Tuesday, August 28, 2012
the behavior of fire
All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction. —P. D. James
I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't. —Philip Roth, Deception
before mr. and mrs. H moved from the heartland of nebraska to the waspy suburbs north of boston in order for mr. H to take up his new position as an assistant professor of english at a small college on the outskirts of the city, they both liked the idea of making their new home on a pond. they envisioned a smallish garden overlooking the water, and stone walls and a bricked patio surrounded by english daisies, columbine, peonies, lavender, yarrow, day lilies, and delphiniums, some of which they would bring with them from their nebraska garden. (it should be duly noted that some of those, in turn, had originally been smuggled into the country as small cuttings from mrs. H's mother's garden in yorkshire.)
the land they bought in '55 was—relatively speaking—cheap (land on the edge of town— undeveloped, mosquito infested, deep woods/dirt roads kind of land—which had once been part of a large estate) allowing them to afford to build a larger house than originally anticipated. mr. and mrs. H would raise four daughters, ranging in age from two to twelve in the summer of '68, with another baby on the way—that one would turn out to be the longed-for male, the legacy keeper of male surnames (in those days, unlike today, who would have given a baby his mothers's surname alone?), thus bringing an abrupt halt to the production of more babies—and the extra space was, to say the least, put to good use during the years they lived on the pond.
but as is always the case, both then and now, time creeps and things change and in that summer of '68 mr. and mrs. H decided to move back to the midwest for somewhat murky reasons having to do with a death in the family and an inheritance. so they sold the cottage and loaded a few roots and shoots from the daisies, day lilies and delphiniums, etc., along with their noisy brood, into the back of one old station wagon and one newer sedan, and headed west again.
next in the chain of events, mr. and mrs. N (mr. N was also a professor at the same college where mr. H had taught) bought the property at a reduced price due to the house, which hardly resembled a cottage at all, having fallen into disrepair—the gardens, thankfully, remained in perfect condition. they had been meticulously maintained and were a green perfection. mr. and mrs. N (who had a six-year-old daughter) proceeded to expand the garden, ripping out the brick and replacing it with stone. mrs. H's plants were dug up and rearranged like pieces of furniture to suit the new owners.
property values such as they are, eternally dependent on location (which translates into the best schools, well-maintained properties, the appeal of the town to a certain socio-economic strata and the added bonus of the presence of several hundred feet of water frontage), the smallish seeming—at least compared to the neighbors' newly-built mcmansions—refurbished house, and its highly desirable acreage, were on their way to becoming worth a bundle.
some years later the elderly mr. N headed into an assisted living condo (mrs. N had long since passed) and the house went on the market again. the property was quickly snapped up by a slick 21st century tycoon who took a look around, decided the place needed to be lifted to grander heights—the grandest in the neighborhood, he decided with satisfaction—and immediately instructed his assistant to call the local fire department.
in due course, fire trucks rolled down the lane and the firemen gathered around their chief to listen to a reiteration of the safety laboratory's goals. the goals were as follows:
1. gain knowledge from a realistic demonstration of fire behavior
2. develop an in-depth understanding of search and rescue procedures
3. provide instruction in command and control principles
4. highlight the finer points of fire training
while the flames licked and spread and swallowed the house down like some kind of wild, ravenous animal, the firemen sweated and toiled and persevered in the hellish heat; they sensed the demo fire was greatly enhancing their knowledge of how a blaze works. the day would prove to be a great success.
at the end of the training session the firemen boarded their firetrucks to head back to the station. one fireman could be seen tenderly carrying the small clumps of english daisies and lavender he had rescued from the edge of the inferno. other men in bulldozers started their engines. they were eager to get on with the job of burying the sodden ash into the dust from whence it came, and, more importantly, to make it home in time for dinner.