In the doldrums of January, tales of woe and misery warm our hearts

Anyone who says they enjoy Boston winters has never heated their home with fuel oil. Heating oil. The dreaded necessity.

In the deep freeze of these January days – some of them accompanied by snow and some just with the cruel kind of cold that only Bostonians can understand - most of my free time is occupied with the 275-gallon oil tank in my basement and the deep path it is forging into my checking account as these dark winter weeks go by.

No one has truly experienced winter in Boston until they’ve had to look at the upcoming forecast, run down to the cellar to check the oil tank gauge, take measure of the bank account balance, and then make those three factors line up in a way that will keep the family somewhat warm and you not flat broke.

Winter is an adventure for sure in these old homes, and while a lot of people have switched to natural gas to avoid headaches, I’m still a die-hard for heating oil. A lot of people west of Washington seem to agree, as I still see many oil trucks paving a path through streets and getting honked at as they idle in the middle of a narrow road while filling up someone’s tank. Also, many of my conversations with neighbors includes exchanging anxieties about the God-forsaken oil tanks in our cellars. It’s all part of the story.

When I think about winters past, I always go back to one year in the late 2000s when a massive storm was approaching, and the weekend forecasts called for a major deep freeze to follow. I had made the call to the oil man, and he was scheduled to come on Friday to fill it all up. However, on Thursday night, Gov. Deval Patrick ordered all vehicles – including oil trucks – off the roads for the weekend.

The terror of running out of oil in a blizzard radiated down my spine.

I called the oil company and they said they couldn’t come and would get in big trouble if they ventured out. I called a couple of my backup oil guys, and they said the same. Meanwhile, heavy snow was starting to come down, and the temperatures were taking a nosedive. Desperate, I called my oil company again and my guy sympathized, but he couldn’t do anything until at least Monday or Tuesday, he said.

“I’m going to run out tomorrow morning,” I said. “Diesel fuel,” was his two-word reply. “What?” I asked.

He informed me that, while he wasn’t recommending it as a routine, “in a pinch” I could get some diesel fuel from the gas station and pour it into the oil tank, that it wouldn’t hurt for a few days.

My mission was before me. I jumped in my pickup and drove through the driving snow to the auto parts store and grabbed three five-gallon gas cans. From there, I became a winter warrior – determined to protect the home front. I got behind a snowplow and headed up Dot Ave to the 76 Station, filled up my cans, then headed back to west of Washington. Back and forth I went, grabbing 15 gallons at a time and confusing the cashier – who had no other customers in the blizzard conditions but me.

Now for those who may not have done such a bizarre errand, five gallons of diesel fuel isn’t light weight, and pouring three of them into the side of the house in succession during a cold, blizzard is the bottom of the barrel. It was during my second trip that the winter warrior excitement wore off. On the third trip slipping and sliding up Dot Ave. I asked myself why I was still living in New England. I hit my breaking point on my fourth time dumping fuel into the tank.

Now, I’m not a person who uses foul language whatsoever, but standing astride the house holding 30 pounds of fuel on my hip in the freezing cold, I had met my match.

I cursed the oil man.

I cursed Deval Patrick.

I cursed the aroma of the diesel fuel.

I cursed the winter.

As far as I know, only God and a little snowman in the front yard heard my expletive-laced outburst, and I’m hoping neither holds it against me in the long run. We made it through the storm, and circumstances have required such errands two other times in the years since. Each time I swear I will abandon oil and lay out the money for a natural gas line and a new gas boiler, but each time the winter rolls around, I’m lulled by the ease and sentimentality of the oil man and his truck.

And so, no, I don’t like Boston winters, but like a lot of other people around here, I cherish being able to tell people how miserable winter is in Boston. Therein lies the joy.


When we moved into our neighborhood west of Washington long ago, one of our neighbors was the Gilchrist family. They had been there for more than 50 years, and Robert Gilchrist was said to be north of 100 years old.

With the coming of our first snowstorm in our new home, and with three teen-age girls in the house at the time, I marshalled those unwilling troops and ordered them to come over to the Gilchrist home with me to shovel their snow. I was certain no one over 100 years old was going to be able to take care of the heavy, wet snow outside.

When Mr. Gilchrist answered the door, I introduced myself and the girls, and told him what we were about to do. He laughed and politely declined, saying he would be doing it himself. I couldn’t believe it, but lo and behold, about 30 minutes later, he came out with a wool jacket, a thick scarf, a toboggan, and an old metal shovel.

Machine-like, he bent, scooped, and tossed the snow, stairs and all, in what looked like a ballroom dance maneuver. I watched him do the same thing storm after storm for a few years. It was incredible and I often look back and wish I had the stamina he had then when I was half his age. I gave up the shovel a few years back for a snow blower, but Mr. Gilchrist shoveled away right through his last storm.

Years later I told his daughter that story, and she got a good laugh out of it.

“Dad was really protective of his snow,” she said with a chuckle. “No one was going to shovel his snow for him under any circumstances.”

Here’s to those sorts of hearty Bostonians with a hope that such tales don’t dissolve into history like so many of the legends in our old city.

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