Fire!

“Fire” feeds my memories and imagination. My mother liked a fire in the fireplace in winter, even in New Mexico, and it was years before I realized how much work that was. I remember we three children in our pajamas, sitting on the hearth and letting the heat sink in. I also remember a couple of blackened holes in pajamas, when a spark got through the screen. No burns, though; apparently the sparks died on contact. Fire meant home and family, comfort, and love.

Later there were campfires, especially at church camp, where we roasted marshmallows and made s’mores and banana boats. And laughed, and talked, and sang Kum-Bah-Ya. Fire meant friendship, reverence, and a sense of belonging.

Still later, a school bonfire for homecoming roared and shot sparks skyward. Singing and chanting and cheerleaders accompanied its crackle and the smell of burning wood. Fire meant school unity, excitement, and football.

I loved watching fire – the endless flickering of light and heat, the undulations of sinuous color, the joyous leaping upward. It was elemental, beautiful, alive! I never saw faces or pictures in flame. I saw it only for itself, magical and wonderful, filled with both energy and peace.

On August 23, 2011, at 1:27 a.m., my son-in-law woke in the basement apartment he shares with my daughter and their four dogs. The electricity had gone off and the sudden silence woke him. We probably owe our lives to his being such a light sleeper.

He smelled something he couldn’t identify and wandered upstairs, where my dog and I slept in the bedroom next to his twelve-year-old son’s.

Still unable to identify the smells, Chris heard a popping sound. Someone was trying to break in through the garage! Alpha male that he is, he strode to the door into the garage and flung it open to confront the intruders.

The only intruder was flame, engulfing the garage.

He ran back downstairs and woke my daughter, who came to get me and Austin up.

Chris slammed out the front door to back his Ford Escape out of the driveway and away from the fire. My beloved 2006 Accord (with all the fixin’s) and my daughter’s 2012 Ford Focus, fully loaded and with less than 100 miles on it, were trapped in the garage.

Chris parked on the curb and loaded all five dogs into the aptly named Escape, where they would safely spend the next few hours.

I headed for the garage to see for myself. My daughter yelled at me just as I pulled the door open. Heat and redness greeted me. I shut the door and hurried out with the others.

The cat had either run out when we weren’t looking or had hidden in her “safe place,” my bedroom closet. We couldn’t go back to look for her.

Neighbors were already gathering in the cul-de-sac across from my home of twenty-five years. Greg had gone into his back yard to quiet his Rottweiler’s barking. He saw the flames and ran back in, calling to his wife. Tara called 911 about the same time Chris did.

Jim, in the house next to Greg’s, came out and stayed for hours, as did Tara and Greg, and Malcolm on the other side of them. More neighbors joined our vigil. An empty-nester, Jim offered us beds to sleep in and hurried inside to make them up for us. He brought lawn chairs out for us to sit in, but I couldn’t sit; adrenaline wouldn’t allow it.

I watched my house burn. I cried once, just a small handful of tears to release the stress. Someone put his arms around me as I cried, but I don’t know who it was. One of the neighbors.

Fire trucks responded from Raytown and Kansas City. They turned 400 gallons per minute (GPM) on the fire above the garage. It kept growing. They escalated to 500 GPM hoses, and the fire continued to grow. The 1200 GPM hose finally took care of it.

The firemen used a chainsaw on the garage door to get to the cars, but one of them opened it from the inside before the saw got through. I couldn’t find my car key for them to drive the car out. I later discovered it was in the pocket of my jeans all along. I never confessed.

Without the key, the firemen couldn’t get the cars out into the driveway. I told them I drive a stick; just shift to neutral and push it out. They did, and soon pushed my daughter’s car outside, too.

Under the hood and dashboard, my car had melted, plastic dripping from below the dash to the floor.

Fire meant loss and destruction, sorrow and uncertainty. What would we do now?

A fireman asked me if any animals were in the house. I told them where to find the cat. A minute later he walked out carrying her; she’d been right where I’d said. A fireman also took my daughter’s framed set of baby pictures off the wall and brought it to me. I lamented to another fireman that I worried about my PC, with 69,000 words of a novel on it that I’d never be able to replicate.

The firemen covered my PC, printer, desk – the entire system – with a gigantic red tarp. When the ceiling fell in a couple of days later, nothing was damaged. My novel survived.

Our insurance agent was on the phone with Chris several times through that fire-lit night, and he showed up at the house early in the morning, on his way to the office.

“How awful!” people said. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“What do you need?”

“Whatever you need. Cost is no object.”

“How can I help?”

“Is everyone okay? Do you need anything?”

And that night I discovered a different kind of fire, the kind that burns brightest in times of trouble, in times of need. These are the flames of humanity, with color and movement and beauty.

Fire means life, and kindness, and neighbors, and the warmth of human compassion.

Despite our losses, it’s really hard to be upset about a fire that brought us so much. Things can be replaced – and most were. But nothing can replace the beauty of the fire that burns in human hearts.

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