Monday, February 13, 2006

Chapter 4: Fire

Firebug is a term that has been around for a long time. I was first aware of it as a child. Fire has had a strong effect on me, since I grew up behind the firehouse, mostly positive. Fire has had many faces, almost all dating back to Clayton. Let’s start with the firehouse.

My Grandma used to read me a story about Freddie the Fireman. It was a book with moveable parts, including a fire truck that wiggled left and right on a pivot, as though it was bouncing along the street, and a hook and ladder truck. There was a fire dog, a Dalmatian, and all kinds of fire apparatus, including a tall tower where they dried the fire hose. The Clayton fire hall had such a tower, on a smaller scale, and I seem to remember hoses hanging in it. I don’t really know for sure, because it is gone now. The firemen were loud and boisterous men, who would take the time to talk to youngsters like me. I don’t really remember any of them in particular, because we moved a distance away when I was about 4, and it was too far away to visit. What I do remember is the old fire engine that made a lot of noise, and was polished a bright shiny candy apple red. It had the word “Calumet” painted on it in fancy gold letters, though I could not read them at the time. Years later, I would see it again and again in parades. I often wonder what has happened to it since. There was a competition between fire departments, and there still is, to see who could lay out a hose fastest, and other things they now call “firemantics.” Those contests always seemed to me, as a youngster, to be a contest to see who had the loudest, most powerful truck. The trucks were special, seemed to have been cut down from normal size, or maybe they were specially built that way. At some point in my life it became clear that the firemen were there to protect us, and not at all to be feared. To this day, my favorite section of a parade is the fire department. All the members in uniform, the shiny engine with its diesel rumbling, big tires rolling along, and people waving from the platforms meant to hold firemen (or, today, women), were magic to me and still are. I never really wanted to be a fireman, because I knew that my lungs were never going to be strong enough for the smoke involved. That and the fact that I was really afraid of fire!

I think all children go through a stage where the attraction of fire is dangerous for them and those around them. Part of my adult life was spent as an insurance adjuster, and I had my share of tragic fire claims where a child “accidentally” burned down the family home while playing with a lighter or matches. I think it can go either way. Freddie the Fireman was also a TV show in the 50’s, with a real person playing Freddie and telling children to be careful with fire. It is a known fact that children who are fascinated with fire sometimes grow up to be firefighters, some of whom become “firebugs.” The desire to become a hero, the need for recognition and rarely, the need to set fires drives some of these. I think most are driven by the feeling that they are doing good for the community in which they live. I admire people who can go into a burning building to save it or the people inside, putting their lives on the line for us every day they go to work. I could not do it.

When we lived in the house down the street from the school, I awoke one night to a flickering orange glow against the drawn shades. The fire siren was wailing, and I had been having a very bad dream. I must have cried out, because my mother came into the room and comforted me. It seemed that the house next door was on fire. The house, which had seemed so far away, now seemed too near, and the heat could be felt if one stood near the window on that side. Fire trucks arrived, and the fire, which seemed to be alive and dancing inside the windows of the house, was put out. I was unable to sleep, each time I drowsed going into a terrible dream about fire. Our house was, in the dream, much closer to the fire, and in danger of burning.

It wasn’t, of course, but the dream was persistent. I have no idea how long it went on, but there were other things making it difficult for me to forget it. One summer night we saw someone walking around the outside of the house that had burned, muttering, with a can of liquid. They were pouring the liquid, probably kerosene, on the house. The back part of the house was a burned out shell. It did not burn that night, for some reason. My parents reported this to the fire department or the police, and some men came to our house on a “stakeout” and lay out in the yard at night waiting for the “firebug” to try again. After several days, it happened again, and the person was dealt with in some way I did not understand at that age. Since I never researched the situation, I still don’t know exactly what happened. All I know is that the nightmares went on for a while. On some level, I must have worried that our own house would be “torched.”

In the next few years, the front of the house was home to a small store, a residence again, and then an empty shell. Briefly, it was home to a black workman who was employed by the contractor constructing an addition to the school. It was the 50’s, and he could find no one in town to house him. I knew little of this, only that he was turned away, and ended up living there. We used to talk to him every now and then when we passed by. He seemed a polite man, and pleasant to talk to. Eventually, the little shanty was torn down or moved, and the empty house foundation, weed choked and blackened, was all that remained. I used to walk to school through the lot behind the house, and could never pass it without remembering “the Fire Bug.”

That period of time contained another fire incident. An older, playmate and I were in the garage behind their house and found some matches. I don’t remember much about the reasons for it, but Phil and I decided to stuff some grass in a coffee can and make a stove. We set a match to it, and watched it burn. Somehow, the can tipped over and suddenly the dry grass around the “stove” was seething with tiny flames. We tried to stomp them out, but the wind drove the fire toward the high grass and dead weeds in the lot next door, the lot next to my house and the lot next to the firebug’s house.

I don’t know who called the fire department, but the next thing I clearly recall was being inside the house, with Phil’s mother giving us cookies. She must have called my Mother, as Mom arrived some time later, very upset because she hadn’t been able to find me, and the fire had been so intense. She was not angry with me, though I’m sure she knew how the fire started. She was very calm after the relief she must have felt in finding me. When I got home I expected Dad to be there, but he wasn’t. When he did come home, the anticipation of being punished was much worse than being punished. He probably knew that, and merely gave me the same treatment I often gave our children: the dreaded lecture. Our children have told me that they dreaded my lectures more than anything else! While Dad was likely to spank me for extremely bad behavior, the lecture was most likely. He didn’t need to say much. He took me outside and pointed out the burned area. The fire had burned over nearly the entire field and much closer to the house than I felt comfortable with. We had a nice green lawn, and the fire burned right up to it, and also very close to the garage of the house on the next block. My grandmother’s rhubarb patch was not affected, nor was the sweet pea vine along the back fence, or my Mother’s garden. But it was a big fire, to me. Dad explained about how things could have been worse, and that many small animals and birds were probably now homeless. From that point on, I was very careful with fire. Not that I quit playing with it. But I had learned that fire had very bad consequences, and I never again played with matches or any kind of fire near anything that might catch fire and spread; and never in the house. Somehow, the experience taught me a healthy respect for fire, but Dad also pointed out the good things a fire could do.

When I was older, I was put in charge of trash burning; a weekly chore akin to putting out the garbage. You can’t do that in many places now because of anti pollution laws. It’s the same with leaves. One of the rewards for the arm wrenching, back twisting job of raking leaves is, when you’re finished, setting fire to the leaf pile in the side yard (carefully placed so as not to be a hazard) and standing back to watch the pungent smoke and tiny flames leap and roll out of the fire. On the days which were too windy for raking leaves (they blew back at you) it was also too windy to burn them. When the time came for clean air conservation and big leaf bags, the task of leaf removal became much harder.

When I was about 15 years old, Charles Emory’s beautiful red granite Calumet Castle, built in 1893, burned rather spectacularly. Mom, Dad and I had taken Dad’s pride and joy, an 18 foot Lyman Islander Inboard (we could afford a boat by then) for a bass fishing trip on the Canadian side of Wolfe Island, the largest of the Thousand Islands. We caught several good sized large mouth bass, some perch, and a small pike. Mom also caught an eel, and we cut the line, but that is another story! At about sunset we started back after eating a cold supper of sandwiches. It was beginning to get dusky as we rounded the north end of Wolfe Island and headed home, and the sky looked strange downriver. As it got darker, a large area of the sky actually glowed.

When we cleared the last of the islands separating us from a direct view of the center of the river opposite Clayton, we saw flames reaching hundreds of feet in the air over Calumet Castle. It was on fire! As we got closer, we could see many small boats and some larger boats upriver from the end of the island, near what was once called Governor’s island. There was no way any attempt could be made to fight the fire. It burned into the night and the next day. When it was out, nothing but the steel and granite was left. The mystical red castle was gone, now just a blackened pile of granite. It took a long time, however, to erase all traces of it. A demolition contractor finally brought down the walls by blasting them with dynamite charges, which we watched from the riverfront park.

Today the water tower still stands, and the place where the castle stood is a beautiful green lawn with a flower garden in it. The sheltered harbor holds a marina “boatel” operation. I miss seeing it still. If you look at the little memorial tower in the center of town by the waterfront, you can see the color of the stones used in the castle. I was fortunate enough to have been on a tour of Calumet and some of its mysteries courtesy of my brother, Jim, years before it burned. It had run down considerably, and was in a sad state even then.

One day in my senior year (1959-60) at CCS, Dad and I were clearing brush in our back yard near the property line fence. We were nearly finished when I saw a large black column of smoke to the Northeast. When I pointed it out, Dad said that it was probably on Round Island. At that time you could see the river from our back yard, but now the area below is quite overgrown, so I doubt you can anymore. We moved over to the corner of the lot, and I climbed an apple tree to get a better view. Still, all I could see was the smoke. We went to the car and drove down to Steele’s point to find out if we could see better from there. The fire was on the north side of the island, near the head, so we could not directly see what was burning. We went home, and later found that a large home had burned to the ground: not surprising in view of its age and the dryness of the wood it was constructed with. Of course we didn’t find that out the way one would today. There was no “breaking news” to see on WWNY or any other TV station, so we did not get the news immediately. Some days later we went out in the boat and rode past the site of the fire. To me it was and is a tragedy to have lost such a fine old house. Not, I suppose the equivalent of losing the magnificent Hotel Frontenac, but still tragic. I was, in my life before retirement, in the insurance business, with six years as a claims adjuster. I discovered that no fire, no matter how small, is less than tragic to those who experience it. Money can not replace the photos one lost, or the one of a kind wood sculpture your son made in his college art class. Nor can it completely erase the memory of the building that once was

Many years after the fires of my youth I became an Assistant Scoutmaster. One of the functions of Scouting is teaching responsibility and self reliance, particularly with tools and around one of our most awesome and dangerous tools: fire. As a leader I learned that boys will play with fire, and can be taught to respect and use it properly. It became a matter of pride to teach proper fire skills and campfire etiquette. Unchecked, boys will build four foot high campfires to cook a small pot of soup and a hamburger!

One cold overnight in my first year as ASM of Troop 11, Peter, our troop’s Scoutmaster, took the younger boys who needed hiking merit badge work out for a walk in the woods. I was left with some bored older boys to work on fire building skills for an up-coming Camporee event. They weren’t interested. Each had brought a spare time activity of his own choosing, such as a deck of cards or a chess board, and felt that now was the time to get out of the wind and into their tents. Since it was a bright sunny day, though cold, it seemed that fires were an excellent idea. I set up some twine, tied between vertical posts about three feet apart. One string was tied at a foot above ground level, the next about two feet above that. The older boys watched, occasionally making derisive remarks and stating that they knew all about building fires anyway. I gathered the remaining, younger boys in a circle and explained the rules of this common Scouting skills game: gather the kindling and wood, lay the fire no taller than the first line, and burn through the second line. Whoever did that first would win a candy bar for each boy in the patrol.

Again, the older boys scoffed at the game, but soon saw that they were being left out of an activity they had been invited to join! It wasn’t the candy bar that got to them; it was the opportunity to prove that they were better than those Tenderfoot Scouts at whatever they might do. Soon they were out gathering wood, helping the younger boys pick the right kindling, the right kind of wood to catch quickly and burn hot enough to cut the string. I even heard one explain that “you don’t use the same kind of wood to cook, Timmy, because it doesn’t make good coals;” something I’m sure he learned from Peter or me. The first patrol to burn through their string got the candy bars, but the others asked me for more string, and even though the candy bars were gone, they all re-set the fire contest and tried again, several times. The following week, the camporee saw Troop 11 win the string burn contest.

As time went on, those boys, who thought teaching younger kids how to build a fire was something I should do, learned that doing the teaching themselves was fun! Did I teach them this? No, I didn’t: the Scouting method did. But I learned something in the process, too: teaching someone else what you know is less rewarding than having them find out the same thing by themselves under your guidance.

As a result, I remained in Scouting, working in this way whenever possible, for nearly 25 years. Some of my best memories derive from Boy Scouting, an activity which I started as a lowly Tenderfoot Scout in Clayton, NY. Many of those memories involve starting a campfire and working with it. It's funny how it now looks like a circle to me. Most of my adult vocation was also wrapped around fire. I was, primarily, a fire adjuster for the Insurance Company of North America. I became a career fire insurance agent (among other insurance forms) with Perry and Swartwood, in Elmira, NY. I taught a business course to Elmira College students, a good portion of which revolved around the NY State Standard Fire Insurance form. Fire has literally paid my way through life.

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