All except the first story, but it will lead, thematically, into the “Alley Series.” Much of my Mission City series comes very near to the location mentioned in the Alley recollections. The structure of what I write is not intentional, but “evocative” letting the story tell itself, because I think each story wants to tell itself in relation to the next. I know I lose chronological order, but what is evoked is what is evoked and that is more important.
One fourth of July, I was over at a parishioner’s house in
He and another were running the garden hose from the burning house to reach the window of the bedroom which was on fire. I grabbed the hose from my friend’s house and did the same. We met at the window and someone had already broken out the glass and so we began directing the water to the bed which was the primary source of the fire at the time. Meanwhile, another neighbor was running around beating on all of the windows around the house to insure no one was asleep inside.
In fact, there was at least one person inside, and the woman came out the front door. She was embarrassed at having no shirt on, and obviously groggy from a deep sleep. I was still working hard to extinguish the bed and making progress, and was dousing the walls and ceiling as best I could to prevent the fire from burning through the sheet-rock which was still protecting the rest of the house. She was asked if there was anyone else inside. “The kids. I think they are in the back bedroom.”
I dropped the hose and stepped in the front door. All of the power was already off—I seem to recall that someone had pulled the main breaker so we would not get shocked using all of that water. Anyway, the house was dark and filled with smoke except for about the lowest two feet. I was breathing so hard from the adrenaline that I found I could not hold my breath long enough to attempt getting through the house. Someone else observed, "There is no way any of us are going to make it from inside."
I took off in a sprint around the house to try to gain entry to the room she pointed at through the back window.
The house was on a slope and the back bedroom window was at least five feet from the ground. I slammed the window with the side of my fist in an attempt to crack the glass. I hit it several times, but although I hit it as hard as I could, I was pounding above my head and so not getting much leverage. I took several steps back and ran at the house, leaping on the last bound, and punched with the side of my fist at the window when I was in the air. I tried this several times, more than once managing to hit the glass in the center with my shoulder. That damned window did not so much as crack.
I was awed that using all of my strength, I could not break the glass. It flexed, but would not crack. The smoke was thick against the glass when I first got there, but it was roiling against the glass by the time I had exhausted myself running, jumping and punching—again and again. This went on for maybe two or three minutes and I yelled throughout for someone to find a ladder or something I could use to break the glass. The last three attempts were utterly useless, I could no longer jump high enough, and my arm strength was gone. I saw the orange of flame and it replaced the smoke. For a few moments I thought my failure to break the glass had cost two children their lives.
I knelt where I landed after the last futile attempt and my breath caught with a sob. As I tried to smooth my breathing and get my emotions under control, my ex-wife came around the corner of the house into the back yard where I was alone. The only person who had joined me back there had run off to find a ladder almost as soon as I started trying to break out the window. My ex-wfe looked at me kneeling in the grass, drenched from the water when I had been fighting the fire out front, and she laughed at me.
“What are you doing?”
“The kids.” I gestured at the window. “I couldn’t get the damned window to break.”
“They found the kids—they were next door.”
She laughed again at me.
I returned to the front of the house and my friend’s arms were giving out. By this time he had been spraying the water, using his thumb over the hose opening to reach the back of the room, and his forearms, like mine, ached. I took one of the hoses from him and went back to work fighting the fire. He asked me, “What happened to you back there? You look like hell.”
“I thought the kids were in that back room and I couldn’t get through the damned window.”
“They’re alright. They were next door—the Mom just didn’t know where they were. Someone should have come and told you.”
“Yes. I thought they must have died while I tried with everything I had to break the glass. It felt so… Evil.”
My friend understood and "accidentally" sprayed my face to wash away the tears so no one would notice I had been crying.
The fire truck had been stuck in a parade in the next town over. They eventually showed up, but we had defeated the flames by then. We kept the fire from spreading but the smoke damage ruined pretty much everything they owned. I later learned that children had started the fire in the middle of the bedroom floor, and then shoved it under the bed before running away and hiding at the house next door.< It is, of course, the odd climax of that story—the interrupting climax which makes it most notable to me. I think of it this way. I have trodden far more paths into dangerous situations, life and death struggles and drama—even trauma-- than the vast majority of persons I know. Fear doesn’t do to me what it should, and I suspect there is at least some connection between that and my being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t like the “disorder” word, because what I do as a result of that, the behavior which diagnosis it, is not disordered, it is merely rare. I am hyper-vigilant. That means I am not only looking for anything going wrong, I am also constantly attempting to be ready to deal with whatever goes wrong.
But it is the juxtaposition of my experience of trauma in failing to save two children with being laughed at for doing so.
That scene is iconic for me, because it repeated, in spiritual parallel a few years later. [But that story will be written later. It is too intimate—too painful—to close, and its consequences too hurtful to share just yet, with more than a few. I still write and tell that story and fall into the present tense—a sign that I am reliving the trauma, not merely remembering it—it is spiritually with me, happening, now; and it is because of that traumatic transcending of time—it will not become past for me, that my brokenness remains broken—I am not (yet?) scarred]. Yet, two children I desperately try to save and one laughing woman—the same woman, different children—and my failure to save despite my best efforts, serves here to foreshadow what will be.
Foreshadowing is a literary technique, but this is foreshadowing in real life—as if the Author wanted me to be prepared for the greater and more tragic event. Perhaps, and I hope it is so, for me to keep in mind the tragedy I assumed had taken place with the knowledge that the two children I sought to save were safe none-the-less. God, please let it be so.
Fire in the Alley!
I was in college and going to my parents' house after work at IBM where I worked that summer. I smelled smoke as I drove in front of the house and began honking and yelling “Fire!” as I went around the corner and into the alley. I saw the flames against the fence in our side yard, parked my car in the grass to leave room for fire trucks to come into the driveway, opened the garage door with the remote and continued to yell, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
The next-door neighbors had a hose draped over the fence in seconds, and my father came out with one from our back yard moments after. I was dragging the gasoline cans for the lawnmower out of the garage, and all chemical containers which happened to be on the other side of the wall from the fire. The breaker box was in the garage and an outlet was near where the blaze was so I pulled the main breaker so I could use the water hose. The side of the garage was shingled, and someone had stacked fire logs against it, and set the stack ablaze.
The fire department came very quickly, and I had the small fire out and was pulling the few burned shingles off the house and squirting water up inside the wall. No other damage was done. While I was busy doing all of these things, some kid had come up and was watching. The fire department asked me what I knew and were very curious about the gas cans. I explained that I had thought of those as soon as I saw where the fire was—knew they were just on the other side of the wall. Meanwhile, that stranger kid was talking to one of the other firefighters.
A few minutes later, the head fireman came up and asked me if I knew that kid. I had never seen him before. He said, “He set the fire. One of my men thought the boy was too interested, and too helpful. The kid reached into the pile of wood, there, and found a book of matches. He knew they were there even though they were under the wood. We asked him a few questions and he even knew that the logs had been placed there from the larger stack against the fence. He has admitted it and the chief is over at his house talking to his parents."
There was no doubt. A few days later, I was informed that the kid had taken a book of matches from a jar of matches the parents had collected from their vacations. One book was missing and the book used to start the fire was the one. The family did not know mine—it was just a troubled, emotionally disturbed kid. The parents indicated they knew he had issues. The Fire Department pressed charges against him, and the judge was requiring him to go to the poorly named, “
Of interest is the timing— that I just happened to be driving up. Then, that I thought of the gas cans and the electricity. Also that my neighbors had two hoses over the fence almost before I had gotten out of my car. It was all almost surreal.
I remember thinking that my actions might have the fire department suspecting me—too many coincidences. I was just reading on Friday how just such concerns are typical for persons who have some experience with mystical intuition. They seem too quick to know things about others—pick up on the slightest details, things no one else notices, and assembles an accurate picture of the details.
That then leads me into two other stories of that place, the back yard driveway of the house and the alley behind that house on Chattington where that fire was.
I At Your Cat Today!
The oddest is where I did get blamed for something I did not do and for exactly the reason I just explained. I was in first grade. There was this cute girl, about four years older than me, and I thought she was very pretty because, well, she was very pretty. Moreover, she intrigued me. Not really the point, but perhaps worth mentioning, is that she had recently had me come over and play in the big playroom they had in their house.
She had a brother my age, but I did not know him well even though they lived only a few doors down. The boy was "not right," as they say. I was too young to put it together, but I can make a pretty good guess now. Anyway, her brother was probably autistic, but I do not have enough memories of him to have much certainty of exactly what was wrong. His sister was damaged in some way, too. She was smart, and bright and pretty as she could be. I was honored to be asked to come over and play, especially because she was ten and I was six—I felt grown up, just like I saw my big brother to be.
They had a really neat playroom. A lot of the house in my neighborhood had “playrooms” for the kids. This one was special. It was huge and it had a climbing structure complete with tunnels and monkey bars –all inside the house. I remember hard linoleum floors, white with black specks, and the tunnels and climbing structure of bright colors.
The girl started by apologizing for her brother’s behavior when I had been over not long before. Essentially, I think she was telling me he was retarded, but I think I took that to be nothing but a sibling insult. Once in the playroom, she got very quiet, asked me to be very quiet, and began acting strangely— in the eyes of six year old. She kept climbing up ahead of me, wearing a skirt and intentionally teasing me. You get the idea.
When I was thirteen and adventurous, my father started driving me to the Junior High dances— and I never missed one. It became a regular routine and when I was about fourteen going on fifteen, I remember his smiling and saying, as he drove me home from yet another, “Your dog loves to chase cars, you know. I sometimes wonder if he would know what to do if he ever caught one.” I laughed, and my Dad continued smiling and added, “I’m wondering the same about you. You chase the girls. I am wondering if you would know what to do if you caught one.”
“Nope. Not yet, but I’m figuring it out.”
He nodded. “I think that girl we just took home will know what to do with you.”
“I think so, too.”
“You’re a mess!”
“But I’m a fun mess.”
My Dad was cool.
But back to the girl down the street. She knew what to do with boys she caught way too early.
I got my little naive self out of there. She was disappointed, but stayed friendly to me.
One day, soon after all of that, I saw her in the alley, behind my house. I said, “I ate your cat today.”
What a strange thing to say. I have no idea why I said it—I know I wanted to tease her, but it made no sense to me. It came from somewhere else. I never made that mistake again-- giving voice to "somewhere else." I don't mean me-- as you will see...
This odd kid a year older than me, something of a bully, had been playing with one of my best friends earlier in the day, and said something to me about being down at her house and hating her cat, but that is only the connection between the words, but not behind the odd idea. I had said those odd words while my heart desired some intended humor, and she seemed to take my heart's intent and not my words.
The words came to me as magic, as a relief being given to me in my timidity. I heard some brief tangential discussion about children believing in magic, and being right, but being taught otherwise. Peter Pan. Well, some magic is not to be trifled with.
That night my parents called me down from my room and ask me why I had said that. I had no good answer; I did not know why I had said it. The interrogation continued when there was a knock on the door. The bully kid I had avoided earlier in the day had been “fingered” by other neighbors. He had smothered the cat belonging to the girl. He had killed several pets in the neighborhood that day. Her parents were apologizing for suspecting me.