'My job is to clean the chimney, to prevent fires, not parade around in a hat and tails like a silly fool. Anyhow, I might fall off the roof with a top hat on.'
John Howl is into chimneys. Literally.
At 71, Howl is the ranking veteran of San Diego County's small flock of chimney sweeps, combining Old World tradition with modern technology to practice the grimy but romantic trade spotlighted in Walt Disney's "Mary Poppins."
Howl--a short, spry man with a quick wit, sparkling blue eyes and blondish curls that sprout out from beneath a scruffy sailor's cap--loves his job. But don't expect him to prance across rooftops or arrive by bicycle in coattails and a black top hat.
Because chimney sweeping, he says, is serious business.
" 'No muss, no fuss, no dust,' that's my motto," said Howl, a native of Birmingham, England, whose thick, crusty accent has echoed up flues throughout San Diego County for 25 years. "My job is to clean the chimney, to prevent fires, not parade around in a hat and tails like a silly fool.
"Anyhow, I might fall off the roof with a top hat on."
Ten years ago, Howl says, he was the only sweep on the block. Then came the energy crunch, which sent fuel prices sky high and gave birth to new interest in burning wood. Suddenly, "every bloke and his brother was coming out of the woodwork and deciding he wanted to clean chimneys," Howl recalls.
Today, there are about a dozen sweeps vying for business in the county. Because the trade is a seasonal one, many sweeps are part-timers--teachers, computer programmers or retirees who clean chimneys more for the intrigue than the paycheck. Others, like Howl, apply their talents to related jobs when chimney work is slow.
The competition doesn't bother Howl: "The book's full," he says. "I've hardly got a minute to spare."
Assisted these days by son John Jr., Howl credits his success to what he believes is the most elaborate chimney sweeping rig west of the Mississippi--a vacuum truck, hoses and specially imported brushes, equipment worth $35,000 in all. A typical two-story chimney job takes about an hour and costs $65. Howl does about four per day.
First, he suits up, donning rubber kneepads similar to those worn by volleyball players, thick gloves and a paper dust mask to keep fine ash and carbon particles from entering his lungs. He tried wearing goggles to shield his eyes, but they fogged up.
Next, Howl connects an 18-inch-wide, steel-lined vacuum hose to a mighty 250-horsepower engine mounted on his truck and snakes it through the house to the base of the fireplace. After he shines a light up the flue to determine the extent of the job, the scrubbing--with "gourmet" natural bristle brushes from London--begins.
Leaning against the back of the fireplace for leverage and a good angle, Howl grips the bamboo brush handle with both hands and scrubs both up and down and in a swirling motion. As soot falls, it is sucked up in mid-air by the powerful vacuum and carried through the hose into a giant, salami-shaped canvas bag that billows behind the truck outside.
"That powerful vacuum's the key," Howl says, "because otherwise all that soot will fall behind the damper and out of reach. I wouldn't try to clean a chimney without it."
Sweeping methods were not always so high-tech or clean.
Victorian-era sweeps earned a bad reputation by using children--for hire at next to nothing in the 17th and 18th centuries--to scrub the flues. A sweep would tie a rope around a child's waist, give him a brush and lower him down the chimney, which in those days averaged 6 feet square.
"They lost a lot of kids to TB that way," Howl said, "and it made us chimney sweeps look like real bad guys."
(Legend has it that sweeps turned to top hats and coattails to combat the bad image created by their abuse of child labor.)
Other early methods included lowering geese into a chimney--the goal was to get the birds to flap their wings and dislodge the soot--and pulling a pine tree through the flue. Some sweeps tried banging long chains against the bricks, which made a lot of racket but accomplished little else.
In Howl's youth, the chimney sweep wasn't much more efficient.
"The guy would put a paper bag in front of the fireplace, punch a hole in the bag, poke a rod through the bag and scrape the sides for a while," he recalled. "Soot would float all over the house. You'd be dusting for days."
Howl, whose first job was in steel smelting at age 16 in Birmingham, became a chimney sweep somewhat by accident. Fed up with union politics in the steel industry, he left England in 1960 and settled near Los Angeles. Although well-qualified, Howl, then 45, was considered too old by American steel companies he queried, and he could not get a job.
"So I went knocking on doors, sold cars for a while and ended up working for a furnace company in Pasadena," Howl said. "One day they had a vacuum truck for sale, so I bought it and set out on my own."
At first, he used the rig to suck dust from furnaces and air-conditioning systems, work that continues to keep him busy year-round. Then one day shortly after Howl moved to Del Mar in the early 1960s, a furnace client told him he wanted his chimney swept.
"I asked a friend to bring me some brushes from London and suddenly I was in business," he recalled.
Howl has found all sorts of treasures in chimneys over the years. The brightest memory involves the 300 doves in Encinitas.
"This lady called me, hysterical, and said 300 doves were trapped in her chimney," Howl recalled. "She wanted me to get 'em out alive, so I stuck the hose down, started the motor up real slow and sucked 'em up."
When he disconnected the other end of the hose, the birds fell to the ground in a heap, apparently dead.
"But I s'pose they were only in shock. Suddenly, one, then two, then three, then a whole bunch of them doves up and flew away," Howl said, waving his arms as he recalled their flight. "About 85% of those doves lived. But I'll tell ya--they were black as the ace of spades."
Other chimney victims Howl has retrieved include cats, pigeons and--he jokes with a wide grin--"even a few bodies."
Howl says he enjoys his job because he "like to talk about the world with different people" and provide a valuable service that can keep families safe from harm. A neglected flue, he notes, is a fire waiting to happen.
"You get much more than a quarter-inch of soot built up in there and the thing's liable to blow," he said. "What you get is an inferno coming out the top and bottom of the chimney."
In addition, Howl enjoys reciting legends of his gritty but somewhat entrancing trade. His favorite?
"They say it's very good luck for people, particularly brides, to kiss a chimney sweep," Howl said. "In old times, a fellow could do quite well by himself that way. He might pick up 10 pounds a kiss."
One day, that legend worked in Howl's favor: "I was doing a job in Rancho Santa Fe and a voluptuous blonde came up and kissed me," Howl recalled. "She said, 'That's good luck, it is,' and I said, 'That's terrific.' "
But there is a downside to sweeping--it can be a hazardous trade.
There are the occasional burning eyes and lungs from the soot, and Howl has had his share of injuries--a strained back, a broken foot and, most recently, a double hernia operation. One day while he was scrubbing a flue from the top down at a Kensington home, his ladder slid out from under him, leaving him hanging above the pavement from the brick chimney.
"I got extra strength somewhere and got my legs around to the roof," Howl said. "But boy, I was shaky."
Although his charisma and character seem suitable for his time-honored trade, Howl often has a difficult time convincing people he is an honest-to-goodness chimney sweep. They just don't seem to buy it.
"When I go to Vegas, five times a year, and I'm all gussied up with fancy clothes and rings, the pit boss will ask me, 'Hey John, what do you do for a living?' " Howl said. "I'll say, 'What do you think?' And he'll guess I'm a doctor or lawyer. I'll tell him I'm a chimney sweep and he'll say, 'Like hell you are.' They just don't believe me."
So how does he convince them?
"I don't. I let 'em believe I'm a doctor or a lawyer."