Archive for October, 2011

The Smell of Smoke

Posted on: October 13th, 2011 by Donna 11 Comments

Memories of my youth in northern New York always include the feel of fall. By late September, maple, elm and birch trees covered our streets and yards in cast-off blankets of red, orange, and yellow leaves. I still hear the rhythmic sounds of a rake scraping along the sidewalk, taste the juiciness of a crisp Macintosh apple, and can smell burning leaves.

As a little girl, taking a good long run and jumping into piles of leaves seemed great fun, particularly if dried leaves tickled my arms and legs, or their dust caused me to cough and sneeze. Afterward, nothing soothed my throat faster than a jelly glass full of cold tangy apple cider. Resting in an Adirondack chair with the glass on its broad arm, I envisioned carving a giant pumpkin. I wondered—and since I’m being honest here, I also worried not a little—about the costume my mother would sew for me to wear in our city’s annual Halloween contest. Mom always came up with exotic, one-of-a-kind outfits. Like most kids, I didn’t enjoy being different even if I did win a shiny new silver dollar first prize for seven straight years. Today’s prices of silver make me wish I’d kept more of them.

Now that I’m a silver-haired Texas citizen, I no longer dress up for Halloween, I find pine straw much less fun to admire or rake, and at all costs I avoid flinging myself to the ground for any reason. In these parts, I seldom find fresh apple cider for sale. And unless I actually see someone in a yard burning a teensy pile of wet leaves, I don’t enjoy the smell of smoke.

Smoke means fire, and living in the woods magnifies the danger of uncontrolled burns. In fact, few things frighten me more than thoughts of my house burning. Although it only happened once in my lifetime and damaged little, the terror on my mother’s sooty face, the urgency in my father’s rapid commands to us three sleep-drugged kids, and my visiting grandmother’s tears remain vivid sixty years later.

A chink in the mortar of our new fireplace caused a beam in the cellar to catch fire. As smoke billowed from the living room, Dad had my brother shepherd my grandmother, my other brother, and me to the back porch in the relative safety of a frigid February night. He and Mom fought the fire with cooking pots of water for the better part of an hour. Sloshing water as she ran, Mom raced up and down our narrow old cellar stairs to the basement to throw water up at the burning beam. Meanwhile, Dad, who had no stairs to slow him down, outpaced Mom with two containers to her one. Never shouting a warning, he poured his full pots directly into the fireplace, raining ashes, soot, and black water down on hapless Mom below. She explained to me later that Dad had too much pride to summon help from the fire station half a block from our house. He’d built the fireplace.

The recent smell of smoke from numerous East Texas wildfires made it seem prudent to pack clothes, fill both our vehicles with gas, and round up my three M’s: money, medications, and memories. Given the distance of the closest fires, I also had time to gather pet food, carriers, and leashes and weigh the options for taking other possessions. Granted, personal belongings are worldly goods and not relative to eternity, but since I had time and space for more than just emergency provisions, I readied laptops, jewelry, an extra pair of prescription glasses, and a few framed photographs. For two weeks the fires roared, burned out, and regrouped in drought-stricken fields, communities, and forests all around us. Although our neighborhood remained relatively free of imminent danger, brisk winds carried heavy, choking smoke hundreds of miles.

Homes and property can be abandoned for a number of reasons. It’s been a long time since I huddled in a school hallway during a drill for an air raid or stood outside in a winter’s night in my pajamas. But I sure wished for an escape plan when an intruder banged on my door while I was home alone in a blizzard. I lamented no family plan when I found myself surrounded by hundreds of panicked people screaming for their kids as we all fled a mall during a bomb scare. I would’ve paid a fair amount of money for a faster, emptier route after being stuck in a car without air conditioning for hours fleeing an August Gulf Coast hurricane.

Recent internet and television news evoked terrible sadness at the losses suffered by other Texans. Looking around our home now, I feel almost guilty that we didn’t lose pieces of our family’s history. For the moment, fire no longer threatens, although it’s still very dry everywhere, and occasional smoke still drifts our way. The wildfires brought to mind that all of us could be better prepared for emergencies of any sort. Our neighborhood civic association discussed potential emergencies and updated our shared list of other family’s contact numbers. In addition to streamlining my emergency evacuation procedures, I also plan to:

Give an extra donation to our local volunteer fire department and support all their fundraisers.

Write out directions to at least four safe havens within fifty miles of home and carry a road atlas and/or Texas road map in case of detours, a good flash light, a blanket, a jacket, several bottles of water, and protein bars. I will notify members of my family where I expect to go, the route I’ll take, and which vehicle I’m
driving. If other family members are also leaving, we’ll arrange a meeting place.

Scan and organize my favorite photos from albums and storage boxes and save to a jump drive. I’ll load a few more of my most treasured authors’ works and the Bible onto my Kindle.

Carry a list of telephone numbers of family/neighbors/friends in case cell phones don’t work.

And despite the inevitable rolling of my children’s eyes for the few antiques I can fit in the limited space left in my vehicle, I’ll determine which irreplaceable personal effects to save.