New Hampshire, 1959

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We’re eating dinner when the siren goes off.

Then the doorbell rings.

The horse barn is on fire! Neighbors are at the door!

Alarms wail and automobiles start up.

We rush into the weird twilight. My father says he can see the glow of the fire above the trees.

Our neighbors, the whole neighborhood, elders and children, all are piling into cars. The horse barn is on fire and the town is on the move. This is New Hampshire. Not everyone has television. Eisenhower is President. People still gather for things. When a local fraternity boy tries to become the world’s record holder for grease pole climbing hundreds turn out to watch him scramble up a pole and then descend in a series of ungainly leaps. He does this for days. Families spread out blankets, set up lawn chairs. The grease pole boy is a local wonder.

But fires are always preferred. Our immediate neighbors love fire gazing. They’ve studied the town’s alarm patterns and know where every fire is ccurring. They jump into their station wagon and roar out of the driveway.

My parents cluck their tongues. They believe that watching a scene of private or public misfortune is lowbrow behavior.

“It’s bad to gawk at other people’s tragedies,” my mother says. “Wouldn’t it be terrible if our house was on fire and strangers came to watch our possessions go up in smoke?”

I have tried more than once to convince her that we should follow the neighbor’s example and see a fire as it’s happening. My mother never bends and I’m forced to hear about the drama of burning houses from the neighbor kids. One boy who is my age tells me about a family that won’t come out of their burning house. They lean from the shattered windows and throw small possessions into the night while firemen shout at them to come down. Dolls and a rocking horse fly from an upstairs room. Dresses float like parachutes. The fire is in the back of the house and the inhabitants feel no pressure to escape. They’re New Englanders. No one tells anyone what to do. In New Hampshire no one has any authority. And so of course the firemen and the local sheriff strut and shout. They threaten to carry the family out by force. And a man’s hat sails out into the spotlight. And a pair of loafers. The neighbor kid saw all of this with his family. They sat in their car and drank Cokes and watched as the fire men carry the children out.

I long to be a part of the firewatcher’s brigade. Even though I can’t see a damned thing! I want to soak up the high spirits of the watchers and the certain drama.

Now the university’s horse barns are on fire and my mother decides that we ought to go and see what’s happening. Obviously no family is involved in this spectacle. And my mother loves animals. She is also quietly superstitious. She believes in sympathetic magic. Maybe she thinks that wishful thinking on her part will save the horses and that standing nearby is essential for this magic to work. Whatever the case, we’re suddenly in our black Rambler station wagon and following the neighbors down a dust choked access road that leads to the agriculture school. The flames are visible for miles. We must park in the weeds and walk through a pasture to get near the action.

I can hear the popping of the barn’s galvanized roof. And the shriek of horses is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Their cries are sharp as the edges of stones and the larger the animal the more terrible the cry. We stand in the dark listening to the horses in terror and the tin roofs exploding. My mother says that fire bursts like yellow leaves from a row of windows. Was she narrating for me because I couldn’t see? No! All the adults describe what’s going on, as if they were reporting for the radio news. The involuntary comfort of declaration comes over a crowd witnessing a scene of violence.

I hear there’s a fireman with a roped horse. They are rushing from a fiery door.

Someone says that was the last horse. All the horses are safe now.

A sonic rush of exploding chaff stops everyone for an instant. A silo has burst into flame.

I’m not sure how any of the spectators are getting their information but someone announces that the firemen can’t get the bull out of an adjacent barn. He’s too big.

A little girl I scarcely know starts crying. She can picture just as I can the horror of being burned alive.

I imagine the bull’s eyes as he stands in the flames.

Wait! They’ve gotten the bull out! A cheer goes up from the onlookers. The bull comes out with total dispassion. “Like an old car,” someone says. And the bull stands in tall grass while the barn blazes behind him and puts his head down as if to graze.

And there are scraps and bits of other sounds. Men cry out. There’s a whirring of generators.

A stranger tells my father that the drama of a fire is often very fast.

My father, always a prankster, says suddenly, “Look! That cow has only one udder!”

My mother tells him to be quiet.

“What’s an udder?” I ask.

 

 

S.K.