In Fuel Oil Country, Cold That Cuts to the Heart

By:  Dan Barry

With the darkening approach of another ice-hard Saturday night in western Maine, the man on the telephone was pleading for help, again. His tank was nearly dry, and he and his disabled wife needed preciousheating oil to keep warm. Could Ike help out? Again?

Ike Libby, the co-owner of a small oilcompany called Hometown Energy, ached for his customer, Robert Hartford. He knew what winter in Maine meant, especially for a retired couple living in a wood-frame house built in the 19th century. But he also knew that the Hartfords already owed him more than $700 for two earlier deliveries.

The oil man said he was very sorry. The customer said he understood. And each was left to grapple with a matter so mundane in Maine, and so vital: the need for heat. For the rest of the weekend, Mr. Libby agonized over his decision, while Mr. Hartford warmed his house with the heat from his electric stove's four burners.

"You get off the phone thinking, ‘Are these people going to be found frozen?' " Mr. Libby said. No wonder, he said, that he is prescribed medication for stress and "happy pills" for equilibrium.

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