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Sunday, May 19, 2013

There was a fire in Willoughby last night. Two of them, in fact.

One was at our daughter and son-in-law’s house, crackling merrily in the fire ring. Three generations relaxed, telling stories of years past, sharing jokes, sharing life. Not deemed a significant blaze; it never made the news.

Simultaneously, there was another fire taking place not far from Downtown Willoughby (or “DTW” in today’s penchant for acronyms and text able words).  Unbeknown to us at the time, one of my former customer’s now abandoned buildings was ablaze. In an ironic twist of 21st Century “information now” technology, my Lovely Bride called from Fairfax Virginia, where she is visiting one of our other daughter’s. They saw the big news on Facebook. Her concern was whether we had power in our portion of Lake County.

 At first I thought it was a phone prank. You recall the old gag “Hello” “Hi… is your refrigerator running?” “Yes it is.” “Better go catch it! HAAAAAA” ,,,Click.

Nope her inquiry was legitimate, as the report was over a thousand without power.  It took a phone call from Eastern Virginia to inform us as to what was happening 3 miles away!

I began to think of fires in my life-time. The smoke drifted over the years. 

My Dad came upstairs in a very excited state. He told me to get dressed; we were going to the barn fire.

Barn Fire?? What?? He must have meant bonfire. Mom, Dad, my brother, sister and I piled into our ’54 Chevy convertible. We pulled onto the road, heading north. I could see the glow in the sky before we left our drive.

A farm along the west side of S.O.M Center was surrounded by fire trucks, police cars, cars of volunteer fire-fighters. The focus of attention was the large 19th Century barn behind the house. It was ablaze, flames spouting from the roof, side walls, and the hay mow.

My school friend Billy Bowles lived on this farm with his family. We met in Kindergarten. Billy was the first person who shared with me the palate pleasing delight of putting a little (not too much, just a little) salt on ripe apples.  Three days prior to this night’s event; I had been playing at his home after school. We had been in that same barn; marveling at the collection of original Conestoga wagons, stage-coaches, horse drawn carriagess used by former Presidents. Even an iron clad horse drawn affair, one of the first armored conveyances for money and other valuables.  These items were owned by Howard Schultz, a once in a life time character. Howard owned large parcels of property, including this particular farm. He didn’t have room in the buildings at the farm he resided on for all his collection and his beloved horses. The coaches and such were stored here.

We watched in respectful silence as the barn was destroyed, finally collapsing in a huge shower of flames, sparks and burning debris. The only things left of Howard’s treasured collection were the iron wheel rims, now warped from heat, the odd bit of brass or iron trim. Perhaps enough to fill a 1950’s era pickup truck bed.

A few years after this calamity, a fire broke out in Howard’s horse barn. We went. My Dad, who was on council and a friend of Howard’s, stuck around to console him after the blaze was extinguished. Not all the livestock was lost; but a fair number were. Howard was devastated. His horses were more than rental horses for the park trails, they were his family.

When I was 19, I had met my future Lovely Bride in the spring. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college were a blur of days working for the Village, and evenings spent with her. One morning, upon arriving at the Service Department, I was asked by our sole full time fireman why I didn’t show up for the big fire the night before. This was in pre-cell phone days; the volunteers (of which I was one) were summoned by the old, Cold War era siren mounted on a pole behind city hall. I was with my girl, and out of earshot of the siren. It turns out; the house we had lived in while I was a child had caught fire. The place was un-inhabited at the time, but was pretty well a total loss.

Another memorable fire occurred in the small town I went to college in. Bluffton still is a small village; home to Bluffton University. Back in my day, it was nowhere near as sophisticated, known by the less formal name of Bluffton College.

Bluffton is a quaint little town, situated along the banks of the Big Riley Creek. It offered nearly all the amenities of its larger neighbors of Lima or Findlay. However, the town, while not wet, was not entirely dry, either. The down town boasted two watering holes, offering the finest in 3.2% alcohol beer that could be had. I cannot recall the name of the one establishment; the other was called simply Stoney’s.

Stoney’s was rustic, creaking wood floors… a scarred stained bar, the wood tables and chairs easily dated to the Johnson Administration; Andrew Johnson that is. There was a well worn pool table, with even more worn cues. I think the last time the weathered wooden frame building had seen a coat of paint was prior to the Korean War.

 Ambiance was a term unknown to Stoney’s. The clientele was nearly as rough hewn as the place itself. Local farmers, trappers, day farm laborers were typical. During the late summer and early fall; a cadre of Mexican migrant workers joined in the mix. We college guys, oddly enough, fit in quite well.

 I was introduced to a culinary delight which was unique to Northwest Ohio; A grilled baloney and Swiss cheese sandwich, with spicy brown mustard. Served with a icy cold draft, in a frosted mug….truly there could be no higher epicurean attainment.

My Lovely Bride and I married late in my sophomore year; we took up residence in Bluffton. I graduated, and we remained 4 more years. It was toward the end of our tenure on a bitterly cold winter night, we were roused by sirens. A phone call informed us of the dire news: Stoney’s was on fire!

We drove the 6 or so blocks to the center of town to stand in a milling crowd of on-lookers. Some were nearly distraught as they witnessed the center of their social life erupting in flames. Others rejoiced as a beer hall was being destroyed.  The place went up like tinder; within a couple of hours, there was just a pile of smoldering rubble. The last I knew, the property is a parking lot for the Laundromat.

Although I had not been in Stoney’s since the Spring of 1973, there was still a tug of nostalgia. A chapter of my youth had been finished. 

Now, I prefer to enjoy a fire with my family nearby. My son-in-law Eric has an innate gift for fire-building. Just as some men come from generations of wood-workers, or preachers, or lawyers; Eric comes from generations of fire masters. 

There is a place in Northern Pennsylvania we frequent. It is tucked away atop a mountain abutting the
Allegheny National Forest. It is quiet, secluded, and fairly wild; just the place for a relaxing get away. It is de rigueur that we have an outdoor fire. Whatever the meteorological conditions, a fire will be made. No one can build a fire like Eric. It is a source of professional skill; much like a sculptor finishing a masterpiece.  Do not ever be so denigrating by calling this a “campfire”. That would be similar to calling the Space Shuttle “an airplane”, a Corvette “a basic car”, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier “a cute little boat”

Eric’s fires create their own mini wind patterns. The heat radiating (blasting like an open hearth furnace) causes those sitting about to keep moving further back, until a respectable 10 yards separates them from the blaze. Being able to melt glass bottles in one of Eric’s fires is standard. Failure to do so is considered a sub-standard performance.

 A proper Eric fire will result in National Forest Service fire bombers doing a fly-over, anticipating the forest to be ablaze.

“Uhh… NFS control, this is Eye in the Sky. Negative on a forest fire. Repeat… negative on a forest fire. It is that guy from Ohio again. Stand down, repeat stand down. Should I dump my load anyhow?”

Yet, these are the fires over which men share their hearts; their dreams; and their deepest concerns. Bonds are forged in the smoke and flames which cannot be duplicated elsewhere.  Relationships with family, friends, and the Lord are discussed. Yes silly jokes and exaggerated stories are told. And relationships with one another are strengthened.

Fire can be a very good thing.

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