Thursday, February 26, 2009

"My, Lord, what happened while I was asleep?"

Yesterday, I got a little fixated on the idea of being Ash Wednesday and all. What are ashes?

They are what's left after the fire.

How fitting....

And that got me remembering one particularly hot, dry Alabama summer. It was 4th of July weekend, and I don't think it had rained since May.

Anyway, me and my brother (Kevin) and Barney and Pam Moman and a few other friends had decided to shoot off bottle rockets in our front yard, which bordered Stouts Road, the main street that ran through Kimberly. Just across Stouts Road from our yard was Albritton Rice's land. Before you got to Albritton and Lucy's house, there were about 10-12 acres of woods, mainly pine trees, which amounted to LOTS of extremely dry pinestraw. I mention all this only because it becomes important later in the story.

Hmmm...on second thought...before writing this story, I guess I should have checked on the statute of limitations about certain things in the Great State of Alabama.

But, oh they say...confession is good for the soul (and an important part of Lent)....So, here goes. (Just remember, Rice family, I love ya'!)

Oh...I should probably mention that earlier that very day, daddy had checked mama out of the hospital after having back surgery.

I should probably also mention that, to this day, Kimberly only has a Volunteer Fire Department. And, oh yeah, that particular year, the primary bottle-rocket-shooter-offer, Barney, was running for Town Council, with one "plank" of his campaign platform being better fire protection.

(In the last decade or so, the Kimberly City Hall burned down because the keys to the volunteer fire house were locked in City Hall...but that's yet another story for yet another time.)

Anyway, back to that 4th-of-July-bottle-rocket night...

After shooting off the last rocket, we went inside. My friend, Pam Moman, was spending the night with me. (Mama was passed out...dead to the world...from pain pills the hospital had sent her home with.)

Well, as my brother was going to bed (about midnight), he decided he better look out and make sure those 2 or 3 stray bottle rockets had not started any trouble. (In hindsight, I'm sure that was a Holy Spirit "prompting," trying to save our hides.)

Next thing I know, Kevin is running through the living room where daddy is asleep in his chair and Pam and I are watching TV. He's yelling, "The woods are on fire! Get up. Albritton's woods are on fire!"

On the way out the door, pulling on shoes and stopping at the phone only long enough to call Barney to tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house to help fight that fire, Kevin yelled at me and Pam and daddy to hook up the hosepipe and "get as many buckets as you can find."

Once and in look across Stouts Road told me everything I need to know--that fire CANNOT be put out with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. It is blazing!

But...truth be told...we were always just a little bit scared of Albritton. He was the strong, silent type. And, for some reason, young people always read other things into silence.

So, all we knew was that...somehow...we had to put out that fire with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. We dared not call Albritton. We dared not alert the Volunteer Fire Department. The only call we could make was to Barney. (Barney always was my family's equivalent of 911. Thanks for that, Barn!)

Now, here's the picture you need to get in your head--Pam and I standing barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached) and Kevin and Barney and daddy (chain smoking) running from the hosepipe into those fiery woods and back again to fill up their buckets.

After a few minutes I realized Pam could man the hosepipe on her own. So, probably inspired by some Lassie show I had watched, I went into the house, threw on a pair of Keds, and gathered up my mama's HOMEMADE quilts to go help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me right.. in heirloom...And, no, she's never quite let me forget it.)

I dumped that pile of quilts on the road beside Pam and instructed her to soak all of them. Then, in my Keds and pajamas, I went running with those beautiful quilts, one-by-one, into those blazing pine trees--tossing them onto burning patches of pinestraw and wrapping them around blazing tree trunks.

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. And, each time that would happen, my brother would freak out. I guess he was remembering an earlier fire--our daddy was constantly using fire to clear brush. During one of daddy's quarterly-brush-clearing fires, when Kevin was about 10 years old, a red-hot seed from an exploding pinecone had gone straight up his nostril, sending him running around and around the house, screaming his lungs out. (To this day, he's not fond of pinecones.)

Anyway...I couldn't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put that fire out...but with the AMAZING (bordering on miraculous) help of God, we finally did.

By this time, we're so keyed up we can't go to sleep. So, all of us...tired, dirty, soot-covered...just piled on the living room floor. (Of course, daddy was in his recliner...still smokin'.)

Then, Barney announced, "Well, there goes my run for Town Council."

And that did it...we doubled over laughing.

Eventually, Barney went home, and we decided to get some sleep. But...just like was deja vux all over again.

Once again, Kevin looked out his bedroom window. Once again he came running into the living room, this time yelling, "It's goin' again!" And out the door he went, stopping only long enough to call Barney...again.

By this time it was about 3 a.m., and I was just coherent enough to realize we needed reinforcements. So, I called Jeff Easter. Jeff says he remembers the phone ringing and wondering, "What fool is calling at this time of the morning?" But, he picked up anyway, and...well...I'll let him tell you this part of the story:
"I heard this very soft, very calm voice saying, 'Jeff, just put your hosepipe in your car and get to my house as soon as you can'."

When Jeff got there...hosepipe in hand...Pam and I are still on bucket duty down by Stouts Road. (By this time, mama's quilts have been lost to Fire #1.)

Well, we managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it stretch long enough that we could actually get the water to the fire. the time the first hint of daylight was dawning and, quite thankfully, before Albritton ever had his first cup of #2 was out.

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor--even more dirty and more soot-covered--with Jeff joining us this time. And, once again, somebody said something that got us tickled, and we couldn't stop laughing.

Then...about 7 a.m....mama came stumbling into the living room in a pain-pill-induced haze. She took one look at her living room filled with soot-covered people, all in various stages of reclining and sleep, and yelled, "MY, LORD, WHAT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS ASLEEP!!!???"

So, we told her, swearing her to secrecy (until now), and then...with a rather pitiful blank stare on her face...shaking her head...she went into the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do at that point--she cooked us biscuits and gravy.

Years after "The Great 4th of July Fire," as we came to call it, Barney confessed that, for several nights, he had to get out of bed, get into his car, park in our yard and walk through Albritton's woods...just to make sure.

The funny thing is that, the next summer after the Great Fire, you would have barely been able to tell it had ever happened. As I walked through those woods...trying to figure out exactly where mama's quilts had burned up, patches of grass were already growing, wildflowers were blooming, and most of the trees had somehow survived. In fact, new little pine tree seedlings were popping up everywhere...from those blasted exploding pinecones, I guess.

Out of the ashes of that Great Fire, new life had already begun.

The same thing happens to us.

Out of the very ashes...the very failures and setbacks of our lives...God brings new life, new growth, new beauty...if we let Him.

And that's what He reminds me of when those cross-shaped ashes are painted on my forehead on Ash Wednesday.

Because of the love of the Savior who hung on that cross, even the ash heaps of my life can be blown away by the loving breath of my Father God. their place...redeemed, you might say...forgiveness and life and growth and restoration and beauty...can begin...again.

"To all who mourn,...he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
....Instead of shame and dishonor,
you will enjoy a double share of honor.
You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
“For I, the Lord, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be recognized
and honored among the nations.
Everyone will realize they are a people the Lord has blessed.”
I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness....
Everyone will praise him!
His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring,
with plants springing up everywhere."
(from Isaiah 61, NLT)

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