No, seriously, it did. Okay, okay, it wasn’t today. But it was twenty years ago today. I remember parts of it as if it were yesterday and other parts as if they never really happened.
This might seem like a bit of an odd blog post for our adoption blog. I wouldn’t disagree with that. There are many more pertinant things I could be writing about. But as I have pondered how to try and fit in the time to start writing again, I realized that it was twenty years ago that my house burned down.
I think we all ponder how things would be different if we could go back in time and change something. Assassinating Hitler or preventing the assassination of JFK (look at me, squeezing in two mentions of assassinations in one sentence!) often comes up in fiction or speculative conversations. I tend to fall into the camp that chooses to not change the past because it seems likely things wouldn’t be as they are now – and I am grateful for my life.
So even though losing nearly everything I owned, the house I grew up in, and the family cat seems like something I should like to go back and change, I wouldn’t. Okay, maybe I’d save the cat. That couldn’t make things change much, right?
It Doesn’t Hail in January, Does It?
It was a Saturday. I was supposed to be at a Competitive Speech meet elsewhere in the state, but it was canceled due to bad weather at the location. I had made some loose plans to hang out with a friend at my place.
I was playing Master’s of Orion 2 and my little brother was in my room playing the Super Nintendo. He was waiting for a ride to play in a basketball game. I’m pretty sure it was a fighting game, but I don’t remember which one. He probably does. My dad was asleep in his room – he had many medical issues and slept odd hours. My mom was at work.
I thought I heard hail, which seemed really odd for January. I lifted up the blinds that covered the door to our back deck and instead of hail bouncing off the deck, I saw the crackling flames consuming the deck.
Let me describe a few things about that house to help paint this picture. The house had started as two different homestead houses that were joined together. There was a small decline between the kitchen/living room side of the house and the bedrooms/bathroom side.
I don’t know the exact history of the basement. I remember some of my older siblings or perhaps my father (he grew up in the house as well) mentioning there was a time when it was basically a cellar – a hole in the ground. The basement I remember consisted of two bedroom, a storage room that always had shelves of jarred food (I want to say there was a nickname for the room which is eluding me right now), and a pantry with the furnace and water heater accessible through one of the bedrooms.
I had occupied both bedrooms at some point in my life, but the one that provided access to the pantry was currently my younger brother’s room. The deck had been built over the window of this bedroom. So the first thing I said after seeing the fire was to my brother – “Is your room on fire?”
It wasn’t exactly the great escape. Other than hearing my brother freaking out because of the question I just asked him, the only thing I could do was notice how smoky the air was getting.
Get low. That’s what they always taught you in elementary school – if there is a fire, get low so you can get under the smoke. What they don’t tell you is that even if you get low, it is still probably pretty smoky. So I proceeded to crawl out the back door.
As I exited the house, the back door slammed behind me. Was that a backdraft? I don’t know for sure. I don’t know exactly what else went on in the house. I know the end result was my brother and dad made it out, but my dad’s eyebrows and the cat did not. My grandma, who lived next door, ran in to find the cat. I’m pretty sure she did this against my protests, but she was strong willed. She came back out, but couldn’t find the cat.
My brother had run across the street to call 911. Considering the rural area, it was pretty uncommon to have a neighbor right across the street. While talking to the 911 operator on the neighbor’s cordless phone my brother ran to the far side of the house away from the neighbor’s and couldn’t get a signal. I took the phone from him and walked back toward the street to get a good enough connection.
I don’t remember much of the conversation other than being asked about anything explosive being near or attached to the house. Forgetting about the 1,000 gallon propane tank, I said no. Fortunately, my father disconnected it so my forgetfulness didn’t become disastrous.
I returned the phone to my neighbor, who invited me in. I could see smoke billowing out of the living room window on the side of the house.
Can We Hang Out at Your Place Instead?
I called my friend.
“Hey, remember how you were going to come over today? Can I go over there instead? My house is kind of on fire.”
My friend laughs, probably assuming I am not serious.
I say nothing.
“Wait, what? Are you serious?” I haven’t spoken to him now in more than ten years, other than Christmas cards and over Facebook. I can still hear his voice on that phone call.
“Yeah. What size shoe does your brother wear? I don’t have any shoes.”
I don’t remember a lot of the particulars other than he was going to come pick me up. Another neighbor from a ways down the street had brought me a pair of snow boots that belonged to her son. I remember reading the comics while I waited for my friend and when I finished those, I started looking for a job in the classifieds.
Surely I told someone in my family where I was going, but I don’t remember doing that. Maybe I asked my neighbor to let them know. I was probably in shock and I really didn’t want to watch the billowing smoke anymore. I just wanted to leave.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
My friend had gotten a Nintendo 64 and the latest Zelda game. I started a game. I don’t remember how far I got. More friends showed up – friends who were older than me and I hadn’t seen since they started college. Through an almost miraculous word of mouth, they found out what had happened and figured out where I was.
Two of my friends were twin brothers. Their father had passed away from a lengthy bout with cancer the year before. I remember skipping school just to hang out and help comfort them. I remember placing my arm around one of their shoulders and saying, “Everything’s going to be okay.” I don’t remember if was then or later, but they told me that really had helped them that day.
I wonder if they had realized they were repaying the favor just by dropping by when they heard what had happened to me. I don’t remember for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them had placed his arms around my shoulders and said, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
That night, my friend and I went to a high school volleyball game. I knew more friends would be there and I had several friends on the volleyball team.
One of my friends, upon hearing the new, “Wait, your house burned down and you came to a volleyball game?”
“Well, I can’t go home… so… yeah.”
He probably meant “Why aren’t you with your family?” and I don’t think I could have answered him.
Feeling a Little Homeless
It was pretty cramped at my grandma’s – or at least I thought it would be. Maybe I was just being an emo teenager whose house had just burned down and I didn’t know where I wanted to be. I stayed at my friend’s the next couple of nights. I was taken in by another friend that lived on the other extreme end of “town” (maybe school district would be a better term). It was at least 25 minutes from my house. I mean, from where my house used to be. I stayed with them until my family was able to find a home to rent. Funny enough, ended up renting the house they had rented while my grandma and grandpa built their house.
A Total Loss
The house was a total loss, but it could have been so much worse. My brother could have already gone to his basketball game and not been there to wake up my dad. I could have been 4 hours away and not alerted my brother when I did.
My understanding is that they never could determine what actually caused the fire. There was speculation there may have been faulty wiring in the basement. Because of how the house was two houses combined, there was a gap between the two halves that the fire got into but the firefighters could not. A neighbor ended up having to knock the house down with a bulldozer or some other large machine to smother the fire or at least expose enough of it to try and put it out. It smoldered for days.
I think it was a week or more later the smoldering had finally stopped and I went out to see the house. Despite it being a total loss, a lot of things had survived. Something had fallen on a box of pictures and other than melting together a little bit in some spots, were in pretty good shape. My dad collected a few odd toys that were a little suety. A plastic Gizmo from Gremlins comes to mind.
A midst the wreckage, I found a mixed tape that had belong to my sister. The plastic case was a little warped. I checked to see if it would still play in the tape deck in my friend’s car. It started to play:
That seemed like a good sign.
Life Goes On
For a long time after that, it didn’t take long after meeting people for them to know my house had burned down. I only had a few weeks of, “Hi! My house burned down. What’s your name?”
It was a couple of years before I stopped saying, “I have one of those… er… had one of those.”
I still have dreams that take place in that house. Sometimes it still has the green shag carpet with wood paneling from my youth and other times it has the nice white walls and dark blue carpet from my teens.
I had been fourth in my class and dropped to seventh due to a poor last semester of school. Maybe only dropping to seventh was a bit of a miracle. I stopped going to my first period class and took a correspondence course to make up for it. I didn’t get it done in time for graduation. Officially, I think my transcript officially says I was 7th of a class of zero. One of my more clever friends said that made me in the top infinite percentile.
Now it comes as a shock to people I have known for a while when something comes up that makes me mention this event in my life. I’m glad that this event isn’t the center of my existence, but in a lot of ways it has made me who I am today. And I am pretty okay with this guy.
I felt a lot of love and support during a very critical part of my life from a lot of people. Of course, there was my family – who loved me even when I wasn’t around very much right after the fire. There were friends who took me into their homes and friends who probably felt like they had taken me into their homes. There were friends who made me laugh and friends who studied Calculus, Honors English, and Physics with me. There were friends who probably didn’t know I had huge crushes on them. There were friends on the tennis team and friends who lived far away. They are all so special to me, even now.
I’ve lost touch with a lot of them. Some I am still dear friends with. Others, I at least keep in touch with their lives on Facebook. Despite some of the awfulness that comes from social media, keeping up with so many people who have added bits and pieces of themselves to who I am is simply wonderful. I hope some of you are reading this blog post. Just because I lost touch doesn’t mean that I don’t remember. It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss you.