The Fire Chief Blanched White by Nancy Tally

As I write, we are coming to the end of a September heat wave. The thermometer in the backyard has been reaching into the hundreds for the past few days though the official temps have only been in the 90s.

July 1983 was hot like this with temps hanging around 100 as I bent over blackened sodden masses of what was left of my family’s belongings. I couldn’t put it off till the cool hours of the evening because then there would be no light. Yes, no power for lights that would allow me to work in the cooler high 80 degree evenings and no power even for a fan in the daytime.

My task was to go systematically from one room to the next, and list the items that were no more. Nothing survived in the master bedroom. What remained of the curtains--curtains I had so lovingly sewn myself--hung by a few shreds having burnt from the top down. The heat was so intense by the ceiling that it ignited the curtains without the flames ever reaching them. The mobile on the twins' crib had melted. Still attached to the side of the crib, it was now a grotesque stretched out version of its former cute self. The mobile partly smeared its way down the outside of the crib and, on the inside, dripped onto the mattress ending in globular puddles of colors covered in soot.

I looked through the hole where the north window had been. The firemen knocked it out so they could toss my burning dresser and bookcase outside. They smashed to the ground below with an assortment of clothing, bedding, wall board, shoes, diapers, and whatever else was tossed on top like sprinkles on some over baked dessert.

My inspection was interrupted by the fire chief. He had come to apologize that they had not been able to open my windows and air the place out for me. I told him the windows had all been open. We argued about the veracity of my claim. He did not want it to be true. So I took him outside to show him where the billowing smoke left its marks above all the upstairs windows as it exited the house. I watched his face as his eyes widened with horror, he blanched white and nearly vomited on the lawn.

I knew nothing about the nature of fire, and had no comprehension of the emotions that had flooded him or why. As we stood on the lawn gazing up at the smoke stained house, he explained to me about fires and back drafts. The chief had entered the house during the blaze, measuring the temperature and assessing the danger to his men. It was hot, almost too hot, but seeing the windows closed he sent his men in thinking it was safe for them to try and save the house for us. The dark smoke had obscured the fact that I had left all the windows open a good two inches down from the top. The house had not been safe; it had been primed for a back draft. It was only God’s mercy that evening that the house did not explode and that those firemen came out alive.

The fire was designated as arson as we found three other places that day where the children who broke in had tried to set more fires to cover their tracks. I am grateful that none of the other attempts took hold. The heat from the one blaze in the master bedroom was enough to curl and melt the tiles off the bathroom wall on the far side of the house. Hot enough to crack the sounding board of my grandmother’s antique upright grand player piano which was downstairs.

No nothing was ever done to the children. Their father was on the city council. We lived in a known mafia town. The police refused to follow up on any of the leads we had, even though the kids bragged all over town about what they had done.

I did not pursue them because I had other fires to fight while this was going on. Daughter Becca was in ICU at Wylers Children’s Hospital, fighting for her life while I was loudly fighting with the resident over the fact that her shunt surgery (which took place the day before the fire) had failed to resolve the problem. Becca was not okay. Normally I would never have left Becca but Sharon had called and hysterically demanded that I must come home. Sharon was a cardiac ICU nurse and nothing phased her; I had to go. (It was six months later that I found out that Sharon thought my husband, Roland, was in the house and had succumbed to the smoke or the fire.)

To this day I don’t know how the surgeon ever tracked us down to the house where we had regrouped with our other children who had been scattered among our church families. But he did. After screaming at me for disappearing on him when I knew Becca’s surgery had failed, the surgeon accepted my verbal okay to start emergency surgery. He already had Becca prepped. She was critical and he was starting now. It was a few minutes before midnight. Doc H. said to get myself down there now to sign the papers before he got out of surgery. So there I was, headed back into the city at midnight the day after the house burned.

While I held my baby the next day after her surgery ,I groused about the old hymn “God Leads Us Along." The chorus says some through the waters, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood; some through great sorrow. . . . The song had it wrong! It said some through this and some through that--not one through it all so on I fussed. Then I came to where the lyrics had it right: but God gives a song, in the night season and all the day long.

Though I did not see this part I could always picture it in my head. I’ve written about the neighbor with the apple tree who lived two doors down. She became a part of God's song, because she was the one who saw the fire first, alerted the neighbors who lived in between our houses, grabbed their garden hose and trained the water on my bedroom window--all this before they knew what the ruckus was. She was in her late eighties. The other neighbor was a fireman by trade and took over her hose. That did not put an end to her efforts; she grabbed my garden hose and rejoined the fight till the fire trucks came and the guys again shoed her to the side. 

Some through the fire. Some through it all, but God gives a song, in the night season and all the day long.