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October 23, 2008


It's amazing I wasn't scarred for life after this one, or maybe I was and just don't know it. 

Back in the early seventies, there used to be an event held in schools ever year around October called "Fire Prevention Week".  For a whole week children from the first to eighth grades would be subjected to random fire drills, visits from the local fire chiefs and the ever popular 'stop, drop and roll' drills.  Every math worksheet, or grammar paper would be themed for fire prevention and for extra 'fun' we could do coloring papers depicting burning houses. The biggest event would come at the end of the week when they would herd all of our impressionable little bodies and minds into the auditorium to watch -- 'The Movie'. 

The Movie was designed to impress upon us the dangers of burning to death. When I think back on it, I can't believe they would show such a thing to a bunch of third graders. It was even scarier than the blood and guts movies we saw in driver's ed.  Of course by the time I got to see the driver's ed movies I was older and had already seen my first slasher movies, so was desensitized to the horrors of severed body parts strewn on the highway. But at the age of seven, I was still as sensitive as a newborn to graphic gore on a movie screen, and The Movie turned me into an insomniac for nearly a year.  The Movie was about this family-- a mommy, a daddy, a brother and little sister, and their dog Poochie. Thirty eight years later, and I still remember Poochie, that's how bad The Movie marked me!  It started out showing the family playing on the lawn, laughing at dinner, and then in true Ozzie and Harriette style, all the baths were taken, the goodnight stories read and the prayers said as the children snuggled into their immaculate little beds and angelically went to sleep. Meanwhile, down in the living room, Daddy the dumass is sitting watching TV and smoking. The camera zooms at the glowing tip of the cigarette as it falls into the cushions of the sofa as Daddy gets up to go to bed.  Then, before our terrified little third-grade eyes, we watch the sofa, then curtain, then wall then HOUSE catch fire!  We see Mommy drop dead in the hallway from the smoke! We see Daddy tripping over her, on his way to the brother's room, only to succumb and fall dead on top of Mommy! We hear little sister screaming! We hear Poochie frantically scratching at the door. . and then the camera fades to black.  The next scene is the fire inspector walking through a blackened, smoldering heap, describing where they found all 'the bodies'.  No kidding! A movie aimed at third graders and it was death and destruction!

I walked home slowly that day. My mom and dad were smokers. I had to find a way to tell them to quit or else they were going to kill us all - - especially ME!  I was not pleased at the thought of burning to death in my own bedroom because Daddy is a dumass. . . 

But the obsession soon became a full blown phobia. I would lie awake at night literally waiting for the fire to start, 'knowing' this would be my last night on earth, because by morning I would surely be a smoldering heap of ash. Every night I would see them sitting there in front of the TV with their cigarettes puffing away, resenting them for being murderously selfish grownups who didn't care if I burned to death. They never gave a thought about Poochie either. Of course, I never bothered to tell them about The Movie either. Why not? Because Mavis would just think I was being silly.  This went on for a very long time, and was renewed every October with Fire Prevention Week.

By the time I was in high school, it had settled. I had other, more immanent fears, to keep me awake instead of the remote possibility of burning to death. Things like being a social outcast or getting a zit on picture day. (Both of which were far more likely).  But all that would change.

In the Summer of 1975, for whatever reason, my parents were persuaded by a dubious 'friend' that we should hire his cousin-in-law's kid brother to put a fireplace in the house.  My sister and I thought that was sorta cool. None of our friends had fireplaces after all  Of course Mavis was concerned about the soot and ash handling of the thing, but trust me folks, no soot ever made it out of the fireplace . . . that she knew of. . . 

The masons started on the first day of school. First step, tear a big hole in the wall. Cool! Then build a firebox, then start stacking bricks. None of us are masons, or fireplace builders, so it didn't seem the least bit odd that the hearth was built right on top of the hardwood floor. Mavis only cared that the mess was kept under control, and my dad assumed these guys must have known what they were doing.

A week later, the fireplace was done. Instructions were given, and admonishments to not leave the fire unattended was given. Christmas would be cool that year. We had a real bonnafied fireplace.

Dad loved to build the fire. He was good at it. He liked to find fun things to burn. Plastic cups, and plates made pretty colored fire! Pop corn tossed in was festive and fun when it made noise and made Mavis freak out. He loved to burn big logs with lots of pine cones. Yes, it's true, my dad is a bit of a firebug (a trait that will lead to an even more fun story later on. . . stay tuned).  

So it happened on the night of January 16, 1976, Dad's birthday, he built a spectacular fire with a log that had to be a foot in diameter. It burned a long time. A really long time. And oh it was a hot one. BOY did that log get hot. Really hot.  My sister was sitting on the hearth skirt at one point and nearly burned her ass. "Hey! This is wicked hot!" She told him.  He smiled. Pleased.

The fire was doused at about midnight, and we all headed to bed. "Your dad sure likes fire," my friend said giggling as we went up to my room. 

"Yeah, would you believe I used to be afraid of it?"  I told her. 

Around 2:30, I was woken up by the frantic barking of our dog. We had a poodle at the time, "Punkin" the most ill tempered little dog on the planet. He was going crazy barking and scratching. Dad got up, and I heard him curse something, then I heard mom screeching, "WE GOT FIRE!"

There it was. It was real. The house was really really on fire! My sister threw open my door and yelled at us to get down stairs.  The house was filling up with smoke.  

I was fairly surprised that the fire was not in the fireplace at all, but that Dad was running up and down the cellar stairs carrying glasses of water.  Mavis was at the kitchen sink filling up pots and pans and water glasses, while my dad was running up and down the stairs freaking out. Then Mavis reached for the phone book and started flipping to "F" to look up "Fireman".

My sister and I looked at each other, then looked at mom and dad, and we knew that we had to take over, or these two were going to get us killed. Di picked up the phone and dialed "0" (yes children in the 1970s there was no 911) and reported the fire.  I grabbed Mavis by the shoulders and steered her to the door. My friend did the same for my dad, and we left them no choice. We pushed them out to the driveway and told them to get in the car. 

A minute later we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights as the trucks rounded the corner. I felt like it was some sort of dream. There I sat, living my worst phobia, feeling oddly. . .  amused. I was safe. My friend was safe. My family and the dog were all safe in the car, and I guess I figured, that since I survived it was like the measles, ya know? If you live through it, you can't catch it again, so this was the one and only house fire I'd have to endure, and I was good with it. 

And I was most morbidly amused at the look on Mavis' face when the firemen ran into the house with their pick axes and hoses. Oh that was special indeed. I could hear her yelling to them to wipe their feet, and don't use the guest towels.  All the things she'd said to anyone who ever entered. I sat there with the dumbest grin on my face watching the pretty orange spikes come out of the basement.

The fire was out in only a few minutes and the firemen gave us the all clear. Of course by then, the neighbors had gathered to watch the spectacle. The house was saved, with only one wall to be rebuilt. The culprit? There was no firepad under the hearth that was built directly on top of the hardwood floor. The fireplace had gotten so hot, it caught the beams in the basement below it. 

As we stood there talking to the fireman, shivering in the January snow in our pajamas, Mavis looked down at my sister and I. I thought she'd say something tender, glad we were safe maybe, thank us for keeping our heads in a crisis, maybe? But no. She looked at us, then down to our feet and said "Where the hell are your socks?"


"It's freezing out here, where are your socks?"

"Am, well see mom, the house was on fire. . . "

"You'll catch your death of pneumonia!  . . . . .  " and off she went. . .  

I think she was delirious. That had to be the only excuse.

The house was fixed, and the fireplace properly rebuilt by a real mason. The other had fled in the night after not only our house, but several others he'd done had caught fire. I'm not sure what ever became of him.

The new fireplace was very pretty and very functional. . . and never used. My folks lived in the house for another twenty years and never had a fire. In fact, they even tore the chimney down, so it became only cosmetic. Mavis loved her electric log with the lightbulb fire. And it was so much cleaner!

I have two fireplaces in the house I live in now. Each time I start them I think of that time. But I do make fires.

And some nights, as I lie in bed, I am still haunted with images of Poochie scratching at the door, and I just know, 'tonight's the night'.