Then there was that one time when my house burned down

It was twenty-three years ago yesterday, as a matter of fact.  I was eight years old and while I’m sure it sounds like it was a terribly traumatic experience, it really wasn’t.  Like, not even at all.  For me, the fire was one of those ‘God never closes a door without opening a window’ dealies.  See, when you’re an only child and you live in an apartment complex where almost all of your neighbors are either childless single people or retirees, it can get kind of lonely.  After the fire, we moved to a much better neighborhood with tons of kids and it was awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The real reason I was so remarkably unfazed by the whole thing is because I knew it was coming.

Let me preface this story by saying that I am firm believer in the theory that children are capable of perceiving much more of the world than adults and that they tend to grow out of it around the same time their vivid imaginations get smothered by algebra homework.  (This is neither the first, nor I’m sure will it be the last time that I blame the ills of the world on algebra.  I think it’s a ridiculous subject and I firmly believe that letters have no business mixing with numbers. They should stay in the alphabet where they belong.  This is, thankfully, one of my only separatist notions.  I won’t go into the others here.  Suffice it to say, I have never been able wrap my head around what x equaled and y I should care.)  As I was saying, before children are forced to trade in their imaginary friends for the more mundane things in life, many are said to possess extra sensory perceptions and I was most definitely one of them.

I was a weird kid.  It’s tough to imagine, I know.  I was the creative sort of weird, not pick-your-nose-and-eat-it weird.  I was intuitive.  For instance, sometimes I would see or sense things that weren’t there.  I remember one afternoon at my grandmother’s house, I was coloring upstairs in my dad’s old bedroom when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned to look, but there was no one in the room.  Other times I would have very strong (and often inexplicable) feelings about things, like the time when we were on vacation at the Cape and I had this irrational fear that our hotel room was going to be broken into.  Well, later that day, we ran into the manager of the hotel in the hallway and he explained that there had been several break-ins on the premises, but that the perpetrator had been caught.  Then there were hundreds of little everyday occurrences like vivid déjà vu or randomly thinking about a person I hadn’t seen in weeks/months/years and then running into that person, often in an unlikely place.

And then there was that one time when my house burned down…

On August 24, 1989 I had a terrible nightmare.  In it, my bedroom was engulfed in flames, I couldn’t find my parents and I had to jump out the window to run for help.  As soon as I hit the ground, I awoke screaming.  My mother tried to get me to calm down, but I was having none of it.  I sat up in bed, totally alert and waited for her to fall asleep.  When I was sure she was sleeping and that I wouldn’t get caught out of bed in the middle of the night, I sprang into action.

Because I was convinced that something terrible was going to happen at any minute, I wanted to be prepared.  So I took out a small, purple My Little Pony suitcase from under my bed and began to pack.  I think we can all agree that packing can be stressful even under normal circumstances, but when you’re eight years old and you’re packing what you believe to be the only belongings you’ll own after tomorrow, the situation becomes infinitely worse.

I’ve always been a very practical person so the first thing I packed was a change of clothes  – a pair of shorts that no longer fit, my blue Whalom Park t-shirt and a pair of red jelly shoes.  (Gimme a break – it was the 80s.)  I also packed a blanket, some mittens and a wool hat.  I realize that it was August, not to mention one of the hottest summers on record, but I had no idea how long we were likely to be homeless, so I thought that bringing a blanket and some winter garb was completely sensible and totally worth the space it would take up in my suitcase when it got colder come October.  Continuing along those lines, I snuck out to the kitchen and grabbed three chocolate chip granola bars and three fruit roll ups, one each for my mother, father and I, thinking we could ration them for at least a week if necessary.  I also grabbed a large trash bag from the kitchen and here is where my practicality abandoned me.

The crucial decision of which toys I would save was upon me.  I carefully weighed the pros and cons of the contents of my bedroom.  I immediately ruled out all my books – too heavy, my Nintendo – too complicated to unhook (plus it was out in the living room and I didn’t want to risk being caught out of bed twice), dolls, board games, action figures…I considered the value of them all, but ultimately it was my sentimentality that won out in the end.

I had a collection of five stuffed animals who lived on my bed: a large dog/pillow whose name was some sort of bastardized verision of Snuffelupagus from Seasame Street (Snuffles, maybe?); a once beautiful white teddy bear aptly named Teddy; a puppet-dog named Helis (my mother said that I attempted to name him after Luis, also of Seasame Street, but failed in the execution and the name just stuck); a floppy orange bear called “Gund” because that was the name printed on the tag sticking out of its butt; and lastly, my prized possession, the first thing I had ever owned as it was a gift from my dad while I was still in the hospital on the day of my birth, my raincoat and hat clad, beanie-filled, Paddington Bear.  He was the only one of the five to receive special treatment based on seniority.  He would accompany me on sleepovers, car trips and any other occasion where it was simply too impractical to bring five large stuffed animals.  But I couldn’t bear the thought of permanently parting with any of them so they all got stuffed into a trash bag that night.  Only when I had finished packing did I finally go back to sleep.

By the next day, all thoughts of my nightmare were largely forgotten.  I’m sure my parent’s must have noticed the packed suitcase and bulging trash bag in the corner of my bedroom, but to their credit, they didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Two days later,  I awoke early feeling wonderfully refreshed and unperturbed.  My parents were still asleep, so I got up, poured myself a bowl of Count Chocula and was just settling in on the couch to watch Heathcliff, a delightful cartoon about junk yard cats, when I heard the first fire alarm.  I poked my head out into the hallway and saw a black cloud of smoke billowing down the staircase at the end of the hall.  I immediately ran into my parent’s room to wake them up.  My dad got up right away, but my mother took a bit more time.  She could barely walk because she’d just had her gallbladder removed earlier that week and back in the day, that was major surgery.

While my dad helped my mom get out of bed, I was instructed to run outside to our next door neighborhood’s house.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I made a quick stop in my bedroom to grab my bags.  Luggage in hand, I made my way down the stairs and through the smoke-filled hallways to the main entrance of our apartment complex.  I was the first person out.  I can only imagine what it must have looked like to see a little girl in a pink bathrobe and slippers calmly exiting a burning building with a purple suitcase in one hand and a large trash bag slung over her shoulder.

Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine it, because there’s a video.  It’s about four minutes long (which seems like a ridiculous amount of time to cover a house fire where no one was seriously injured, at least by modern standards), the editing is terrible and the sound quality isn’t that great either so if you want to skip to the most embarrassing part, it’s at the three minute mark.  [Shout-out to my mother (who is generally not fond of being all up on the internet) for allowing me to post the full version of the video rather than editing out her part.  Thanks for being such a good sport, ma!]

Okay so the video doesn’t actually show me walking out with my little suitcase, but that’s only because no one was there yet to see it.  They also edited out about seventy-five percent of my conversation with the reporter.  Even as a child I was extremely loquacious.  I was just telling my story, like it was the most natural thing in the world.  I remember telling him how glad I was to have my suitcase because I was the only one with a clean change of (admittedly ill-fitting) clothes.  I think I may have also offered him a strawberry fruit roll-up, but I don’t remember.

There were also a lot of other things that either happened after the fact or simply got left out of news report:

– The fire started in the apartment upstairs from us.  Apparently it was an electrical fire that was caused by either an old school Apple computer or more likely, a faulty extension cord or an overloaded wall socket.

– An off-duty fire fighter and his girlfriend happened to be driving by and when they saw the smoke they both ran into the building and started banging on doors.  The woman escorted my mother outside while my dad accompanied the fireman upstairs to the third floor to save an elderly woman who had gone back into her apartment because she’d left her mother’s wedding ring behind.  Once they got her out, my dad tried to get back into the building because their was one man on the ground floor who was still unaccounted for, but before he made it back inside, the eave on the front of the building collapsed.  By then, the fire fighters had arrived and they pulled him away from the building.  Later, he was taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.   The other man was fine too.

– The night after the fire, two guys who had lived in the building came back to the apartment in the middle of the night.  Our neighbors from the across the street saw them loading tons of stuff into a van.  Turns out they stole shit from everyone.  My parents were so pissed.

– The next morning, when the building was deemed safe for re-entry, my family and I went back to see if anything was salvageable.  Oddly, my room had the least damage of any part of the building and a lot of my things were alright.  Sooty and wet, but more or less fine.

– That same day, my mom was in my parent’s bedroom trying to see what could be saved when the phone rang.  That shouldn’t have been possible, but for some reason ours was the only phone that somehow hadn’t been disconnected.  While she was out in the kitchen answering the phone, the ceiling in her room caved in.  Had she still been in there she almost certainly would’ve died or at the very least, been seriously injured.  Creepy, right?

– Lastly, the fire happened only a few days before the start of the school year.  Every summer we were given a reading list that had to be signed by a parent and turned in on the first day of school.  On our last trip out of the apartment, my mother saw that my reading list was still stuck to the refrigerator and she grabbed it.  Come the first day of school (and this is SO me) I was the only person to remember to turn in my reading list – all black and singed.  My teacher was speechless.

So that’s the story of the fire.  There’s no pithy punch line I’m afraid.  It’s just been on my mind lately so I thought I’d share.  Be well, everyone.


5 thoughts on “Then there was that one time when my house burned down

  1. That is an awesome story, Sarah! Wow. My brother and I were once terrified to go to sleep at a hotel because we were afraid of a fire, and 3 hours later the alarm went off and we had to evacuate. Hardly anyone took heed, which scared us as well, but was lucky because the alarm went off only because the A/C in the pool room went out and it got too hot. Thanks for sharing it and posting it on fcbk just as I was about to return to being productive. Your story is way more interesting! Also, I’m so happy your mom went to answer the phone and you remembered your reading list!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I am so grateful you are here to tell it. By the way Robin (ma to you) looked pretty attractive in the video for someone who had undergone surgery and awoke to her home on fire. But in my opinion she will always be a great beauty inwardly as well as outwardly. Your dad isn’t too shabby either. Look what a great beauty they made!

  3. Again, you astound me with your writing ability. The details put me right in the middle of this event and I felt as though I were right there. The follow on details including the eerie phone call which saved your mother were critical to understanding your insight.

    I’d like to give a shout out to algebra, however. It has managed to save me on many occasions in my professional life when I thought I would never need it. The ability to solve for x and y can come in very handy when trying to do taxes or when converting picas to inches or vice versa. I know there are tools for that now, but when you’re writing programs in Visual Basic, the ability to construct these formulas in nothing short of amazing.

    Enough proselytizing. I enjoyed the story and hope to keep seeing more of them. I also hope to catch you in performance later this year at CCO.

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