Friday, February 5, 2016

Like A House Afire

In a previous post I told you about house fires. One was our house when I was a little girl. Another was when I was older with children.

It is hard to explain the loss and violation a person feels in a case like that. Both hoouses were totally burned so there was no repair to think of.

When I was about 9 years old we were preparing to go to Grandma's house for a week. It was Christmas. Mom dressed us (there were five of us then) lined up in front of the Christmas tree.

It is a black and white picture. We were all shiny clean and glowing with the prospect of Santa and visiting Grandma. It is one of my favorite childhood pictures.

We learned that the house had burned the first night we had arrived at Grandma's. The other kids were asleep but being the snoopy one I got up and listened to Daddy's end of the phone call. I knew it was our house he was talking about.

Each year my sister and I got a new doll for Christmas. I seldom played with dolls because there was always a real baby to play with. I had one favorite doll but the others meant nothing to me. Before we left home to go to Grandma's house I announced to my sister in front of my whole family that I was giving her all my dolls but that one. She for a brief time owned 19 dolls.

Of course not having the house was unreal to us because we had not yet seen it. It was hard to visualize not having our own beds to sleep in and our own back yard to play in.

The town we lived in procured a house for us to rent. When we went home we lived almost directly across the train tracks from our burnt house.

Mom and Daddy went to the house to see if they could salvage anything. We were told to stand away but it was hard not to see.

Our brass beds were melted. The ironing board was melted. Mom's automatic washer (yes at that time we actually had an automatic washer) had all the hoses melted away.

With a long pole Daddy was able to rescue Mom's iron and his suit. Mom had bought him that suit because the gray color of it matched his eyes so beautifully. Those two things along with the washer were the only things we were able to salvage.

All of our Christmas presents were destroyed. All of the dolls were gone. We had only the clothes we had taken to Grandma's house. Our furniture had been donated by people from our town so we would be able to move right in when we came home. That is the kind of thing people in small towns do so well.

The principal of our school did not know we were out of town. He tried to get into the house to rescue us and was in the hospital after inhaling too much smoke. He fully recovered.

All family pictures and mementos were gone. My father's keepsakes from the war were gone. The animals we kept as pets and for food had been turned loose for their safety and had gone to parts unknown.

The people of our town were so generous. They had collected money for us to buy new clothing and linens. It was put into an account in a store in the large town near us.

NEW CLOTHES! Mom made most of our clothes so that was an adventure. There was a lot of money. We even got robes and slippers which we had never had.

When our second house burned my children were home. I was not. I was visiting a friend. My oldest son was out of school and working. My second son was married and not living at home. My two youngest were old enough to be left alone in the evening but their big brother was with them.

Our house was a two family house known in the area as a duplex. We lived on the left of the two-story building. The right side dwelling was not being lived in at the time.

The younger children heard a loud crash. My son ran to the front door to see what was going on. When he touched the doorknob it was hot. So was the door. He ran upstairs to get their big brother. He immediately got up and without putting on a shirt went to find out what was going on.

He quickly determined that the house was on fire. Since it was not safe to go out the front door he herded the other two out the back door.

My oldest son had brought home a stray dog that he had seen wandering around the neighborhood where he worked. He called it Joe.

Joe was with the children as they started out the back door. The chaos of the situation confused him and he balked at going outside. My son yelled at him. It scared him and he ran back inside.

My son wanted to go inside to bring him out but he was sure the other two would just follow him. He was right. They have both told me so. I was glad he did not go back in. Joe did not come back out.

They were treated kindly by neighbors who provided blankets for them to stay warm. After the firemen and police got statements from each of them about what happened they went home with their brother. My youngest son had called me and I met them at their brother's house.

The fire was out. We had only our clothes that we were wearing. And for my sons that was not much.

When we snuck back in to see if there was anything to salvage my son found the dog. Joe had been struck by a falling beam. It looked like he died instantly.

Very little was worth saving. One picture album had some smoke damage but we were able to clean it up. That was about the extent of it.

My oldest son had left a pair of work boots at his job. His boss used them as an excuse to check on him. He arranged for my son to buy a few clothes for work at a used uniform store.
The uniform store was so nice. They gave my son a huge discount. My daughter found a belt buckle that she really wanted her brother to have. The woman waiting on him saw how much it meant to my daughter that she gave it to her to give her brother.

My children were lucky to have escaped with their lives and no injuries. We were able to find other "things" to take the place of what we lost.

They never arrested the young men they believed were responsible for the firebomb that jeopardized my children. It was believed that they were responsible for setting fire to another vacant house several blocks away and a boxcar full of cedar chips several blocks the other direction. All were burning at the same time.

I believe they were finally arrested on other arson charges at another time.

The things that matter the most that are lost in a fire cannot be measured in money. It is the memories. They may be in the form of pictures or objects that remind us of a special day or event. They may be that little clay imprint of a child's hand. They are the things that cannot be replaced.

The feeling of personal safety is damaged. We all still look to see if our houses are still in one piece when returning home.


  1. That's a very moving story! I think that a house ends up being a part of us, since it keeps our memories inside it. Finding out suddenly that everything one has has been burnt out, must be very difficult and sad. Fortunately, no-one got seriously hurt in any occasions, and at least one good thing was left after those events: solidarity. The furniture donated by the people and the attempt of the school principal to save anyone who could have been in the house, even if that meant putting his own life at risk.
    By the way, as a foreign person, I've never understood the expression "They get along like a house on fire" being used to describe people who like each other very much and have a good relationship.

    1. Losing the solid things that remind us of the memories is the hardest thing to deal with. I have not understood that expression either.

  2. The best part of this story is all the tragedy averted, poor Joe aside.

    1. Yes. We were so fortunate that way. Joe just could not manage the chaos and ran to what he thought would be a safe place.

  3. These are two bad experiences but also kindness from many good people.

    1. That is true. Kindness from others helped us so much. I try to do the same if I can all the while hoping that it will not be needed.

  4. Very strange and unfortunate such tragedy befell you twice. When I go out into the fields each spring with neighbors I hardly know and, with mowers and chainsaws, cut firebreaks in this dry place, I am thankful that there are people who care enough to spend time and effort on local safety. We know others who can't, and mow their margins too. It's easier to help neighbors in advance than bring back what wildfires take. A lot of my neighbors are idiots, but I'm used to them and they help me for the same reason.

    1. I have read about your efforts on your blog to try to thwart the danger of fires. I cannot imagine living in an area where the chance of those raging fires is always present. And I know how hard it is for you physically. You are brave beyond belief.

  5. To read what happened to you twice - horrible! I am utterly afraid of fire (on a grand scale - I love candles), that must be from a previous life :-) My family jokes at Christmas how nervous I watch the real candles on it - they object to "artificial" electric ones, but I think they are a bit careless - I once saw (in a film) how a dry Christmas tree burns down in seconds...
    Losing the mementos must be very hard for you. But your lives were saved, that is the main thing.

    1. I would be nervous about real candles on a Christmas tree too. My mother was certain that the tree lights were unplugged before we left for my grandmother's house. The fire department determined that there was an electrical fire near the area of the tree. If we had been home we would not have been so fortunate.

  6. Hello Emma,

    This a harrowing experience or should I call it a night mare which should not happen to any one in their life time. But it is shocking to read that you and your family had to go through this horror two times.

    It is is miracle that all of you were safe.

    It is not only the mementos but lose the house is a very horrible thing because you lost all your valuable belongings and to get on with life would have required monumental strength of mind,effort and money.

    I am glad you had such wonderful neighbors to help your family. God bless them.

    Best wishes.

    1. Good people always show themselves when needed. We all too often only hear about the bad things. We need to notice the good things that happen every day.

  7. What a terrible tragedy to have happened the first time at Christmas, but then to have a similar second one was so surreal. You are right about the generous spirit that comes out in many in the wake of such tragedies. i was glad to read your family was safe both times, but understand the loss of those precious mementos and photos.

    1. Thank you. I think maybe we are all a bit more careful about checking for problems that could cause a fire. Perhaps a once-over of the house is a good thing for each of us to do periodically.