat get by. The only real opening in the shield, as I recall, was the little door in the front with a tiny hole in its face so you could see if the fire had gone out, which it often had. They sat in a square metal pan that caught the oil drippings, and consequently, had a certain air about them.

Every day we dragged a couple five-gallon jerry cans of diesel fuel from the motor pool to our barracks and up four floors (no elevators) to our attic room to feed the beast. One tall, husky, good-natured fellow in my platoon did most of the carrying because, I'm afraid, most of us (myself included) took advantage of his good nature. Occasionally, however, he did suggest it was my turn and I reluctantly did my duty.

For about six months after I got to Germany my company lived in the sub-attic while our barracks was being refurbished. The building's high-sloped roof -- broken in only one place by a casement window -- came right down to the cold concrete floor. On winter nights it was freezing.

About 7 or 8 p.m., after dinner, we would work the pump up and down to get the oil into the heater, then light a piece of twisted paper and throw it in the door of the heater. Hopefully it lit. If not, you went through the process again.

A jerry can of oil would get you through to about two or three in the morning, at which time you either got up and put on a new can, or hoped your blankets would keep you warm. Nobody wanted to get up, so usually it was freezing when we got up in the morning.

So far, I don't think I've painted a very attractive picture of oil heaters, and even when I'm done you may not think highly of them, but let me try to describe why I remember them fondly.

I was born and raised in Southern California, so when I arrived in Germany, snow and cold weather were a novelty to me and I kind of liked them.

I particularly remember one cold winter night lying on my bed and reading in fascination C.S. Lewis' book, "The Screwtape Letters." I could hear the flames in the oil heater jumping and leaping and could feel the warmth of the heater on one side and the cold on the other side.

Then, when we turned out the lights, everything became quiet except for a few late-night jokes from the other guys in the platoon. But those quickly died down and all you could hear was the oil heater flaming and flaring. And with the lights out, the heater also became like a pinhole camera, projecting images of the flames through the little inspection hole onto the walls and ceiling.

I remember lying there on my narrow bed feeling the warmth and the cold, listening to the flames, looking at the bright orange glow of the little inspection hole, and watching the ghostly echoes of flames that danced and flickered their way across the ceiling.

There I was in a cold attic with a finicky heater, a wimpy bed and no privacy, and yet somehow it was just achingly sweet, and I felt (and still feel) so grateful to God for giving me that moment


How to Become a Christian.
Copyright 1996, Brad Haugaard.