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Home Fire

Kevin Koch

When the shell you live in has taken on the savor
of your love, when your dwelling has become a
taproot, then your house is a home.
—Scott Russell Sanders, “House and Home”

“Don’t touch the doorknob! It might be electrified!” my 24-year-old son warned as I bounded up from the basement and spied the downed tree sprawled across the front porch and sparks leaping from the porch light.

A few minutes later, when my wife Dianne saw smoke curling out of the antique ceiling fixture, we knew it was for real. Our house would soon be on fire if it wasn’t already. Dianne called 911 on the cellphone, and we rushed out the back to knock on the neighbor’s door at 9:30 pm on this July evening and began the anguishing wait for the fire trucks to arrive.

Our house in Dubuque, Iowa, was built in 1906. The courthouse records indicate 1911, but I’m inclined to believe the penciled script on the porch roof board that we’d found while renovating some years ago: “This roof put on July 31, 1906, [signature unreadable].” We’d been in the house more than 10 years when we uncovered the board, but it felt like some kind of validation for our living there. The porch roof had been built exactly 76 years prior to our wedding date. I wondered if it had been as hot in 1906 as the day we’d married.

We’d bought the house in 1989 after I’d finished my doctoral coursework at the University of Iowa. We were moving back to Dubuque, as I’d resumed my teaching position at a small local college. On the house tour, we were attracted to the old textured woodwork, high ceilings, rambling floor plan, and curiously angled corners. We took the bait, even though it was at the top of our budget limit. I felt a bit self-conscious, as I had come from a small working-class home myself. The house we’d just purchased wasn’t huge, but it was spacious. My frame of mind wasn’t helped by my 12-year-old niece, who on her first visit blurted, “Didja buy a big enough house?”

Buyer’s regret hit me hard.

But Dianne wisely referred me back to the house ad that had attracted us in the first place: “Great family home.”

Our oldest child, Paul, was three. Our second, Brian, had just been born a few months earlier. Our youngest, our only daughter, Angie, would come along three years later. With this house we had room to grow, to renovate, to play, to study, to gather with family.

Now, after 22 years, it was about to go up in smoke.

***

At the time of the fire, I was gearing up for another fall semester. I was preparing to teach Scott Russell Sanders’s book Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World to my writing students. Sanders is my literary big brother, or so I like to tell myself. Big brother in the sense that I’d long admired his work and felt the reflection of his mind, ethic, and writing style upon my own. Big brother in the sense that I’d like to be like Scott.

I’d been teaching his book for several semesters. I’d liked the way he was unabashedly Midwestern while remaining cosmopolitan. Family, humanity, and the land that connects and harbors us were at the center of his consciousness. Root down, he gently urged his reader, so that as long as you inhabit a place, you know it down to its bedrock. My writing since then has been a constant drive to know place deeply. Place, for me, was the tall, rocky bluffs along the Upper Mississippi Valley in northeast Iowa. I didn’t yet know that “place” included my house.

If I didn’t initially root down in the house we bought at 285 South Grandview, I did so a few years later when I began repainting. House painting might drive others to look afresh at the For Sale listings, but for me it was a means of connecting. I ran my hands over every inch of siding. Shell became skin and body. The house could be caressed.

So naturally I took to Sanders’s essay “House and Home.”

I could identify with the For Sale listing he’d responded to in 1974:

charming 2-story brick walk
to work, Bryan Park & Elm
Heights. 3 bedrms., bath, liv.
rm. With fireplace. 1113 East
Wylie. $25,000.

“Great family home!” my own house’s For Sale ad had boasted in 1989. One-and-a-half story, four-bedroom. $68,000. Even in my Midwestern town there’d been inflation since Sanders’ day.

The similarities continued. When Sanders tore into the lath and plaster he found the “mild epithet”: “Billy Wales is a stinker! June 12, 1926.” When we tore off the dated wallpaper in the nursery room we were preparing for our daughter, we found a 1941 stick drawing of St. Columbkille School fourth grade teacher either loved or endured by a former student.

“Things fall apart,” Sanders writes. “Pipes rust, nails work loose, shingles crumble, wood warps.” Been there, too. Rusted iron waste pipes replaced with PVC. The roof reshingled—twice. And although it must have pained Sanders to inject chemicals around the foundation, “Poison has discouraged the termites.” Same here. Be green as you want, but when the joists are in danger of caving in, the big guns come out.

But I should have taken forewarning from Sanders’s own father, who, upon visiting after the birth of their first child, “walked to the basement and opened the fuse box, hummed darkly, then came back upstairs and removed the faceplate from a light switch and peered inside. Turing to [Sanders] with a frown, he said, ‘Son, you’ve got to rewire this house. I won’t have my granddaughter sleeping in a firetrap.'”

Over the years, we updated the wiring in piecemeal fashion, usually in connection with a remodeling project. But much of the old original circuitry still snaked from room to room, and to rewire completely would require gutting the house. And we could never do that.

***

The sky was an ominous dark blue in the early evening of July 22, 2010, with boils, swirls, and ruptures in the clouds. At 8:45 pm, tornado sirens wailed across the city. Paul, Angie, Dianne, and I headed to the basement. Conspicuously missing was our middle son, Brian, living three hours away in Chicago, working a summer job between college semesters.

In Sanders’s world, this might have been family bonding time, but not this evening, not yet anyway. Maybe we should have pulled out the board games, but we didn’t. Angie and I played double-solitaire for a while. And Paul challenged her to a game of pool in another part of the basement.

The rest I remember as a series of snapshots with the connecting points dissolved.

Paul hears a clap of thunder, or so he thinks. He’d better go upstairs to the study and unplug his computer to protect it against a lightning strike. He feels heat from the electrical outlet. Odd. He might as well unplug the TV as well, located in the living room. The heat from this outlet is even more intense.

He looks out the bay window and sees a tree lying across the front porch. He is about to exit onto the porch to investigate when he sees the sparking in the front porch light, and it occurs to him that the metal doorknob might be electrified.

He calls to us to come up from the basement. This is where the memory gets fuzzy. After we come up, Paul dashes to the basement to shut off the breaker box. Why Paul? Why not do this myself? I can’t recall the reason. Only later do we learn that he could have been killed by arcing voltage.

The breakers are all turned off now, but the dining room lights still surge and dim. We worry about the bulbs exploding from the heat. In another moment, smoke is seeping like a gray gas from the living room ceiling lights.

Dianne calls 911. We can’t escape through the tree-entangled front porch, so we exit the basement.

The four of us run through the backyard in a pouring rain, run to our neighbors to alert them—if our house goes up in flames, theirs is near enough to be endangered, too. We pound on their door, and when Mark and Ginger emerge, the six of us watch from their front porch, watch the smoke that is now curling out of the eaves, watch the front porch light that sporadically erupts into flame and then settles again to mere sparking. We watch for the fire trucks, which seem to take forever but no doubt arrive in due time. And we watch for the thing we dread. When and where will the flame erupt—out of a shattering window, out of the attic, or in a fiery red dance contained within?

***

Sanders reminds us that even our house comes from the earth: “Unlike the birds, of course, we fetch our sticks from the lumberyard . . . But for all that artifice, the house is still entirely derived from the land.” The limestone foundation came from a nearby quarry, the frame is “a skeleton of pines.” Iron in the nails derive from a distant mine. Even synthetic materials are crafted from the elements at our disposal here on earth. Our homes are “only a nest in disguise.”

And, like a nest, it may be buffeted in a storm.

But most often the nest gives comfort. Teasing out the difference between “house” and “home,” Sanders offers, “A house gives only shelter; a home gives sanctuary.” Home, Sanders says, is not “where you are sullenly admitted, but rather where you are welcomed—by the people, the walls, the tiles on the floor, the flowers beside the door, the play of light, the very grass.”

The word home is so deeply rooted in the language that it erupts in myriad uses. In baseball, Sanders points out, home plate is both the starting and ending point. Homely once meant plain and simply, not ugly. The homing pigeon always finds its way back. The angels are “coming for to carry us home.”

In “House and Home,” Sanders’s main narrative wraps itself around the birth of his oldest child, his daughter Eva, “a rosy wriggle of a girl . . . six-and-a-half pounds, all of them fidgety.” In her cry, he writes, “I hear a plea for shelter from the terror of things,” a shelter that only home can provide. While merely a coincidence, Sanders points out, “Home and womb share the holy sound of om, which Hindu mystics chant to put themselves in harmony with the ultimate power.” Eva, now grown, has recently gone off to college, and Sanders thinks of their home “as a chrysalis from which the butterfly has flown. I miss my daughter.” The memories along the way have transformed Sanders’s house into a home: “Everywhere I look I see the imprint of hands, everywhere I turn I hear the babble of voices, I smell sawdust or bread, I recall bruises and laughter.”

Paul was three when we moved into our own home. We have since sawed off the backyard tree limb he’d use to pull himself up into the poplar where he’d sit for hours, “thinking,” he’d tell us. The tree is still there, much thicker than it was back then.

Brian was just four months old when we moved into our place. Paul wanted to share his bedroom with his infant brother, so the third upstairs bedroom remained empty for a while. The spare bedroom served as our miniature basketball court when Brian was a few years older, its worn, narrow-slab pinewood floors much like a gymnasium’s.

Three years after moving in, it was time to prepare the spare bedroom for Angie. Down came the dated 1940s wallpaper (and the discovery of the schoolteacher drawn clumsily on the unpainted plaster). On went the fresh paint. We moved the baby bed from the boys’ room to the new nursery.

Angie is the only one of our children born to the house. When we brought her home from the hospital, we set her in her car seat on the couch while we made on last dash back to the car to bring in the inevitable stash of baby supplies. When we returned we found her scoping out the living room, her eyes darting back and forth, no doubt checking out the room colors and vowing to change them. She’s grown into an artist, and her works include the mural she’s painted on her bedroom wall, two shuttered “windows” that look out in to a Tuscan vineyard.

By such memories, a house becomes a home.

***

Brian, living in Chicago, knew something was up when he received six text messages in a matter of minutes from Paul and Angie. The house is on fire! No wait, it’s not! While we waited for the fire trucks, Brian’s was a different kind of excruciating wait from 180 miles away, trying to piece together the story and wondering if his home was still intact.

The fire trucks arrived. After entering the house, firefighters returned to our neighbor’s porch to ask us if we had a second breaker box, as the house was still “energized.” Their ladders, we later learned, sparked and sizzled when leaned against the porch gutters. They soon discovered that the fallen tree had snagged the electrical line, which then scraped a bare spot that came to rest on the gutter, electrifying the porch roof and arcing into the house wiring. From there, the 220 current bypassed the breaker box and grounded itself through the basement furnace. The firefighters called the electric company—busy of course, with power outages across the city—to disconnect the electricity from the house.

Meanwhile the walls, ceiling, and upstairs floors grew hotter and hotter. Where the firefighters tore into the walls, they found the metal cable carrying the old wires glowing red, something they don’t often see, because the time from the glowing stage to the eruption of flames is brief.

Then events started going our way. The electric company truck arrived and disconnected the house, and the wires inside began a slow cool. Although still vigilant, the firefighters knew the worst had passed, and they told us so. Later, they told us the house had been within two minutes of going up in flames.

There are benefits to having a son of legal drinking age. As the night wore down, two of Paul’s friends showed up at the neighbor’s porch with a six-pack of beer. Would I like one? My God, yes! We all know people who rate their best beers. This was the best beer ever. I have no idea what it was.

Two of the three fire trucks packed up to leave and serve other needs. As the remaining crew finished their duties and were satisfied that no fires remained, they took us inside. The living room had suffered a small amount of actual flame damage. But more than that, the wiring was fried, as the old circuitry had run willy nilly from room to room and floor to floor. The house would have to be gutted and rewired.

Our neighbors offered us their couches, spare beds, pillows and blankets for the night. I had one night-time duty to perform back at the house. The firefighters asked me to do a middle-of-the-night inspection, so at 3 am I grabbed a flashlight and entered through the back door, poking my circle of light around the basement, then the main floor and the upstairs bedrooms. The house was oddly quiet. Everything was intact, except in the living room where firefighters had moved furniture and wall hangings before axing their way through the plaster. The carpet was soaked and dirty with broken plaster. The room smelled faintly of smoke.

***

Scott Russell Sanders is my literary big brother. I write. Mostly I teach, but I also write, squirreling away as much time as I can. The local landscape and its cultural history is my main focus here in this pocket of hills, bluffs, and rock towers of the Upper Mississippi Valley amid the glacially sculpted and generally flattened Midwest. But I didn’t yet know what Sanders had tried to teach me, that my house, too, “is itself a part of the landscape.” I hadn’t yet known that the landscape includes the place where I park my car, sit on the porch swing, and lay my head at night alongside my wife. I didn’t know that the landscape includes the German-born doctor who built this house—in 1906 one of the few structures on this now-busy avenue—and put his office in the front half, facing the street. The landscape includes the basement room with its interior limestone walls that formed either a summer kitchen or perhaps an attached horse barn. German roots. The landscape includes the man who, years later, took his life within these very walls rather than succumb, limb by limb, to Lou Gehrig’s disease. It includes my neighbor who cared for him, found him dead, and later gave us her living room on the night of the fire.

***

 We moved into a hotel for four weeks and then into a rented house for six while our house was being torn apart down to the studs, rewired, and rebuilt. Insurance covered everything. Not everyone is so lucky.

In the meantime, Paul, a couple of months into his first full-time job, found an apartment and moved out to live on his own. Brian came home to view the mess, help out with some of the residual work, and then needed to return to Chicago.

And Angie went off to college, also to Chicago.

We were empty-nesters, only without the nest.

Summer had ended, and Dianne and I both went back to teaching. We stopped at the house each day after school to check on progress and to help out as we could, as our contractor was our dear, good friend Ted. He took special attention to make sure that everything was done correctly, whether by himself or other workers.

We made some changes to the house—why not, when all the walls are torn apart? We should have stayed away longer, but the rented house sold and we had to be out by the end of the month. When we moved back, the upstairs bedrooms were nearly completed and the kitchen, though gutted, was usable.

Who needed more?

***

The hardwood floors upstairs took a beating throughout the tear-down and reconstruction. Just before we moved back in, we had them sanded, stained, and re-varnished.

The kids returned to help out as they could. Paul, still living in Dubuque, came around most frequently. Brian had college and work, and so it was late in the fall before he came back again from Chicago. But earlier in the semester than Brian, Angie got a ride back home from college with another girl from our town. I was teaching Scott Russell Sanders’sStaying Put to my students again that fall, and I updated them from time to time about the progress of the fire renovation. The week before Angie came home, I nearly choked up in class as I read aloud from Sanders: “Before leaving in August, Eva bet me that I would not have finished remodeling the sunporch by the time of her return. . . . Now I must go and put on the last coat of varnish, so that, when she enters, the room will shine.”

And the rooms do shine.

—July 2012

 

Work Referenced

Sanders, Scott Russell. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

 

Kevin Koch is a Professor of English at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is author of Skiing at Midnight: A Nature Journal from Dubuque County, Iowa and The Driftless Land: Spirit of Place in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and editor of Rising with Christ: Catholic Women’s Voices Across the World. His essays have appeared in Big Muddy, The North American Review, and The Wapsipinicon Almanac.

 

© Kevin Koch