The recent tragic fire at the Mitchell home in New Albany stirred up thoughts that have hovered in my mind for many years.
Though I have never, in my current life at least, been in a fire, something like a memory of such an event has haunted my dreams for many years.
The house that haunts dreams
For nearly two years, as a post WW II baby, I lived with my family in my maternal grandparents’ home in Pontotoc. Dad was there only on occasional weekends. He worked in Memphis all week, living in a boarding house and spending much of his time off searching for suitable and affordable housing for the three of us.
Granny and PaPaw’s house was a large, rambling, two-story frame house on Montgomery Street. They rented out the upstairs apartment, and had extra beds for overnight boarders in three downstairs bedrooms. This was both for income and because there was a general shortage of housing at the time. I was under two when my family finally rented an apartment on Seattle Street in Memphis, so I doubt I have much real memory of those months in my grandparents’ home. However, I spent many summer vacation weeks there, in addition to family visits throughout the years.
Post-war building boom problem homes
My folks eventually bought their first home in a post war “building boom” neighborhood. We were early arrivals to a compact neighborhood that, when completed, had about 120 houses or so on three streets. There were only two basic floor plans, your choice was either three or four bedrooms in about 1000 sq. feet. Some of those plans turned out to be prone to fire, with at least one death that I remember. I particularly remember being at church one Sunday when men showed up to tell our friends the McElhaneys that their home was afire. It was eventually repaired and they continued to live there for many years. This neighborhood is still largely the same today as it was in the early-1950s.
Family tales of fire
My husband Jerry’s father’s family all had tales of the night their huge rental farmhouse home in Fulton, MO, burned. There were 13 siblings in the family, a few already married, so I’m unsure how many Shiverdeckers were actually turned out into the night by that devastating fire, but were a lot of them, and they all survived.
While living in Louisville, MS, we were visiting Jerry’s family in Missouri at Christmas. A neighbor from Louisville called with the news that another neighbor’s home had burned. Upon returning home, I burst into tears at seeing what remained of the large old home a few houses down from ours. It was said to be a total loss. Jerry took his trusty Swiss Army knife and ventured into the blackened ruins the day after our return to town. After some poking around, he expressed the opinion that much of the standing structure, though badly scorched, was possibly salvageable. That turned out to be correct, and the home was ultimately reclaimed. It even benefitted from several improvements, a much-welcomed happy ending to its story.
A night of close-up fire watching
Late one night here in New Albany, I was awakened in our upstairs bedroom by red lights flashing in the windows. Looking out, I could see a fire truck parked across the driveway we shared with a neighboring house. As I was trying to decide which house was in peril, the beautiful stained glass window burst out of the neighbor’s kitchen. The only neighbor at home that night then came running out of the house, clad in short shorts and flip flops. When the fire suddenly exploded from a back bedroom into the kitchen where he was working, he fled the burning house with only the skimpy clothes he was wearing.
Our house was very close to the one on fire. In case we might need to evacuate, I alerted my disabled mother-in-law and her care taker, who were sleeping in the room below mine. Then I gathered up our house pets and went out to our front porch. Jerry was in New York City.
My neighbor Ronnie and I sat on the porch steps facing his house, watching the NAFD scurrying around, in and out of the house, up and down the driveway, working to put out the fire at his house and spraying ours to prevent it from becoming involved. Ronnie clutched my hand so tightly to his chest that I could feel his heart, seemingly trying to beat its way of his chest, as we watched his home go up in flames. He told me that he doubted he’d ever live in the house again, no matter the outcome of the fire. It was the second time the home had burned, and he felt he would never be able to live in it again. He was right.
Thankfully, the night was very still, and the smoke and flames rose straight up, disappearing into the night sky. On our side of the driveway, there was luck. Not even the huge pecan tree, which hung over the driveway, was damaged. Even so, this remains one of the saddest and most terrifying nights I can remember.
A personal close call
In our nearly 40 years together Jerry and I owned eight homes, five of which were totally, or in large part, well over 100 years old and made of wood. Only once did we come close to having a fire.
Missouri friends were visiting us in our “new” 105 year old Scandanavian farmhouse in Thorsby, Al. Jerry was smoking ribs in our electric cooker behind the house. For some reason, now lost in time, he inexplicably wrapped the whole cooker in a (canvas?) blanket. As we were about to leave for a drive around town, we noticed heavy smoke coming from behind the house. The blanket fire was just inches from the home’s electrical outlet when Jerry bravely snatched the cord out of the plug, cursing at the top of his lungs the whole time, and for quite a while after we put the fire out.
Unlike all the many other silly or somewhat fraught adventures we had over the years with friends or family, this one never got far enough into the past to be funny.
Nightmares and heroes
For much of my life I have been plagued by a recurring nightmare. It is a fire drama, in slow motion, usually set in what seems to be my grandparents’ home. There are always several people, some recognizable, some not, stumbling confusedly around the smoky interior, trying to save people, animals, treasures and other belongings. And, oh yeah, trying to locate the fire. The dream has come so often, that I often recognize it as a dream and wake myself from it. Though the house still figures prominently in occasional dreams, it met its eventual end by demolition, not by fire.
I sometimes wonder if I was a fire fighter in a previous life – or possibly married to one. I don’t know about that, but I do know that fires are not fought in slow motion. Whether it’s a full-time or part-time or volunteer fire fighter, or even a brave passer-by, it takes something most people don’t possess to run into a burning building to help someone they likely don’t even know.
Those who do rush in are heroes, one and all. And may God bless them and protect them and continue to create them!