On my desk sits a small green metal box, a new steel tea pot that holds less than a liter of water, and a list of camping gear I believe I simply must acquire before I go any further.
This is what comes of inheritance. It seems like a boon at the time but in fact it is a gateway to the Diderot effect, where the acquisition of one thing leads to the acquisition of another, which leads to additional dissatisfaction with things you already own, so you acquire further replacements and refinements… until your entire life has been transformed.
Such is the corrupting influence of an inheritance.
It was my grandmother who left me a garage packed with things that might come in handy someday. On the shelf with the headless duck decoy, a stack of rusty leghold traps, and an old ax, was a little green metal box. I don’t remember what became of the duck decoy, although I know we kept it for years. The rusty bits went into the metal bin.
But I still have the little green box, stamped “Optimus No. 8”
Inside the box is a white gas stove, packed tidy as you please, with a cute little tank, a key for adjusting the flame, a grate to hold a pot, and a fragile set of instructions. Optimus, a Swedish company, produced these little stoves right through WWII until about 1957, and you can still buy a modern (and more efficient) version today under the name “Hiker+.”
While it is difficult to date these stoves precisely this was likely purchased during my grandparent’s European hiking holiday before the war. My grandfather must have loved this thing, it is a marvel of brass and careful engineering with no moving parts designed, in its cheerful compactness, to cook food. It uses heat to vaporize naphtha, commonly known as Coleman fuel, creating a self-sustaining blue flame that will boil water in roughly ten minutes (according to the directions), but more importantly, has a low flame for simmering.
Weighing in at 24 ounces with a full tank (a ½ cup of fuel, adequate to a one hour burn time) this is, by modern standards, too heavy to be considered a piece of hiking gear. My grandmother, who lugged this thing in a canvas rucksack up hill and down armed with her little 2 cup coffee percolator and a film canister of matches, never mentioned the weight. But she also hiked with a wool blanket bedroll, a tarp, canned food, and did it wearing sneakers, blue jeans, with a fresh perm in her hair.
The woman was a goddess.
She also lit charcoal by pouring half a can of lighter fluid over it and throwing in a match. The resulting WHUMP of ignition frightened birds out of the trees.
So when I decided, in a fit of Kondo inspired spring cleaning, to see if this little thing should go in the trash, donate, or sell pile, I was loath to simply fill it with fuel and throw a match at it. I kept seeing my grandmother standing nonchalantly, three feet from the side of the house, in a tower of flame contained by a flimsy and highly questionable cheap tin barbeque.
Clearly, some expertise might be helpful here, to avoid unnecessary towers of flame, or explosions.
Perhaps not surprisingly there are collectors and aficionados of old stoves who have taken restoring these little campers to a high art form, the brass once again taking on the warm gleaming yellow of new, the tanks polished to silver perfection. Restorations are documented with before pictures of neglect and after, stoves running with blue flames pouring out from under the tiny burner plates. The forum couldn’t have been more helpful in guiding me through the process of disassembling, polishing, filling, and ultimately, with only a modest unanticipated burst of flame, priming and igniting, until I had my own money shot… blue flames pouring out from under the burner plate with the distinctive howl of a paraffin stove.
Unfortunately, by the time I’d captured that money shot the little stove had captured my heart. I set my kitchen tea pot on it and let it howl its way to boiling water (a good fifteen minutes, not ten as advertised), made tea, and decided I needed the right size pot, a little tea pot, for the little stove.
And a fuel bottle, a lighter (with a long handle), a bottle for carrying water, a cup…
From my grandmother I inherited an unassuming green metal box with a dirty little stove inside. It is heavy and slow, but once it is polished, it is beautiful. And when you throw a match at it a whole world of potential ignites in a burst of pure blue flame.
If the stove and I are going to make an adventure of it, we’ll need a sleeping bag, and a tent, and something to carry this all in…
I started the spring cleaning with a stove, and ended there too, when it burst out into a cheerful blue, lighting the way down a path I never thought to set foot on.
Such is the influence of an inheritance.