Friday, July 4, 2014

The 35th anniversary of The Great 4th of July Fire

Yeah…yeah…I realize 4th of July memories are supposed to be all about family gatherings and food, fireworks and fun. But…for me…the memory that tops the list is what I’ve come to call “The Great 4th of July Fire.”

It was 35 years ago today that Kevin, Barney, Pam, me, and a couple of leftover-Church-of-God-campmeeting-boyfriends were shooting bottle rockets out of Coke bottles in our front yard.

I should probably point out that it hadn't rained since...oh...March. And, I should also point out that, during almost everything I’m about to tell you, mama was unconscious in her bedroom in a drug-induced "coma," recovering from back surgery. 
Which…looking back…was probably a BIG blessin’.

Just across our front yard, separated only by two-laned Stouts Road, Albritton and Lucy Rice lived in a house fronted by 10-12 acres of pine trees, which amounted to LOTS of DRY pinestraw. (Did I mention it hadn't rained since March?) One last detail--to this day, Kimberly has a Volunteer Fire Department. (You may have seen the damage it suffered earlier this year when the tornado hit Kimberly.) That particular year, the primary bottle-rocket-shooter, Barney, was running for Town Council, with one “plank” of his campaign platform being better fire protection.

Well, sometime after midnight, an hour or so after shooting off the last rocket, we closed down the party. As my brother crawled into his twin bed (in the room he shared with our now-comatose mama and whistlin’ daddy...don't was a 2-bedroom house), he said he had a feeling he needed to look out the window. Next thing I know, he's running into the living room where daddy is snoring in his chair and Pam and I are watching TV. He's yelling, "The woods are on fire! Albritton's woods are on fire!"

On the way out the door, stopping only long enough to call Barney and tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house, Kevin yelled at me, Pam and daddy, “Hook up the hosepipe and get as many buckets as you can find." (We only found 3.)

Once and in look across Stouts Road told me that fire COULD NOT be put out with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. It was blazing!

But...truth be told...we were always a little scared of Albritton. He was the silent type. And most of us read lots of "stuff" into silence. So, all we knew was that...somehow...we had to put out that fire with a hosepipe and 3 buckets.

We could not call Albritton. We dared not alert the Volunteer Fire Department. The only call we could make was to Barney, who always was our family's version of 911. So, Pam and I—barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached)—would fill up the 3 buckets; and then Kevin, Barney and daddy (who chain-smoked Salems throughout that entire night) would run into those fiery woods and back again to fill up those 3 buckets.

Well, this bucket brigade went on for quite awhile with no obvious results, So, in an act of frightened desperation, I went into the house and grabbed all the blankets and quilts I could find (many of them being mama's HOMEMADE quilts) to help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me.... homemade.... as in heirloom....and only Alzheimer's has allowed her to forget it...for now.)

I dumped that pile of quilts on the road beside Pam and yelled at her to soak them. Then, in my Keds and pajamas, with those dripping quilts, I ran into those blazing pine trees--throwing them onto burning patches of pinestraw and wrapping them around blazing tree trunks.

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. Each time that happened, my brother would freak out. Later, he said that each little explosion reminded him of a previous brush-clearing fire when a red-hot pinecone seed went straight up his nostril.

I can't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put out that inferno...but with the bordering-on-miraculous help of God…and Barney, we did it. By that time, we couldn't go to sleep. So, all of us...exhausted and soot-covered...just piled on the living room floor...except for daddy who sank into his recliner...still smokin' a Salem. After a few minutes of quiet, Barney announced, "Well, there goes my run for Town Council." And...that did it...we couldn't stop laughing...tears made tracks down our soot-covered faces.

Eventually, Barney went home, and the rest of us decided to get some sleep. But...just like was deja-vux all over again. Again, Kevin looked out the front window. 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's 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, and...well...I'll let him tell this part of the story: "I heard this voice say, 'Put your hosepipe in your car and get to my house now'!"

When Jeff got there...hosepipe in hand...Pam and I were on bucket duty again. (But, sadly, by this time, mama's quilts had been lost to Fire #1.) And, we managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it long enough that we could actually get the water directly to the fire. the first hint of daylight and, quite thankfully, before Albritton ever had his first cup of coffee...Fire #2 was out.

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor—more exhausted and soot-covered than before—this time joined by Jeff. And, again, we ended up laughing ‘til we cried.

About 7 a.m....mama came stumbling into the living room in a post-surgery haze. She took one look at her living room floor, filled with soot-covered, sleeping people, and yelled, "MY, LORD, WHAT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS ASLEEP?"

So we told her, swearing her to secrecy, and then...with a rather pitiful blank stare on her face...shaking her head...she went to the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do—cook us some biscuits and gravy.

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

Funny thing...the next summer, you'd have barely known what happened. As I walked through those woods...trying to figure out exactly where mama's quilts had “died,”...patches of grass were growing, wildflowers were blooming, and most of the trees had somehow survived. New little seedlings were popping up everywhere...probably from those blasted exploding pinecones.

Out of the ashes of The Great Fire 4th of July Fire, new life had already started. It occurs to me...the same thing happens to us. Out of the very ashes of the fires of our lives...God brings new life, growth, beauty...even laughter... IF we let Him.
"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....
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)