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Rated: E · Non-fiction · Biographical · #2195109
Wood smoke and the speed of sound create an indelible memory

Whack Sound Effect


In Science class we learned that light travels almost instantaneously, but the speed of sound through the air is only 767 miles per hour. This value is based on a 'normal' pressure of 1 atmosphere and a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the speed of sound varies quite a bit with air temperature – and the speed is actually lower when the air is cooler. So, on a crisp morning, with the temperature hovering just above zero, the speed of sound is right at 720 miles per hour. This is important to my story for a couple of reasons. The main event took place in the winter, which explains the need for chopping firewood, and 720 mph makes the math easier.

Okay then, let’s do the math to establish the validity of my numbers (full disclosure - I enjoy doing the math). A speed of 720 miles per hour divided by 60 minutes in an hour gives a speed of 12 miles per minute. And 60 seconds in a minute divided by 12 gives us a time of 5 seconds for sound to travel one mile. Finally, one mile divided by five gives us the fact that on a cold Montana morning, a sound will travel two tenths of a mile in one second. By sheer coincidence, the distance between the Rinke house and the Fisher house is almost exactly two tenths of a mile. The Fisher house being where I grew up and the Rinke family being what Montana folks would call ‘next door’ neighbors.

What about the firewood? Well, let me describe the Rinke’s house first. When I was growing up, back in the 1960’s, Hubert and Dorothy Rinke still lived in the original ‘tar-paper shack’ that Hubert's father, homesteader Julius Rinke, built around 1912. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a genuine link to our pioneer past. It didn’t have any electrical outlets until 1935. Even in the 1960's I remember a lot of extension cords and octopus plugs. It was built without indoor plumbing and the single water faucet in the kitchen was added about 1957. There never was a drain pipe. Water went directly into a kettle, coffee pot, or the big enameled basin that was used for washing up. When the basin was full, someone would carry it out back and dump it over the fence. The wastewater would run down the hillside and soak into the ground (there was always a lush green spot there below the house). There was no bathroom, just a mirror hung above the wash basin. Saturday night baths were taken in the kitchen, using a galvanized wash tub and with water heated on the cook stove.

How can a family do their business without a bathroom? Well, there was an outhouse located about 20 yards from the front door to provide for ‘personal relief'. And that particular outhouse was really spacious. It was a ‘two hole’ design that provided the option of reading a magazine by yourself or ‘going’ with a friend. I remember how hilarious it was to wait until someone was sitting comfortably, and then throw rocks or dirt clods at the back wall - a perfect example of 'catching 'em with their pants down'.

But I digress - let's get back to the main house.

That old tar paper shack didn’t have much insulation, but it did have a wood burning stove in every room. There was a cast iron cook stove in the kitchen, and a pot belly stove in the living room. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. There was no stove in the attic area where the family slept, but there was wood heat in two of the three rooms. Of course, there really wasn’t much space upstairs between the ceiling and the rafters. An adult had to stay directly under the peak of the roof to walk upright. Even a kid had to duck down to access the lower areas toward the eaves (like sliding to the far side of the bed). The temperature could get toasty when the pot belly stove was well stoked. But by morning, the fire would be reduced to embers and the attic would be only a little warmer than the outside. I slept over many nights there with the Rinke boys and it was only natural to sleep three to a bed. In fact, there would be competition for the middle spot when the temperature dipped below freezing.

That ramshackle house didn't seem strange when I was only ten years old. I simply accepted that their house was different from ours. A lot of the homesteader buildings around the valley were small, old, and worn down by time. My own family was living in a 55 foot long by 12 foot wide mobile home. And that trailer had really earned the title 'mobile home'. Dad bought it while we were living in Washington State and he towed it to Montana, by himself, with a 1 ton Chevy truck. I think the six of us in that trailer felt more cramped than the Rinke family did in their 'shack'. The old house is long gone (Dorothy got a new house in 1972) but I'm glad to have experienced that ‘old time’ lifestyle, even if only as a guest. Those memories make me appreciate the modern conveniences that my kids take for granted and they allow me to bore them with fascinating stories from the good old dark ages. Still, it was a better time to be from than to be in.

A picture of the original homesteader shack circa 1912

Dorothy Rinke gave me this picture of Julius and his young family that was taken when their homesteader shack was brand new. The background provides a nice view of the Mission Mountain range, which rises directly east of Ronan. The Mission Valley was opened to homesteading in 1910, Lucille (on mama's lap) was born in 1911, and Hubert (not shown) was born in 1913. So I think this picture was probably taken in 1912. I also found images on the web similar to what I remember about the woodpile and the cast iron stoves:

Images of old time heating and cooking tools

Okay, back to the original story. Between cooking three meals a day and keeping warm in the winter, that old house required a lot of firewood. That meant the Rinkes were often outside cutting logs for the pot belly stove or splitting kindling for the cook stove. If I happened to be out in our yard, I could see them swinging the axe, two tenths of a mile away. And I could clearly hear that axe coming down on the wood. But the audio was always out of sync with the video. The axe would rise, then fall, and then rise again - THUNK! It took a full second for the sound to arrive after the axe fell. If the person chopping the wood found a good rhythm, then there would be a loud thunk each time the axe was lifted up instead of sounding on the down stroke. It was fascinating in an eerie kind of way. And when the axe work was all done, there would be a ghostly, disconnected thunk that seemed to come out of nowhere, one second after the final stroke. The feel of the crisp morning air, the faint smell of smoke, and the image of an axe hitting wood with that delayed sound effect has stayed with me for 50 years.

P.S. This phenomenon of delayed sound can also be put to practical use to estimate the danger from a lightning strike. Start counting the seconds when you see a flash – one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four - BOOM! If the boom arrives less than five seconds after the flash, then the lightning strike was less than a mile away. If the delay is less than a second, then you can check nearby trees for damage. If the flash and boom are simultaneous, then you might want to check your roof for flames!




2018 Terrence G. Fisher
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