Mid-westerners are a fairly docile lot intent more on steadying a boat than on rocking it. They are a quiet and polite. Their pride is in their work and the ability to get on and get along. The men edge toward stoic. The women are rarely showy. It’s home, it’s in my bones and it lives in me to this day. No matter how much I may have wished it gone it never left me. State lines defined us as New York and New York is a northeastern state. That said, we had more in common with Ohio and Indiana then we did with Manhattan. By a long shot. The land and the affect of it’s inhabitants is typically flat with mild undulations that can only be noticed at distance. We were on the far reaches of the Great Lakes/Rust Belt side of the Midwest, as opposed to the expansive Heartland/Great Plains end to the west.
This unrattled and underwhelmed temperament is exemplified by the the fire chief who rung our doorbell at 3 in the morning on a late summer night in 1979. No one answered after a reasonable wait time, so he patiently rung it again. When my older brother Mike, all of 8 years old, was the first to get the door it was without alarm or particular urgency that he asked him if his parents were home. I assume that he refrained from asking if he were the man of the house. But it strikes me that the formality crossed his mind. We like formality. Whatever pleasantries were exchanged were accompanied by surging, roaring, 60 foot flames that were emanating from the abandoned 100 year old barn that was burning in our yard. So Mike did his duty and woke up Mom and Dad to let them know there was a fireman at the door and that the prayer house was on fire.
The prayer house. It’s a lovely idea and one that I’ve taken the journey from embarrassed mockery to envious admiration for in the years since. In this world of stock conformity, where eccentricity was a thing to keep secret, my mother was going to have a prayer house. This is not a thing, a prayer house. Prayer is for the church and for the dinner table and perhaps quiet moments of appreciation or desperation. But we were not only going to have one, it was going to be in a big ass barn in our front yard. This was all of a giant embarrassing piece that was accompanied by a father who subscribed to Islands magazine from the snow belt, wore Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats and a mom that would lie in the grass on the front yard on beautiful sunny mornings, just enjoying the weather, right where anyone could see her. My father would join her and they would lay next to each other holding hands. In hindsight its the most beautiful thing in the world to see your parents do. But I didn’t view it that way when I was young. There was a valuable lesson in this that took me too long to fully learn.
So here we were, a family of five kids (Leo wasn’t born until 5 years later) and a couple of parents in their 30’s newly moved into a house designed by my father that had and would take up all our spare resources for many years prior and many years to come, awoken in the night to see it all being threatened to be swallowed in flames. There was not a great deal of shouting or anything, at least not as far as I could remember. We were all moved to the car so we could back out of the driveway and move out of harms way. In a remarkable coincidence that is so fantastic as to be unbelievable, this occurred on the night of our “housewarming” party.
To now my description of the evening is based on the few and dwindling stories that we told about this night, remembered and retold by a person that was five or six years old when it all went down. If I’ve been accurate in any details of the night, that is largely coincidental as I’m quite certain I’ve maintained the story in my head by fleshing out the bones by commissioning details conjured by my limited recollections combined with myth and whimsy.
My father did in fact design our home, which he did in a weekend prior to the builder starting when he was told that the blueprints would cost something like $20,000. My father was and is an industrial designer and he knew what he wanted so he taught himself how to design a house and create workable blueprints in a weekend. All from home, where I was the 3rd of five. This at a time when we were decades away from a functioning internet. Al Gore was beta-testing. My father is not merely talented, he is a wizard and a sorcerer capable of feats that are not possible to mere mortals. He’s also taller than your dad. So there.
There are 3 particular memories that are mine, which is not to say they are accurate, but rather that they emerge wholly from my memory. They are weaker memories than they were 30 years ago, but before they leave me for good allow me to share them with you in chronological order.
From the family station wagon we could feel and see the giant flaming structure directly to our left as we backed down the driveway. It was rather breathtaking, and to a boy of my age it was positively amazing. I was in the back seat of the car, not the far back that looked out the rear window when you sat down, but the middle bench seat behind my father who was driving.
We backed out of the driveway until we were aligned with the fire and we halted to let one of the many companies assembled move a vehicle from our path so we could be evacuated. We sat quietly. I really do marvel at and question my memory, because in my minds eye it was a quiet car. Maybe we were stunned, or perhaps tired, but this was a time for panic most certainly. Surely somebody would be in a state? But I truly don’t remember that being an issue. What I do remember was getting out of the driveway and my father pulling into the parking lot/basketball court across the street from our house and turning the car around so we could watch. He like I was mesmerized by the whole thing. Behind us was the park that we would look upon from our front porch for the next 35 years. It was closed at night so it was normally a fairly vast stretch of pitch-black in night time, but in the light of the flames you could see all the way to the canal, which bordered the park to the south, our street being its northernmost edge.
I suppose we were stunned but we sat there silent for a minute watching as the flames continued to roar. The loss of the building had to be emotional as my mother had already named it the prayer house, but my father was transfixed. And after a minute or so it occurred to my mother that this was what we were doing. We were sitting here watching the darn thing burn and watching the firemen struggle to contain the flames. Watching what looked to me like very bad firemen from the surrounding towns that appeared to think the fire was at our neighbors houses and not ours. I would later learn that the crews from our town (Brockport) were fighting the fire and the other crews were soaking the roofs of all our neighbors to ensure that the fire didn’t leap to other homes.
He intended to sit here until the next logical step was made evident. To this end my mother helped make the next logical step clearer to my father. Slowly I saw her turning so that her face was in perfect profile and with just an ounce of annoyance in her voice and demeanor, and I mean just a tiny bit of knowing bewilderment she looked at my dad, the way my wife has looked at me and the way women have looked at men for all of history, and said very clearly, ‘What are you doing?’ She was clearly a religious person and a parent of small children to boot, so the standard coda to this comment from a wife to a husband clearly unaware of the others around him, ‘you horse’s ass.’ was left to be implied. I believe my father replied forthrightly and said something to the effect, just watching. However it was communicated at that point, we were off to seek some shelter for the duration of the night.
I don’t know whether it’s a male trait or more specifically a family trait, but like my father I imagine I would have done the same thing once we were in the car. That said, we have a difficult time getting the kids into the car for daycare without voices being raised, so I can’t imagine how they did all this without expressing or causing panic in me.
My next memory is of being at our neighbors house in the middle of the night. They were the neighbors on the corner and they were a family we were more friendly with than friends with. They were lovely, they were just at a different stage. There youngest was in middle school, at least, possibly in high school already and my parents were swimming in little kids and babies. But this was the Midwest and neighbors were there to help in a crisis with a pot of coffee and some warm blankets for the kids to sleep in.
As you might imagine we didn’t sleep too much, if at all. By now we had a sense of what was happening and how big this was. Plus we had a whole new house to take in. I had two older brothers that I loved and feared and they knew Anne, the youngest girl in the neighbor family so it was easy for them to talk to her. But for me I just remember standing there, in my underwear, all night. Surely this isn’t what happened, but the moment of realization was a startling one for me. I knew I was supposed to wear pants in front of people. Being in your underwear in front of people was for little kids not for me. I remember thinking this. And for what may have been the first time I felt shame and embarrassment. Like seriously.
Is that shame, really, or is it just embarrassment. This is not rhetorical, there is a definitive answer. It’s just simple embarrassment for god’s sake. What the hell. Was I preternaturally self pitying and melodramatic! Was I meant to be a fifteen year old goth girl all along! Apparently so.
My final memory is of mom and dad plopping us down in the playroom to watch early morning kids television. This was over thirty years ago so it had to be Saturday morning. Saturday mornings were the only time that TV’s were programmed for kids. That and say, 3-5pm, M-F. We sat and watched our favorite cartoons, the smurfs and super-friends and the whole Hanna-Barbara lineup while munching on cereal that they prepared for us. It felt good. I was back in pants of a sort and we were back in front of the TV and safe and happy and the fire was not going to take our house. Its a warm memory. one that contained all the resolution of a finished story. It was the type of view that only a child could have. I remember bringing my bowl into the kitchen, or more likely I left my bowl right where it was, on the floor waiting to be broken or at least tripped over, and was only going to scan the fridge for more food during a commercial. While I was in there I could see my parents through the window, heads trained at the ground, purposeful, searching the burnt out rubble on a grey morning. Searching for what, I have no idea.
And that’s it. That’s the memory I have of that event. One that highlights some definitely inaccurate information. In fact allow me to list for you the parts of the story that are accurate. We had a barn. It was scheduled to be set up as a prayer house. It burned down. If it wasn’t the exact night of our housewarming, it was very close to it. We left our house. The rest is just what I’ve filled in. Some of it may reflect accuracy, much of it surely doesn’t. It’s almost totally subjective and about something that happened 35 years ago, to a six year old.
Another piece of potentially inaccurate information, I’m pretty sure it was arson and that the fire was set by (and this is the part that could be fabricated from whole cloth) a pyrophiliac who watched and whatever else, from the park across the street. This is precisely the type of detail that is 100% believable, but also so scandalous that it would make sense that we were left to surmise it from stolen info spread amongst the kids that would never be addressed. It has taken on a permanence that even evidence of it being false would hardly keep me from telling the story that way, even to myself.
So there it is. The story of a housewarming gone terribly awry, ruined by a pyrophiliac with a sense of irony. Genuine, definition irony. Like all stories, its one that has a perspective. Like any oral history, its one that would vary from person to person, with some facts tying it together.
Stories live and breath and evolve over time. I love that about stories. In the end this story has no terrible outcomes. The prayer house still came to be but it was in the backyard and built to order. Everyone was safe and there was nothing of too much value that was lost. But it is instructive to me that you never know the tails your tales will grow. If I’m the one telling the story its a story that is of a small boy comforted by his parents, embarrassed by his bedtime attire and returned to a changed but same place that he would call home for the next 30 years. Which is insane, really. Because in the midst of that tale, the much greater story is of the couple of thirty somethings who had a 100 foot, 5 alarm fire in there front yard, almost immediately after moving in, set by a person with some serious issues while they and there 5 kids were sleeping. It could have ended in tragedy but for the heroic efforts of many brave men who left their own stories and their own families sleeping to save ours. My parents, supported by our community, protected us from everything, even fear, and provided a sense of security to us all. I hope I never have to find out if I’m able to live up to their standard. I wonder how I would do.