DEL MAR — 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 from beneath a scruffy sailor 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."
Plenty of Work
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 recalled.
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 said. "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 a 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 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 said, "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 so 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 six 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."
Better Image Sought
(Legend has it that sweeps turned to top hats and tails 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 at 16 in a Birmingham steel plant, 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."