F is for Fire

As I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time at my grandma’s house, as she lived just a half dozen blocks from my house in Binghamton, NY and as close to my elementary school as my own house, so I’d often have lunch there. She had a coal stove and one my jobs was to to go down to the basement and shovel up a couple pails of coal to keep the fires burning.

After my grandmother moved south, and I stayed in her house in the winter of 1975, I realized how inept I was at keeping the fires going on my own. Obviously, I was doing something wrong, and the flames went out. So it’s February, it’s bitterly cold, I have a mountain of covers on and I’m using a space heater. A quilt comes off the bed and catches fire. Fortunately something woke me up, perhaps the acrid smell, but possibly some psychic connection to my mother who SWEARS she woke up in Charlotte, NC at that very time to warn me; I don’t dismiss it out of hand.

When I was about nine, there was a massive fire on my grandma’s one-block street, Maple Street. An apartment complex called the Rogers Block, four wooden structures as I recall, all caught fire and were utterly destroyed. I don’t believe anyone was hurt, but naturally, many lives were disrupted. It took a while for the area to be razed, and for months, I’d walk by from across the street and smell that very distinct post-fire odor.

Every year, at Midwinter’s, there’s a bonfire where one can throw pieces of paper representing things to get rid of from the previous year, although one year, we threw in the chair of one of our founding members of the tribe, who had died the year before. Indeed, the fire that represents me on this blog comes from a photo of a Midwinter’s wax magick burst.

Totally coincidentally, this week, my daughter had me read a book called A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams, which is about a family who lost everything in a fire, got some stuff from their neighbors, but who were saving up for a nice plush chair to put into the new apartment. It’s a Caldecott winner, and I’d recommend it.

My sister lives in southern California, not in a traditionally fire-prone area, yet a couple years ago, she could see the flames in her neighborhood. She was fortunately spared, but many were not. The photo above I believe she took.

I recall that there was this young woman on JEOPARDY! in the college tournament a few years back who had experienced a fire and was pleased that she was able to start over; Alex Trebek looked at her as though she were crazy, but at some level, I understood her point.

The dichotomy about fire fascinates me: useful tool, destructive force. Even theologically, that comes up, the notion of hellfire

vs. the idea of being “on fire for the Lord”. Today is Ash Wednesday and it is with the remnants of fire with which some Christians will be marked.

Anyway, here’s one of my favorite fire songs, by the OHIO PLAYERS:



Sometimes, in anticipation of a big snowstorm such as the one we got yesterday (at least 6.4″), with a worse one’s supposedly coming tomorrow night – I get this unfocused feeling of anxiety. External things going on tend to fuel this feeling. Note to dumb driver yesterday: honking at me while I’m trying to cross the street without falling down will not get me to move faster.

*ITEM: A couple folks in my organization are leaving. For one, it’s good thing, as he cuts his commute in half and gets “a few extra shekels each week.” For the other one, not so much.
*ITEM: At some point between 12 noon and 1:30 pm Wednesday, someone sprayed pink silly string all over the men’s bathroom on the office floor I work on. In addition, paper towels were put in at least some of the urinals in an apparent attempt to clog them. The bizarre things about this: 1) I was most likely in there at some point during that time period, and 2) only department heads were told about the incident until Thursday morning. The chance to catch the perpetrator would been a whole lot better had we all been given more information sooner. It’s that top down management style that’s so broken.
*ITEM: My computer at home had mysteriously stopped working. Or more specifically, it was as though the keyboard was longer responding. Removing the keyboard, reattaching and a soft boot didn’t work, but doing the same with a hard boot (no, I didn’t kick it, though I thought to) finally did the trick.
*ITEM: Roger Clemens was implicated in former U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroids. I had suspected as much, but it’s still unfortunate. If Barry Bonds’ record-breaking home-run ball literally gets an asterisk, what of Clemens’ Cy Young-laden records?
*ITEM: Peg Moore died during Wednesday night/Thursday morning. She was the wife of Stan Moore, the pastor of the first church I joined in my adulthood back in the early 1980s. She was also a fellow choir member, an alto. Before Lydia was born, I’d see Stan and Peg at Capital Rep, the Equity theater company in Albany.
*ITEM: Some high school kid jumped to his death from an interstate ramp yesterday. It was only a couple miles from my office and my house.
*ITEM: There was a fire on Madison Avenue, about a mile from my house, early Tuesday morning, and the historic building will be likely torn down by now. Someone who works in the school at which my wife teaches lost everything, including pets, in that fire. The school is taking up a collection of household items for her.
That fire affected my bus commute not only Tuesday morning, but also Tuesday and Wednesday nights in a way not unlike how a snowstorm in Chicago affects a New York to Miami airline flight.

So, it’s a bit of ennui, mixed with a taste of dread. This too shall pass.

Is junk media making you sick???




There are people who really love the fall; I’m not one of them. I did notice, however, that when the family went pumpkin picking in Feura Bush, only abut 10 minutes from the Albany city line but most definitely rural, the colors were astonishingly more vibrant than any of the pale palate I’ve experienced in the city.

But the past week also had its own specific issues. Elizabeth Naismith, a member until the last couple years of the First Presbyterian choir died a couple weeks back, but her funeral wasn’t until yesterday. Her mother and she had their own cheese shop in Edinburgh Scotland, until her mother died, then she came to the United States to take care of an ailing uncle in Vermont. She finally made her way to Albany, where at age 70, she joined a church, my church, for the first time. She was a lovely, caring woman with a slight brogue. We left an empty chair with a robe draped on it when we sang for her service yesterday. Her obit is here.

Two other First Pres choir members were in the hospital this week, and those two I knew from my previous church, Trinity, as well. After singing all weekend with a shortness of breath, he went into the hospital Monday with pulmonary embolisms (blood clots) of the lung; she had a less serious medical procedure on Friday.

I worried about my sister and niece in the California fires, though that ended up with a good outcome.

Finally, there were a bunch of kids at Binghamton Central High School in the late 1960s who were the anti-war, left of center crowd. But we were all friends as well, partying together, sometimes romancing each other. We dubbed ourselves “Holiday Unlimited”, and our theme was “A splendid time is guaranteed for all”, which we copped from some pop song.

George Hasbrouck was one those folks. He died Sunday, October 7 at his home in Morristown NJ. He was 55. No cause of death was given in the obit in The Binghamton Press a couple weeks ago. We had all lost touch with George, though many had tried; as one friend put it, “he eschewed contact.” His obit is here.

The last time I saw him was probably 17 years ago at the BCHS Class of ’70’s 20th reunion. Yet I still feel quite sad about it.

So, it was a bit of a downer of a week. Sorry.


I called my niece Becky last night. She and her husband Rico were over at my sister Leslie’s house in San Diego County, California, gathering materials in case they need to evacuate their homes because of the wildfires. Last year, the fires were close enough that Leslie could see, and taste, the smoke from the fires, but this year, the flames are much closer, and depending on the direction of the quirky Santa Ana winds, they may be required to leave at any time. So far, in the county, 500 homes and 100 businesses have already been destroyed by fire.

To that end, they are packing up their cars with necessary items. After the call, I found this site, which includes a list that would be useful in case of most any evacuation:
* A three-day supply of water (one gallon per person per day) and food that won’t spoil.
* One change of clothing and footwear per person and one blanket or sleeping bag per person.
* A first aid kit that includes your family’s prescription medications.
* Emergency tools including a battery-powered radio, flashlight, and plenty of extra batteries.
* An extra set of car keys and a credit card, cash, or traveler’s checks.
* Sanitation supplies.
* Special items for infant, elderly or disabled family members.
* An extra pair of eyeglasses.
* Keep important family documents in a waterproof container. Assemble a smaller version of your kit to keep in the trunk of your car.
In the latter category, we were talking about passports, driver’s licenses, and Social Security cards. I also suggested a deck of cards and a couple paperback books, to stave off possible boredom.

I discovered that, while she has my phone numbers programmed into her cell phone, she, probably like many others, don’t have my phone numbers or e-mail in an accessible place if the cell service is down (or the cell phone runs out of juice) and she doesn’t have access to a computer. (That’s probably true of me and phone numbers/e-mail addresses as well.)

So, keep a good thought.


Spring 1975

I’m having an Alice’s Restaurant moment.

By that, I mean that I want to tell you a story. But first, I need to tell you ANOTHER story. In the Arlo Guthrie song, he talks about 7 minutes about, well, Alice’s Restaurant, and garbage. But then he says: “That’s not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about the draft.” Now, my second story, I’ll write about eventually, but probably not for this week.

At the end of the fall 1974 semester at the State University College at New Paltz (NY), I broke up with the person who would soon be my ex-wife Nona. She moved to Philadelphia for reasons that were unclear to me then, and certainly no clearer 30 years later. The primary relationship issues were religion and money.

I drifted to Binghamton, my hometown. In January 1975, my sister Leslie and I kidnapped my 75-year old grandmother and took her by train to Charlotte, NC, where her daughter (my mother) had moved the year before. Gram was getting lame. She had a coal stove and it would have been dangerous to get up and down the stairs to get it. Nor could she walk up the steep street on which she lived.

13 Maple Street

When we came back a couple of weeks later, I didn’t have any idea what to do next. So I ended up living in my grandmother’s home. Funny thing, though; as often as I had seen her tend to the coal fire in my childhood, I could not keep it going at all. I suffocated it, essentially. Even got help from a friend; no success.

Eventually, the pipes froze. It was an old wood house with old wiring, so I could either run the refrigerator or run the space heater. Given the cold of the house, I opted for the latter.

In February 1975, I spent virtually the whole month in bed watching television. My grandmother’s TV only got one station, the VHF station Channel 12. So I watched the soaps, Hee Haw, and whatever was on CBS that month. It was undoubtedly the deepest state of melancholy I’d ever been in.

The space heater was on the ground and, of course, I had every cover I could find. One night, a blanket, handmade by Nona, fell off the bed in front of the space heater. Fortunately, the acrid smell woke me up and I was OK. My sister Leslie told me later that my mother (in NC) THAT NIGHT woke up from a dream in which I was surrounded by fire, and stayed awake for a time. Perhaps my mother woke me up, six states away. I don’t dismiss that out of hand.

Occasionally, I’d go to the library to listen to music on the record player and headphones there. I remember once listening to the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The song that ended the first side was “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. During the dirgelike instrumental ending, I cranked it up louder and louder. So when the instruments suddenly stopped, I really thought for a half-second that I had died.

Now and then, I’d visit my friend Carol, which is where I got cleaned up.

The janitor gig

I didn’t have a phone, so I missed at least a couple of opportunities to get a job. Eventually, though, I got a position as a janitor in Binghamton City Hall. There were 4 or 5 of us covering the building. I used to empty the wastebaskets from the desks of the police officers and also clean the holding cells, as well as wash windows, buff the floors of the common areas, and other tasks. Two of the guys started calling me Flash because I would get my work done by the end of the sixth hour of my eight-hour day, at which point I’d hide in the bathroom or a storage room and read. It wasn’t that I was so fast, it was that they were very slow.

I really liked the police captain, and we would occasionally have erudite conversations about issues of the day or my future (which seemed bleak to me, but I’m sure I didn’t say that.) The police officers, however, were a more hostile lot in general, and I often felt that they would intentionally make a mess so that I would have to pick it up.

Now there were folks who ABSOLUTELY were making a mess that I had to clean up, and they were the prisoners. These were holding cells they were in, and the detainees were usually there only one night before being arraigned in the morning. So they thought nothing of taking a lighted match and melting the paint from the walls. More than once, they would take their own bodily wastes and smear that on the walls. Perhaps they thought that they were getting back at “the system,” but all they were doing was making more work for a college dropout.

As the weather warmed, my spirits brightened somewhat. I started going out with this woman named Margaret, but it was a classic rebound situation, and that lasted about a month. At the same time, I ended up doing a play. And in the fall, I successfully returned to school at New Paltz.

It was one of the more difficult periods of my life, and I figured that if I could survive that, I could survive just about anything.

But that’s not what I really wanted to write about. I wanted to write about homeownership…

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial