Dr. Rodney T. Hard

          KEEPING THE WINTER FIRES GOING

By:  Dr. Rodney T. Hard

Our first house in Korea was heated in the winter by a fire under the house which heated the floors.  The Koreans traditionally slept on the floor, but our family had traditional American beds with box spring mattresses.

Our house had no insulation and was very drafty, so, if you wanted to have even a modicum of heat in the house during the cold winters, you had to keep a good fire going in the "ondol".  At our house, the firebox was down in a pit outside the master bedroom which was only accessible from the outside.  When you had to add some wood and stoke the fire, you had to bundle up and brave the cold, the snow, and the wind.  During the day, the maid would keep the fire going, but at night, somebody in the family had to keep it going.

One especially cold winter, when I was about age eleven, our parents were gone on a trip and it was left up to my older brother Sterling and me to keep the fire going.   In the middle of the night we woke up to a freezing cold house.  We had slept and let the fire go out.

Sterling and I went outside to try to start a fire.  I held a flashlight while Sterling went down into the pit, opened the cast iron door, and tried to build a fire.  It was so cold and windy that even down in the pit the wind kept my brother from being able to get a fire going.  So, Sterling went and got what he thought was kerosene and poured it over the wood in the fire box.   Well, unfortunately it was actually gasoline.

By this time, I had braved the cold long enough and had retreated into the house.  After all, Sterling had the whole task under control, didn't he?  He was my older brother.  He could handle it.  He didn't need me anymore.  At least that is what I rationalized.

Sterling then hunkered down in the pit, looked inside the firebox, and threw in a lit match.  KABOOM!  The ball of fire from the combustion of the gasoline fumes blew Sterling back several feet burning his face.  The blast burned off his eyebrows, his eyelashes, and much of the hair on the front part of his head.

Ondol fire pit with the fire gone out.

Click on the above video to see how the Ondol fire heats the floor of the house.


He came running into the house screaming and crying while holding his face.  He screamed for me to do something because he had burned his face.  I ran into the bathroom and got some Vaseline jelly in a little jar and started rubbing it all over his face to try to stop the burning and hopefully have a healing effect.  There were no other options.  We were home alone.  There was no 911 call to be made in those days, and we did not have a phone anyway other than the army field phone hooked up by direct line to Bruce Hunt's house in the next neighborhood below us.  It was 4:00 a.m. in the morning and there was a curfew.  Nobody was to be out and about after midnight.  Even if we could go out, we had no transportation and no public transportation ran after midnight.  In the panic of this kind of emergency, I thought I was handling it fairly well. 

Well, I thought things were under control to the best of my ability until moments later when Sterling started really screaming bloody murder with sheer panic in his eyes.  The jar of Vaseline jelly I had hurriedly gotten out of the medicine cabinet turned out to be Vicks VapoRub and the camphor, eucalyptus, menthol, turpentine oil and other ingredients in it made his face feel like it was burning even worse.

To this day, my brother Sterling insists that I did that on purpose.  I did not.  It was an honest mistake in all the commotion.  The jars were the same and they both had thick petroleum jelly in them with the same consistency.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.