A couple months ago I was working in the yard at my grandfather’s house (where he has lived the last few years), when I remembered that I had a few questions for him. I was in the middle of researching and developing a science fiction writing project called The Day the Sun Died and I knew he could provide the kind of details I wouldn’t so easily find in a book or online. The Day the Sun Died concerns three primary characters struggling to survive several weeks after the sun has mysteriously vanished, sending the planets of our solar system careening through the darkness of space.
The Day the Sun Died was inspired by this video, which does an excellent job outlining the changes the Earth might experience if our sun disappeared (or if the Earth was ever ripped out of the solar system and cast into space). Of course, there would be a period of chaos and turmoil, but life would not immediately come to an end. Depending upon their actions, some humans would undoubtedly find ways to survive for weeks or months (possibly longer in a few cases) as the planet slowly became colder and colder.
The setting for the majority of the story was essentially my grandfather’s old farmhouse. When I was a child, he and my grandmother lived there and, in many ways, that’s where I grew up – I could say the same for my sister and a couple of my cousins as well. The farmhouse was truly old, constructed around 1878, and the surrounding property that my grandparents maintained functioned as a miniature farm.
Perched on a hilltop, the farmhouse commanded an impressive view in all directions and could be seen for quite a distance standing among several tall maples. There was always a grace and grandeur about the house, especially when I was young. The rooms were large and the ceilings very high. There were narrow passages, old fixtures, fireplaces, and secret doors. The house was remarkably consistent. Years passed and the place never really changed. All the furniture and appliances remained in the same place. The rooms were always used for the same purposes. My grandparents’ routines seemed to be the exact same each day (I can still distinctly remember my grandmother listening to WCVI or WMBS in the kitchen each morning). Although some felt the house was slowly falling apart (especially as my grandparents aged), I think that part of me always suspected my grandparents’ house would last forever.
My grandparents had lived in this house far longer than I had been alive, so I could only draw upon what I remembered as a child and young adult. I needed to know more than my memory alone could provide. That’s when I got the idea to interview my grandfather.
I needed my grandfather to describe to me some of his experiences living in that old farmhouse (especially in winter) because the three principal characters in The Day the Sun Died begin the story eking out an existence at a similar house in the countryside. These characters are faced with a question: do we continue to live here and slowly succumb to the conditions or do we take a chance and attempt to reach a destination where our lives could be prolonged?
I started with very straightforward questions. My grandfather explained his daily routine to me, especially about how the house’s coal furnace had to be maintained. He explained how the chimneys and fireplaces in the house had originally been designed (as some of this had changed before I was born). He recalled the specifics of the system that moved hot water from the furnace to iron radiators throughout the house. Much of the information he shared with me encouraged me to ask questions I had not thought of before. He went on to outline the process by which he had butchered animals in his younger years and, basically, the finer details of operating a small farm. I took notes as he spoke and was very satisfied with all that he had to share.
After forty-five minutes, our conversation had ended. I decided to explain to my grandfather why I had asked so many questions about his old house and, specifically, the heating system used inside. I even shared some of my ideas for The Day the Sun Died with him. He seemed somewhat perplexed by this, as I suspect that he thought I needed this information for a research paper or newspaper article. I thanked him for all the information he had provided and that was that. I didn’t really think that he and I would ever discuss those details again and I assumed he may well have forgotten the entire conversation by the next day.
Earlier this week I was at his house again working in the yard. He was sitting on the porch and sharing this and that about some local happenings and recalling who had visited him recently and what news those visitors had told him. There are moments when my grandfather seems to have walked right out of a John Wayne film – and his porch becomes the front steps of the town saloon or lawman’s office – and this was one of those times. The way he banters is whimsical and, if you really listen, creates a certain nostalgia for some bygone era that you can’t quite place. He really isn’t the science fiction sort, but he could have played a mean Friar Tuck. I knew that, while he may have vaguely recalled our conversation about coal furnaces and the worst winters he could remember, he probably hadn’t thought again about why I had asked all those questions.
After about an hour or so, I had finished the intended task and was preparing to leave. That’s when my grandfather really surprised me. He asked plainly, “How is that book coming?”
That definitely brought a smile to my face.