January 1, 2009
The House That Burned
I lost my house when I was seven. May 15th 1986, during a sticky, humid night that might as well have been August. There was no power in the house, otherwise I would have had air conditioning to keep me from paying attention to the weather or remembering the date. Had there been power that night, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.
I had gone food shopping with my mother. Shopping with Mom was a treat. She was more lenient when putting things in the shopping cart, overlooking Fruit Roll-Ups here, Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream there. If Mom wasn’t piloting the shopping cart, we’d create shopping lists for my father who might, or more likely might not get any of the numerous goodies we’d ask for. My prize for this particular shopping trip was packages of generic pecan swirls.
No doubt there was concern putting groceries into the refrigerator, as there was no power in the house. The neighborhood was without power, inexplicably so on this storm-free night. My father was helping my sister Katie with homework and my mother was talking on the phone. The heat kept me from sleeping. I was feeling not just a hot Southern night but a raging fire just below my room. Only I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was that I was in my bedroom with my middle sister Jenni telling me her adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit” called “The Velveteen Boy.” The original story is about a stuffed rabbit’s quest to become real, but it’s not clear how this version would work out.
I would never know the full story of the Velveteen Boy because it was interrupted by my mother screaming “Fire!” As bad as it sounds, none of us typically takes my mother seriously when she warns about imminent harm. I calmly walked toward the living room and before I could get a handle on the situation I was literally tossed out the front door. I was most decidedly underdressed for the occasion, standing with neighbors in front of my burning house wearing not a thread more than underwear, “Tighty Whities” at that.
With our house ablaze, my father tried to fix the situation. He stayed inside while the four of us were outside. (I was now clothing myself with my neighbor’s shrubbery.) There was no electricity to power the smoke detectors. My father saw smoke but couldn’t find a source. He looked at candles and the kitchen table. Eventually the source was discovered downstairs but sweeping flames were not impressed by my father’s fire extinguisher. After leaving the house to grab the garden hose, my father’s return was blocked by the metal storm door, now swollen tightly shut in the heat. I remember this storm door only because I enjoyed ramming it with logs years prior, always summoning the fury of my mother.
With my father now stuck outside with the rest of us nothing could be done but wait for the fire department. My father recalls that one neighbor accosted the fire fighters. “What took you so long?” So helpful was that Mustang-driving neighbor. They offered that the power outage had affected their trip, disabling the traffic signals. My mother was angry, thinking of recent improvements going to waste. “Well, there go my carpets. Yup, there go the new drapes.”
My next-door neighbor was kind enough to provide me with some clothing, while the neighbors across the street pitched in by filming us. Nothing is more helpful to a bad situation than voyeuristic neighbors filming it, asking “Should we call the fire department?” Such an unexplainable lack of moral fortitude didn’t sever our neighborly relationship. Twenty years later I would be the one to sever it, when the husband of the neighbors in question yelled a snide remark at me. I happened to be returning to my car after feeding my father’s cat Yoda and wasn’t in the mood to be bothered. I took the neighbor to task for this and other nastiness he’d displayed over the years, and now our families don’t speak. Too bad. The laughs we all could have had watching my house burning down, reliving the good times…
My sisters and I smelled like smoke in class the next day. But you know, other kids are always so understanding. I was likely less smoky because I was wearing my neighbor’s donated clothing, the lone benefit of being thrown out of a burning house wearing nothing other than underwear. My sister Katie’s classmate “Spit” (who hates that nickname) was envious Katie got to leave early. “My house burned down!” “So? You should still have to take the math test.” Later the school staff helped us out by giving us clothes. People really do pitch in during hard times. Our family stayed at a Comfort Inn, with board games and food from well-wishers.
Returning to this essay in 2020, I need to express my gratitude to our neighbors and community. My family keeps to itself which isn’t always a good thing. We’re not the people that remember your kid’s birthdays or bake you pies. I forget my sister Katie’s kids’ birthdays. Hopefully she’s not reading this. Sorry! Your kids are nominally important! Just kidding, fully important! Of course Katie has taken a complete 180 from how we grew up and is all about birthdays, anniversaries, helping at school, helping others, vacations…
Back to my 2020 point, I’ve now gone through a couple of hurricanes and am moved at how amazing neighbors are. Our immediate neighbors fixed our fence while putting up with my feeble attempts to help. Our neighbors across the street gave us advice regarding evacuations and security. Another neighbor, who built my house, gave us advice for dealing with windows and water entry. So thank you to everyone that helped us when my house burned down and when we got hurricanes in 2020, despite the fact that I’m not as good at being a neighbor.
Mystery of the cause
You are no doubt wondering how the fire started. At the time I was told by my parents that nobody knew. Bull. My entire family knew what caused this catastrophic event, and why this was kept from me I haven’t the foggiest. My sister Jenni had taken a trip to the basement, holding a candle because of the power outage. These facts are beyond dispute. How this seemingly innocuous journey caused the destruction of a house is rather unclear. The point of view from my family can be summed up as: Jenni. Candle. You do the math.
Jenni objects to this open-and-shut case. “We both had candles” she offers, referring to the fact that Katie had also journeyed downstairs. “I didn’t know until adulthood that I was blamed (without solid evidence) for causing the fire. It was assumed, apparently, that Katie would have been more–ahem–careful.” 22 years later over dinner at Mike’s American restaurant in nearby Springfield Virginia, Katie admits there may have been more than one trip downstairs. This was enough to cast reasonable doubt about the culprit in my father’s reflection of the event. Allowing license for sibling brattiness, my father is always giving Jenni an out.
Returning to view the house, we found the structure and exterior had survived but the inside was almost completely destroyed. Boards were placed over the floors covering large holes that now exposed the basement to the top floor. Pipes in the basement had melted like spaghetti. My room was directly over the source of the fire and was so badly damaged it was placed off limits. Had I been in the room only a few minutes longer during the fire I’d be dead.
My sister Katie had sneaked into her room and recovered a Madonna tape and a silver chain. Being seven years old, my only valuable was my collection of Garbage Pail Kids. To anyone not seven at the time, these were gross trading cards that made fun of the then massively popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. We had furious card trading sessions in school, everyone jockeying for Second Series cards. Anyone with First Series didn’t dare trade. I would hand my money over to cashiers at toy stores and ask for as many packs as I could get. Luckily my cards had survived because I had placed them at the foyer of the house. I don’t believe my mother was as happy with this salvage as I was.
While our family’s house was being rebuilt, we relocated our few possessions to the infamous Mount Vernon Square apartment complex. It is easily apparent the Internet doesn’t like these apartments. Living there was part of an adventure for my father. New place, new times devoid of legacy inanimate objects. Jenni became a neighborhood celebrity of sorts, organizing a gymnastics team. My mother hated living there. Her biggest issue was the daily parade of roaches. My mother is terrified of roaches, and the place gave her many a reason to be terrified. Roaches are tough little critters, and my mother would litter the floor with all manner of traps and boric acid. Years afterward my mother still feared these things, banning cardboard boxes and containers that didn’t originate from our home. “Get rid of that, it could have roaches!” “Don’t leave that out, you’ll attract roaches!”
Apartment life provided some of our most memorable family stories. Perhaps most notorious was a battle between my father and Katie. I don’t recall this event, but it’s relived year after year. Katie brings it up typically prefaced with: “Remember that time you wanted me to eat that disgusting Taylor’s Pork Roll?” Katie enjoys this story, granting particular emphasis on the vendor. The pork roll is a ham-like product that doesn’t seem to enjoy much popularity outside of New Jersey. Katie was not impressed by the pork roll, and refused my father’s insistence that she try it. Father and eldest daughter sat together in a stalemate at the kitchen table as the hours passed, neither budging an inch. Katie won. She would enjoy the spoils of a pork-free evening. To this day Katie upholds her bitter disgust for Taylor’s Pork Roll, boasting a palate devoid of even the slightest idea of what the product tastes like. “I just wanted you to try it”, my father says exasperated, perhaps hoping to evoke sympathy enough to win a pork roll convert decades later.
If the pork roll felt unloved, surely it felt better than the poor furniture. Jenni cultivated many interests during this time. Gymnastics, ice skating, playing the flute. Hobbies have a cost and my father felt stuck operating the vehicle that would connect daughter to hobby. My father was driving us to school one morning when Jenni opened her flute case discovering nary a flute. My father angrily sped the family’s ’85 Toyota Camry back to the apartment, slamming the manual transmission into third gear. This otherwise forgettable event was made legend once back at the apartment when my father kicked a chair and screamed an F-bomb. Nobody was laughing at the time. My sister and I now laugh hysterically at the story of our mostly reserved father beating up defenseless furnishings.
As the months wore on, we lived in our apartment and got used to our new normalcy. We watched TV on a donated black-and-white Zenith. We took trips to the house to watch its construction. I developed a new affinity for computer games, spending quarter after quarter making a digital plumber named Mario jump on things and spit fireballs as a sort of reaction to flowers. I was hooked on this game, enduring trips to the laundromat with my mother so I could go next door to the seedy 7-Eleven to play it. Later in life I would save for nearly a year to buy a Nintendo game console that included the game. Whenever my grades would suffer, both parents would threaten the device that brought the digital plumber into our home. My mother wanted me to know that the ’85 Camry could back over the Nintendo. Noted.
With the reconstruction of the house complete, the five of us hopped in the Camry and headed back to our old neighborhood. The house smelled like chemicals, and we all slept bedless on the floor of our rooms. It was a different house. There was now a clicking sound with one of the pipes that continues to this day. The kitchen had been converted into an open area with an island. As the years came and went, time was less marked before or after the fire, and we lived fairly normally. It would be our home for years to come, and also home at times to two cats, two rabbits, a pet mouse, and a wayward cat named “Pumpkin”… until such time as Pumpkin overstayed her welcome and was surreptitiously smuggled via laundry basket into the nearby Beacon Hill apartment complex.
Updated November 11th, 2020 for grammar, reduced youngest sibling brattiness, and more gratitude.
 Image: http://geepeekay.com/gallery_os3.html
$Id: the_house_that_burned 594 2020-11-11 16:07:20Z x $