Friday, February 18, 2011

Why I love Valentine's Day

Okay, I was going to write this entry ON Valentine's Day, but I came down with an ugly, crappy cold which has reduced me to staring blankly at the tv in between sneezing, coughing and blowing my nose. (I think that's what I hate most about colds-- I feel so ... stupid.)

Valentine's Day is my favorite holiday. This year's was kind of a bust - like I said before, I was sick, my sister's car got stuck in our driveway and I spent 30 minutes getting covered in mud & kitty litter trying to get it out before I went to work, and we didn't do anything special because Brett had a lot of work stuff, and to be honest, he doesn't really get Valentine's Day, although he's usually good for taking me out for dinner. But I love Valentine's Day because of a really terrible thing that happened to my family when I was little, ironically enough.

Just before I turned ten, my dad got a bonus or something, and he and my mom were deciding between spending it on a vacation or a wood-burning stove. They picked wood-burning stove- this really pretty, dark blue ceramic thing that we had a little brick area made for in our TV room. That fall and the first part of winter had been unusually warm, so we only tried it out once or twice. But the morning of Saturday, February 12th was one of the coldest on record. My mom got me, my brother Kevin and my sister Katie up early and settled all three of us on the couch heaped together with blankets piled on us while the woodstove pumped out heat. We ran it all day long.

That night, my parents were going out. One of our favorite babysitters, P., was coming over to watch us. She was the youngest in this huge family (like 8 or 10 kids, I don't remember exactly) that lived around the corner from us; her dad was the fire chief. As they were getting ready to go out, my mom told me that, for the first time ever, I wouldn't have a bedtime. She trusted me to go to bed when I was tired.

So P. came over, we ate tv dinners and watched Hee Haw (I think, that was how most evenings with a babysitter went), nothing extraordinary. I got bored and put myself to bed shortly after Kevin & Katie had to go. I was there in my bed, staring up at the ceiling for a good half-hour before I decided to go back downstairs. P. and I played a board game called Payday and Star Wars was playing on HBO. It was about 11:30 pm when P. drew my attention to the brick wall behind the wood stove. "Is that supposed to happen?" she asked me. It looked like there were ghosts walking through the wall, but it smelled like smoke. I said, no, I didn't think so. She got up to call her dad at the fire department. I said I would go upstairs and get Kevin & Katie so they wouldn't be afraid if they woke up and saw smoke.

Now, for you to understand how out of character this was for me to do, we have to go back nearly a year to a school presentation by a guy named Fireman Marty. I had the great luck to grow up in a generation whose parents felt the only way to teach their children anything of importance was to frighten them. We were the kids of "stranger danger" and "scared straight" and it was decided by some psychologically-unfit person that the only way to keep us from playing with matches was to show us gruesome slideshows of images of burnt objects. Fireman Marty showed up with a huge viewing screen and slides of things that had been salvaged from house fires. They were semi-recognizable and truly horrible, like one picture that will stay with me forever of a baby doll with her plastic face bubbled and melted off from the heat of the flames. Like many other kids I was to find out later, I had nightmares for months after Fireman Marty's presentation. And I developed a huge phobia over fire, even going around the house blowing candles out after my mom had lit them. Being a good Catholic child, I thought if I prayed hard enough, God would keep my family safe from a house fire, something I believed to be the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. I actually dragged my mom to Mass, and every night before I went to sleep, I said all the prayers I knew and repeated 100 times, "please God, don't ever let my house burn down."

So here I was, nearly a year later, with my house burning down. Thanks a lot for that divine protection, Big Guy. While P. was on the phone trying to get a hold of someone at the fire house, I ran upstairs to bring my brother & sister down. When I got to the top of the stairs, I could see smoke starting to waft down through the ceiling and sparks were shooting out from around the edges of the trap door that led up to the attic. I went into Katie's room and dragged her out of bed. She was only 5 and mostly asleep, it was the middle of the night and she was cold; she fought me. I dragged her downstairs and went back up for Kevin. He did the same thing. As I was pulling him down the stairs, Katie passed us going back up to her bed. I was too little to be able to handle both of them; at five years younger than me, Katie was nearly as big as me. I would drag one downstairs and the other would be heading back up to his or her bed. I don't remember how many times this happened. I know that when I looked at the nightgown I was wearing that night, there were little burn marks all over it, probably from the sparks coming down from the attic door cracks. P. couldn't help me with Kevin & Katie- the fire was starting to melt the phone lines and she ended up having to call her older brother and sister for help and have them call the fire department.

P.'s older brother and sister finally came over and they each grabbed my brother and sister, keeping them from going back upstairs. We ran down the driveway to their car and they told me not to look back, but I did. I saw fire spreading through a hole in the roof near Katie's room and spreading across the roof. Smoke was starting to billow out the windows. (When I was retelling this to my mom that night, I was traumatized enough that I couldn't actually bring myself to say it was 'fire' I saw on the roof; I could only say 'red stuff.') We got in the brother's car and they drove us over to their family's house.

One thing I will always regret from that night, however, was that in all the mayhem, my dog, Murphy, got out. He was always kind of wild (now we think he may have been part coyote) and was notorious for running away. He took this opportunity to get out and run away. I always felt guilty for not making sure he was leashed up and with us. More on him later.

My town being an exceptionally small one, word spread fast that the Barnes house was on fire and it was serious. My parents got a call at the restaurant where they were out with friends and they sped home. They didn't know at first that we had all gotten out. The picture I've included here was from the front page of our newspaper. My parents had just gotten to the house and that's my dad running to it to get us out.

He made it inside before the firefighters told him we were out & everyone was okay & at P.'s family's house. My mom and dad ran into P.'s living room where we were in sleeping bags (believe it or not, my brother and sister actually fell asleep) and they hugged us & kissed us & cried & told us everything would be okay. My grandma Genevieve and my aunt Mary Margaret drove from an hour & a half away at 4am to get us and take us back to my grandma's house. At that point, the only thing any of us had were the clothes on our backs. We didn't put coats or even slippers on before we left the house.

I don't remember the ride to my gram's or anything from the first couple days there. My gram told my sister that shortly after we got to her house and she tucked us into beds, we all started crying and throwing up, most likely due to minor smoke inhalation. The Red Cross donated clothes and some toys and my aunt drove back to Canisteo to bring back whatever clothes my parents had been able to salvage. I remember being at the laundromat, using the high-test professional washers to try to get the smoke smell out of clothes that had been waiting to be washed in the basement at the time of the fire.

After about a week, my parents had documented everything for insurance, salvaged everything they could and found a house a few down from our old one that we could rent while we figured things out. We were so lucky. All it would've taken was for one thing to go wrong and things would have been catastrophic. None of us were hurt, my dad's boss gave him plenty of time off, we had family and friends to take us in and help us out. So many other people in that situation don't have any of those things, and it's easy to see how everything can fall apart so easily. My parents came to get us from my grandma's house, and they had news.

The fire had started because the man who installed our wood stove not only did not leave the appropriate amount of space around the stovepipe, he had installed it so the pipe was leaning right up against a beam in the attic of our 250-year-old house. There would've been a fire sooner or later. Our house- one of the first in town- had a slate roof which kept the fire and the heat contained, so that it burned downward instead of up and out. My mom & dad's and Kevin's rooms had heavy smoke damage and some scorching; Katie's room mostly had smoke & water damage because of the hole in the roof over her room. My room was charcoal. The paneling that the family who lived in the house before us had installed was highly flammable and highly toxic. Once the fire reached my room, it burned everything to a crisp. Nothing was left but ash and the faintest remains of my bed's headboard. The smoke was so toxic that the firefighters couldn't even get in there. You can see in the newsclippings the thick, black smoke pouring out my bedroom windows. If I'd stayed in there the first time I'd gone to bed and fallen asleep, the smoke would've probably got me before I could've gotten out.

My parents also had to tell us that our dog, Murphy, had gotten hit by a truck when he escaped the yard during the pandemonium. The vet wanted to put him down, but my dad said he couldn't do that to his kids after all we'd just been through. The vet said to try cage confinement and feed him calcium and bone meal supplements and after a few months, we'd see if his crushed pelvis had started to heal. It did, and six months later, my little 15-pound dog was jumping six-foot high fences to troll the neighborhood again. He lived for 16 more years after that.

While our small town was wonderful in supporting us (more on that later), some folks weren't so great. While they were salvaging and taking insurance photos, my parents came across a couple looting in my sister's bedroom, going through her dresser drawers and taking clothes, toys, anything they could carry off. My dad yelled and chased them out, and there was a police watch after that. Eventually, the house had to be torn down because it was so old and the fire so intense in places that it had loosened the mortar in the bricks. We watched from the house next door as it was demolished; my folks thought it would bring us closure. My brother's bedroom window faced this neighbor's house. He had an enormous (like 5-6 feet long) stuffed lion named Orville that we loved to play on. Orville was a stinking, soggy, scorched mess, so my parents didn't remove him from the house. As the house came down, we watched Orville get launched out of my brother's bedroom window into the rabble below. It was a Simpsons kind of moment that was so grotesque and upsetting, it was almost funny.

When we finally came back home, I was afraid of a lot of things, but worst of all was going back to school. We lived in a small town; the firefighters who worked on my house had been my classmates' parents. Everyone knew all about the fire. We'd been homeless, essentially, wearing donated clothes and such. I didn't want people to look at me funny & treat me differently. The day I went back to school, the school bully Clyde Dicus (what a great name) approached me on the steps. He told me "I'm sorry your house burned down. Too bad it wasn't Vicki C.'s!" (Vicki C. was this girl in my class that everybody hated. She was just awful.) I was thrilled- big bad Clyde Dicus had been nice to me! It gave me the courage to go inside. And once I got in my classroom, my classmates gave me a donation they'd collected so I could buy some new toys and even better, they had saved all my valentines for me. I kept them for years. It made me tear up because it made me feel so NORMAL. I've loved Valentine's Day ever since, not as a gushy romantic day, but as an opportunity for a kind gesture. ♥ ♥ ♥
Clyde- 4th row, second from left                   Me- 2nd row, far right          
 So recently, it was the 28th anniversary of the fire. I can't believe how old that made me feel. I used to think I was sort of a drama queen for making such a big deal of it, but I see now that it really was a defining moment in my life. Nothing was ever the same again for me. For one thing, I was confronted with my mortality at a pretty young age. Most of us don't really believe we could die until we get much older, but I saw some very visible evidence that I could have that night, and that knowledge always stayed with me. It completely ended any relationship I had with organized religion. It was also when I learned that as much your parents love you and would do anything to protect you, when the chips are down, you gotta save yourself. If we'd waited for my parents to come home and save us, we'd all have been toast. I learned you can't sit around waiting for someone to swoop in and make things better for you; it's all on you. Heavy stuff for a ten year old. No wonder I was such a serious kid.

I used to get upset when the anniversary came around. I'd stay up all night, needing to be vigilant in case anything like that would ever happen again. (I heard comedian Steven Wright do this bit about how as a kid he took the Smokey the Bear ads personally- "Only YOU can prevent forest fires!" He'd point to himself, "Me?" and shake his head at the responsibility. "Jeez, out the window every night with a bucket of water." I felt the same way.) Then about ten years ago, it made me angry that there was this dark day each year. I decided to treat it- and Valentine's Day- as a day to appreciate my siblings, to be thankful that we all still have each other and that we survived that trauma together. Katie & Kevin are the most important people in the world to me, bar none. Valentine's Day is my day to be glad they're still in my life, and to remember that I loved them enough to face my worst fears for them.