Friday, June 8, 2012

A Muncie Boyhood-The Fire and the Photo

 My sister was seventeen when I was born, and when I was little I thought she was the prettiest girl in the world with her blonde hair and petite features. 
She lived at home with us, but I don’t remember much of that except for a few sketchy events.  For example, I remember once when she had a bad headache and I wanted her to play with me.  She was lying on the bed with a cold rag on her face.
“Sissy, play with me,” I pleaded.

“No!  Go away!” she said.  “I’ve got a headache.”
Well, that didn’t sit too well in my toddler’s mind…so…I grabbed a heavy item off the headboard and smacked her on the head with it.  Maybe you could call that payback for her letting me walk my baby walker…you know…one of those little baby vehicles with wheels where the baby (me) sits suspended in the middle and can walk around….anyway, she let me walk my baby walker down the back stairs.  You’ve got to love those sibling relationships!  Served her right.

Shortly after I turned four, she had a baby, my nephew.  Since he was much closer to me in age than my actual siblings, we ended up growing very close as we grew up.  In fact, he is still more like my brother than she really is like my sister.  I spent many nights at his house, and he spent even more at mine.  We did everything together.
We stayed up late and watched Sammy Terry (the local late night horror movie host).

We built random stuff in my dad’s basement.
We horsed around and wrestled all over our bedrooms.

“You boys stop that wrestlin’ in there!” my mom would yell.
“We’re not wrestling!” we would shout back as we froze in place.  Ten seconds later, we were back to flips and body slams.

Another thing that we used to do sometimes, courtesy of my sister, was go to the drive in.  Being the late sixties and early seventies, often the kinds of movies shown at the Ski Hi Drive-in weren’t really appropriate for children, but she took us anyway, and maybe that’s another story.  The movies weren’t always that bad though.  Sometimes they were science fiction flics or scary movies.

Eventually, I grew to love going, and started looking for opportunities.  It was just such an opportunity that led to the catastrophic event at the center of this Muncie Boyhood entry.
My nephew, David was off on a trip to Tennessee with some other family members, but his mom (my sister) stayed home.  There was another little girl staying with her, and I was sort of friends with her.  Dawn (the girl) and I decided we wanted to go to the drive-in, so we asked my sister to take us.  It wasn’t too difficult to convince her, since she was in her twenties, she still liked to go out there too.  It was a summer evening.  It was warm.  The drive-in was the place to be. 

We never made it there that night.
The thing you have to know about my sister, though, was that she didn’t have much money, and she refused to buy food and drinks at the venue.  She would make her own popcorn and bring it plus a few Coca Cola’s along.

It was decided.  We were going, my sister, Dawn, and I.  So, my sis started to get things ready.  She checked her money…it was a bit thin.  She gathered a few Cokes.  She put the skillet on the stove to make the popcorn.  (In those days before microwaves, you made the popcorn in a skillet on the stovetop.)
“I’m out of popcorn,” she said.  “We’re going to have to go to the store, but first we’ll need to go see if we can get some money from dad.”

So, we jumped in the car and drove the five blocks to my house so we could squeeze a few bucks out of my dad.  In short order, he came through and we were back on the road.  For some reason that I no longer recall, we stopped back by her house and dropped off Dawn to do something to get ready, then my sister and I drove on to Marshall Carter’s Grocery Store to get the needed supplies.
I stayed outside while she went in to buy the stuff.  Shortly, there were sirens.  Soon, the fire trucks from the station down on Memorial Drive came screaming down Madison Street headed south…the same direction as my sister’s house.  I remember wondering where they were going, but didn’t think anything more of it.  When my sister came out, we just headed back to get the stuff ready.

Her house was on south Monroe Street; just one block off of Madison between 20th and 21st streets.  We traveled down Madison to 20th and made the turn toward Monroe.  We could see the flashing lights as we rounded the corner.  When we reached Monroe, my sister screamed!
“IT’S MY HOUSE!!!!!!!!  IT’S MY HOUSE!!!!!!!”

She had turned on the skillet, but neglected to turn it off when we left to go to the store.
According to Dawn, who was waiting nearby, after we dropped her off and drove away she opened the front door and the whole kitchen was ablaze.  She ran next door and banged on the door.  When the person opened the door, she told them about the fire and asked them to call for help.  Apparently, they didn’t immediately believe her, so they had to come see for themselves before making the call.  By the time we had gotten home, the fire was all but out, but not before destroying the kitchen and living room.  The secondary damage from water and smoke left the rest of the house in terrible shape and unlivable. 

My sister was a blubbering mess, so Dawn and I ran on foot to get my dad.  We told him what happened and he rushed back to handle whatever it is that dad’s handle in a situation like that.  Ultimately, he took care of my sister very well.  He got her a new place to live.  He personally rebuilt her house; doing most of the work himself, and then moved her back in.
In the end, the only casualty was David’s canary.  I remember the moment I realized that the bird had died.  I was sitting in my mom and dad’s dining room a few hours later.  We were all talking about the disastrous event and recounting how everything unfolded, when all at once I thought of the bird.

“Oh no!” I blurted out.  “David’s bird!”  It wasn’t my bird, but I cried anyway.  It broke my heart to know that the little thing perished, and I knew that David didn’t yet know, and somehow that made it even worse.
In the months that followed, I occasionally helped my dad at the burned out house.  He had an old light blue Chevy truck, and we made multiple trips to the dump with the smoky, burned, and water-logged mess that we stripped off the walls and floors.

There was one more crazy thing about that fire that we discovered when we were first allowed back inside.  I’ve told the story before about my brother who committed suicide.  He left behind a widow, and she and my sister were fairly close.  They loved each other dearly, but often fought like true sisters (or cats and dogs).  My sister had an 8 X 10 photo of her in a frame sitting on a coffee table in her living room.  When we walked in the front door, the charred mess was everywhere.  Nothing was untouched and nothing was unmoved.  Nothing, that is…except for that photo of my brother’s widow.  It sat there in the middle of the soggy, burnt out room like a beacon in the dark of night.  It was unmoved and carried no indication of any damage either from fire, smoke, or water.  It was almost as if someone had carried it in after the fact and placed it there.

The expressed opinion of my mom and my sister was that my brother Freddie had protected it and kept it safe during the whole ordeal.  Who’s to say?  I will say this…I saw the carnage and I saw that picture sitting there.  It was truly weird.
One final thought…

In retrospect, sometimes it just might just be cheaper to buy the popcorn at the theater.

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