I’ve been thinking a lot about arson lately. (No, not in terms of committing it, don’t look at me that way!) Fires seem to be sort of a theme in my life–every time I think my life is going to hell and start whining about it, a friend’s home or business seems to catch fire. I’d better watch myself with the whining.
Fire has always been one of my most deep seated fears, partially because I’ve seen its destructive power personally, and partially because it seems so difficult to prevent–if something is going to catch fire, it’s going to go up, and that’s that. I know people who have lost homes and battled for years with insurance while living in trailers staring sadly at the pile of debris that used to be their home, because they can’t even afford to hire a salvage company to haul it away. This is the thing I fear more than anything else in the world, of hearing the fire siren and knowing that it rings out for me. Alas, in a small town, whenever the siren does go off many of us cross ourselves reflexively, because it’s likely we do know the person whose life is being destroyed. We have a good fire department and most fires are suppressed early, but even Fort Bragg’s finest can’t always win. Regrettably, most of the people I know who have been affected by fire have been victims of arson.
I’m really not a big fan of arson. I mean, I think that property is theft, but I don’t think anyone should be setting fire to anyone else’s stolen goods, either. Arson is just lame, and hurtful, because it rarely stops in one place. Arson has been responsible for numerous wildfires which have raged all over the country, destroying thousands of acres of land. (Poorly managed land, where fires were always suppressed, setting up for a firestorm.) Arson can destroy a business and bring a household to its knees–if that’s the goal of the firesetter, it seems like there are better ways to accomplish it, ways which don’t put lives at risk. Arson is a pathetic weasely thing to do, and coming from a first class a number one sneak, that’s saying something. Arson is hiring an orange flickering hit man rather than busting the person’s knees personally. Arson is hiding behind your mother’s apron strings rather than facing your opponent. Arson is the path of the weak.
Two fires stand out in my memory. The first is the Racines fire, which I believe happened during the el nino storms of 1993. I’ve fixed it in this time because I remember my father was still working at the Coast Hotel then. The power was out everywhere and it took a day to get the road cleared, but we drove into town to see what there was to see, and I recall going by the hotel to survey the damage. The building got off ok but the stuff in the kitchen was rapidly going bad, and Bob told us to take whatever we wanted out of the fridges and freezers so that at least it would get eaten. We came home with a bunch of ice cream and invited the neighbors over and had an ice cream feast. It was that night, or rather early in the morning of the next day, I believe, that Racines burned.
I remember the old Racines distinctly. I used to go in and ponder the art supplies, and I remember the old wooden floors which clattered satisfyingly under loud shoes. I remember tile, I think, over the door, with “Racines” spelled out. It was an old building and it was pretty, although inconvenient at times for the staff, I am sure. The new Racines is a much cleaner, businesslike place–it still has wooden floors, but it’s white and plate glass and airy, not stuffy with history like the old Racines was. It’s a solid sort of place, and something about it whispers fire suppression.
When Racines burned, the power was still out and it lit up the sky like a beacon. It must have been a fast burning and bright fire, because I remember seeing the glow from Caspar, and wondering what it was. The fire siren shrilled out in the stillness of the night, and we knew. We were sitting on the back porch drinking cocoa in a break from the rain, in the hushed and splendid silence that falls when there’s no electricity. We would stay up all night playing Monopoly and listening to the radio, because neither of us had anything to do.
Soon it came over the radio that Racines was burning.
I remember going into town the next day and seeing the blackened and twisted hulk, paper fluttering everywhere and indistinct, hostile shapes that were once canvases and display cases, and I remember thinking that this, in front of me, was a bad and silly thing. To my knowledge, the fire was determined to be suspicious but the culprit was never apprehended. In later years I grew to know both of the owners of the time very well, and I can’t imagine anyone hating them as much as to burn down their business. They are both generous, loving, wonderful people who continue to support the arts in this community to this day–what’s to hate?
I remember another fire which might even have occurred the same year–my memory is more hazy here. This was at the house of a friend, who was away in the midwest with his doctor wife for a week in the summer. (In later years they moved back to the midwest and sold their house–the son of the people who bought it ended up being a friend in high school, and right now he’s in Japan having an awesome time exploring and living in people’s houses. I’m jealous.) It was a warm, dry summer, ideal for going to the river and generally lazing about. And one day when we got back from the river, the phone was ringing, and it was the friend, who had been trying to get ahold of us all day.
“The fire department called me,” he said, “and I think my house burned down. Can you go check?”
We duly went out to see and we discovered that the house was fine, but the barn he and my father had built before, along with his collection of vintage tractors, was destroyed. Piles of loose metal and cogs showed where the tractors once were, and the barn had been completely levels, singing the neighboring cherry trees. It was a great sadness to see, because they had put so much work into the barn together, and I remember reading in the yard while they worked. We called to tell him the house was fine, although the fire department had turned off the electricity, and he asked us to stay there that night, to watch the place.
In retrospect, this was an immensely stupid thing to do, since the barn fire was declared an arson (a malicious and careless arson, since several gas cans were left where they were thrown). Our friend was probably lucky he wasn’t home that night, and to this day I’m not sure why they burned the barn rather than the house–probably because they knew the house could be rebuilt but that the loss of the tractors would hit him hard.
We stayed in an outbuilding, not the house proper, and I remember reading The Genetic Code, in the gathering stillness. The house was way out Little River Airport Road, surrounded by meadows and trees–the sort of house I wish I owned now. But it was a creepy place, at night, with the smell of smoke thick in the air and the reproachful bulk of what used to be the barn steaming gently. We turned the power back on and made toast, and waited through the night. Fortunately for us all, nothing happened that night and on the afternoon of the next day our friend returned early from his trip, to begin rebuilding.
Some people view fire as cleansing and cathartic, as a positive and good thing. Sometimes I feel this way too, but then I remember the darker side of fire, fire set deliberately with malice, and I reconsider that. I think that fire broke our friend’s spirit–shortly after clearing the last of the barn, the house was on the market and he was buying property in the midwest–the fire was his ultimate betrayal. For some, perhaps those with a strong core, a fire doesn’t have to be the end–for others, it’s the last page in an already worn book.