It started out like any other Fall Friday night that October in 1984. My sister and I were in our rooms getting dressed to go with my dad to a football game and my dad was taking a shower. My mom was sick with a headache so she was resting on the couch. She wasn’t feeling well enough to go to the game with us so she had planned to just sleep off the headache while we were at the game.
I had put my shirt in the dryer earlier so, in my jeans and bra, I went outside to our utility room to grab my shirt. I went out the back door and took the 3 steps through our carport to the door of the attached laundry room and pulled open the door. As I entered the small room and I saw the flames shooting up the wall beside the dryer. It took what felt like minutes, but I’m sure it was only seconds, before it registered exactly what I was seeing. In that instant, I knew my 16 year old world would never be the same.
I turned and headed back in the house screaming, “The house is on fire! Daaaaddddyyyyyy…..the house is on fire!” He was in the shower and could not hear my screams. My mom was startled awake as I ran by her in complete panic. I threw open the bathroom door and told my father that the utility room was on fire. He jumped out of the shower, without even turning off the water, threw on a pair of jeans and ran outside. My dad grabbed a water hose, turned on the water and started trying to extinguish the fire. However, no water came. He had left the shower running and we had a very weak well system which just couldn’t handle a running shower and an exterior water source. He knew it was out of control and that we needed to react quickly.
I grabbed a sleeveless jacket and ran to my car. Our nearest neighbor was my grandmother and she lived a quarter mile away. That quarter mile seemed like the longest drive of my life. I ran into my grandmother’s house and screamed that our house was on fire and that we needed to call the fire department. She panicked. I panicked. This was in the days before 911 and to complicate things, we lived 10 miles from the nearest volunteer fire department. Those phone numbers were not memorized and it took us what seemed like forever to look them up in the phonebook. While I looked up the number, she stood at her door and could see the flames shooting out of our roof. She knew this was bad. We found the number and she began to dial the phone. I ran out to get more help. My aunt and uncle lived another quarter mile so I raced down the road to get their help.
My family had played out this scenario many times. We had a plan. Everyone gets out and we meet by the mailbox some 150 feet from the house. Thank goodness, this is exactly what my 10 year old sister did and she stayed there watching all of this play out. However, there were some factors that came into play that we never really considered when we were making those emergency preparations. What about the cars? What about our photos? What about our beloved pets? What about our wallets? What about our clothes? We always said that if our home was on fire, none of those things would matter. But they did. They mattered a lot in those panic stricken moments.
My dad worked for GTE by day and farmed by night. If you are familiar with farming then you know farmers get paid once at the end of the harvest season. That very day had been my father’s payday and he had a very fat wallet of cash on his dresser at the opposite end of the house. This would be all he would get that season so he knew how detrimental a loss this would be if he didn’t save that wallet. He ran back in to retrieve the cash. I think he knew we were going to need that and he risked his life to get it. On his way back, the fire had spread and was about to block the door nearest to him. He made it out safely but did sustain some minor burns on his still bare back.
While I was getting help and dad was fighting the fire, my mom had grabbed my 12 year old Chihuahua and tossed her out the front door. Then my mom ran back just inside the front door. This is where our gun cabinet was stored. She started grabbing these family heirlooms and running them to safety. As my dad was running out, he managed to grab the last of them. This was all we got. Nothing else was within reach. The fire was spreading too quickly to get to the photo albums and other precious memorabilia.
As our family stood at a safe distance and watched our home go up in flames, the neighbors started coming. And they came with their water trucks and they came with their hugs and prayers and soon enough they came with food and clothing and money. They came and they came. Some saw the bright flames in the night sky and came to see if they could help. Where I lived, one only had to see the glow in the sky and they knew exactly whose home and whose family was in trouble. Members of the local volunteer fire departments heard the call on their radios and they came, most of them beating the fire truck from town. These volunteers used a water tank truck a fellow farmer and neighbor brought over, which ran out just as the fire truck arrived. They fought and fought that fire but it raged on, until there was mostly rubble left standing where our home had once been.
It was on this dark country road that I realized two of our pets were missing and there was no way to get to them. The fire had spread too far too fast. Even if they were hiding in the farthest corners from the blaze, I realized the amount of smoke bellowing out of the windows and doors would be too much for them. Hours later, the firemen confirmed they had found both our sweet puppy, Buddy, and our loving cat, Socks, hiding under beds far from the flames. My fears had been confirmed, the smoke was just too much for their little lungs to take. I stood there that night and I cried for my pets and I cried for all the things I would never get back. It was really hard to not feel a deep sense of loss, even when I had my unharmed family standing next to me. It was hard for this 16-year old child to see the blessings in the disaster.
Before this night, I had seen my parents’ and grandparents’ network of friends help out in times of sickness or death. However, it was following this particular event that I came to understand what people mean when they talk about community. I had grown up in this tiny town, attending a small church and shopping at the same stores with the same people all of my life. I had a sense that everyone knew each other but until that night, I had no idea how much these people loved each other. I’m talking about a kind of love and loyalty that transcends wealth, race, religion and gender. Over the next few days and weeks, I watched as this community came to our aid and we found ourselves not wanting for any basic need. We had clothing, food, and thanks to my grandmother, shelter. We had each other and that was what was most important. But we realized that we had so much more. We realized that no matter what happened, our community of friends and neighbors would be there to help us pick up the pieces in the worst of times. This community became family and we were so blessed because of them.