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fire damage reaches home

Updated on September 26, 2016
skunks, kennels … I wanna go home!
skunks, kennels … I wanna go home!

In the afternoon of December 22, 1988, I had just won a poinsettia plant at the office Christmas party. My phone rang, which was a surprise, since I worked for a DOD company and no one knew how to reach me except my family. It wasn’t my mother on the phone, it was Debbi, a neighbor I knew only to say hello to. She said my house was on fire. I tried to make sense of this – was it a joke? How would Debbi get my phone number? Could one of my son’s teenage friends think this is funny? Debbi convinced me that there were fire trucks in front of my house. So I asked her to take my daughter off the bus where her daughter debarked, so Mandy wouldn’t walk into the scene. Well, Debbi did as requested – she jumped on the bus when it stopped at her house and announced, “Mandy, come with me; your house is on fire!” The three of them then left the bus driver with a slew of hysterical children to deliver to their families.

Oddly, I packed the poinsettia into the car, perhaps because I was in a state of shock as I left work. The ride home is normally 20-30 minutes, but it seemed to take forever. As I drove, the shock started to wear off and about halfway there I realized that my son was home. He was in high school and worked at a hotel most of the night; he usually napped after school. Oh, lord – he could have been asleep when the fire broke out and might have succumbed!!!! Now time really started getting slower. Finally I reached the house, to find three or four fire trucks in front, and firemen all over the yard. I pulled up across the street and left the car door opened as I rushed to find out what was happening. As I left the car, a man walked up to me to chat about watching fires. I shouted that it was MY house and ran, not knowing exactly where to run, when I saw my son’s car. The next thing I saw was my son strolling toward me, one shoe off, which the local paper assumed was a foot in a cast (no, just white socks). I never needed a hug from my son so bad!

A fireman walked up and told me he was the fire marshal; the fire was out, but they had a lot to do before they could wrap it up, so I went to a neighbor’s house to wait it out. I learned that my son was there when it happened. David had been drying his work clothes and saw the fire in the laundry room. He tried to pour pots of water on it – but it didn’t work. So he did something he’d always wanted to do – he threw a chair through a window above the dryer so he could put it out with the hose. No luck – it was an electrical fire. So he went to the phone in the kitchen – with the big red sticker on the earpiece saying to dial 911 in case of fire – and called his friend Ron. Finally Ron called the fire department.

Our dog Kibbles was in David’s car, full of pep as always. We had three cats; Mandy’s Muffler (named so because she purred so loud she needed one) died in the smoke. David’s Midnight survived but apparently found a new home while we couldn’t live in the house. My cat, Bits (yeah – Kibbles and Bits) was a feisty Tom and I give a lot of credit to the fireman who put an oxygen mask on him. Thanks to that bravery, Bits survived the fire and hung out at the cold house till we returned. We would bring water and cat food, and the construction workers would make sure he got it.

Around five in the evening, the fire marshal said their work was done, but electricity, gas and water had been shut off and we could not stay in the house. We were supposed to be at my cousin’s house for dinner at five, since my aunt and uncle were up for the holidays. I called D’Arcy at five to tell her we were going to be a little late – we needed to find a motel to stay at before we could come, due to a fire in our home. When we got there, my uncle and I had a cocktail and a cigarette out in the snow, since there was no smoking allowed in the house. All during dinner my aunt complained because her scalloped potatoes should have been eaten an hour earlier, and were no longer at their peak. She’s French, what can you expect? I have to admit, that’s all I remember about the dinner was those scalloped potatoes, and they were still delicious despite their aging.

My daughter asked why us, and I said this would be a good time to buy a lottery ticket – all the odds were definitely lopsided. As a matter of fact, a coworker had given me a lottery ticket that morning as a Christmas present; I scraped it off and it was worth $2.00.

The next four months were spent in a ground floor room of the hotel where my son worked. Many things happened. My contract ended and I was out of work. My son got accepted at an expensive college. I found a job. My daughter’s class collected $200 for a gift certificate at a clothing store for her. I crocheted an afghan for the ‘new’ house, and got a couple of home-sweet-home kitchen towels. I followed the insurance man’s advice about what to do – some of it wasn’t a good idea, but no real harm. The truth about friends – several people offered to house my kids; no one offered to house me, not even my parents. A taxi took Mandy to school and her brother took her home.

One day Kibbles was out on a rope outside the room when I heard him yelp. Just as I let the upset dog in, David opened the interior door to come in. The dog flew out into the hall in a frenzy and in his path was the unmistakable scent of skunk. Kibbles ran into the hotel dining room before we caught him. He spent the rest of the time away from home in a kennel. Mandy was sent home from school and I from work because of the stink in our clothes. We had just had all the clothes cleaned to get rid of the smell of smoke and now the entire wardrobe for Mandy and me needed to be done again.

Fire damage is not sooty timbers. It’s smelling a campfire or wood stove for ten years and not being able to shake the memory of how your house smelled. It’s a lifetime of soot seeping through the wall paint. It’s the loss of personal treasures to smoke or heat. It’s being reminded every Christmas of why the ‘gold’ ornaments are a strange color. It’s all the antique furniture that became extremely fragile from the drying out. It’s rebuilding a home while the rest of life goes headlong into the future, not even slowing down for you. It’s fighting daily with construction crews to make them do decent work because you are going to move back in, not sell. It’s thinking of something many years later only to realize it was lost in the fire.

Long after you get back in the home, finally, it will seem like Home again.

© 2016 Bonnie-Jean Rohner


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