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The Burning and the Trembling: Reflections on a House Fire and the Nature of Community

by Jeff Johnson

Kneeling before the baseboard of my eighty-year-old house, removing its darkened varnish to expose the richly grained red oak, I saw the droplet of Bix stripper drip into the outlet and explode. The flame shot across the floor and burst up the molding around the door, following the path I had laid for it with my brush full of volatility. The papers I had carefully taped to the floor to save the maple hardwood from the harshness of the chemicals eagerly welcomed the flame. My house was on fire. It took no more than a few seconds for me to be standing before a wall raging (and raging is exactly the right metaphor). I panicked. All the grade school lessons, all the careful warnings, all the illusions I had harbored of being able to manage such an emergency evaporated in that moment of flame. The house, my house, my first house, was falling prey to this growing monster. And I was the fool that had loosed it. I remembered the fire extinguisher in the kitchen. I scrambled to apply its promise of healing to the rapidly growing sore; but in my terror I could not figure out how to use it. Turn upside down, squeeze lever, point. I had forgotten to remove the pin. As I tossed the seemingly useless extinguisher to the floor the words NINE ONE ONE took shape in my jumbled brain. I picked up the phone but it was dead. The jack above the baseboard by this time had melted and cut me off. The house was filling with bitter black smoke. I grabbed my cell phone and raced out the front door. My fingers trembled too much to be able to punch the tiny buttons so I ran to a neighbor and shouted, “My house is on fire! Call NINE ONE ONE!” Then it possessed me. The very spirit of the fire that we all are warned not to entertain. I ran back into the burning house. I can’t recall my motivation. Whether it was to save the precious pictures of my recently deceased father; whether it was to smother a bit of the flame before the professionals arrived… I can no longer recall. But there I was, standing in my blackening dining room, seeing the flame eat into the floor and edge up my step ladder. The smoke viciously attacked my lungs, and I knew that I might die right there. I saw that the fire was edging toward two unopened cans of stripper so I grabbed them and made my final exit from the burning. In my mind it took forever for those blessed red trucks to arrive, but in reality they were there in minutes. Swarms of Holy Warriors against the flame crashed into my house to relieve it of the menace. A large policeman stationed by me restrained my enticement by the spirit of the fire to rush yet again back into the house. The neighbors watched. Doors were broken down, windows smashed all for the sake of cooling the flame and expelling the smoke. It was over in seconds. Eternity had passed. Now, a week later, and still trembling inside, I want most to remember with gratitude the moments of humanity in the midst of that smoke and flame: the kind strength of the fire chief’s explanations of his strategy; the good-natured humor of my attending police officer; the concern of my neighbor for my supper and lodging; the deep respect for life that led one fire fighter to rescue even my terrified little pet finch; the compassion the Red Cross volunteer offered with the simple gesture of a hand on my shoulder; the willingness of the emergency electrician to linger a few moments and just chat after restoring the light to my darkened house. Today my house has been evacuated by the fire recovery company hired by my insurance. My clothes are somewhere in New Berlin being cleaned. My furniture is somewhere being ozoned. Even my fiddle is out being tended to by some kind stranger. And I am sleeping on a fold out couch in a back bedroom untouched by the fire as my little finch sings out his victory in the now echoing empty rooms. The doors have been repaired, the windows glazed, the phone reconnected. Soon the wall that kindled the flame will be plastered and painted; the floor sanded and refinished. To the neighborhood my house still shows a scar of two boarded windows awaiting their storms. But soon that will be healed. For me it is the vulnerability of the neighborhood that reveals itself in a fire. How close we are to one another’s burnings. And in the heart of it all glows the majesty of how we’ve gathered ourselves to one another in the midst of these vulnerabilities. And it’s the kindness and the generosity and the warmth and the humor of that human majesty that will with time heal my trembling and burning and darkening inside. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 5 – June 2002