Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Keep the Home Fires Burning

A diversion, if you will, from politics and culture. Please indulge me as I reminisce about something personal to me and my family.

Wauwatosa News-Times firefighter 1975
It was only a few days ago that I realized that, in the summer of 1975, thirty years ago, my family's house burned down. Press reports (and insurance forms) said that the loss was about $50,000, which was a lot of money in the mid-1970s.

We had only moved into the house two years earlier. It was the oldest one in the neighborhood, an old farmhouse that had been unoccupied for some two decades before my father found it and my mother fell in love with it. The previous owner had suffered from Collier Brothers Syndrome, which was explored so deliciously by Richard Greenberg in his play, The Dazzle. In other words, she was a pack-rat. When we bought the house, it was stacked floor to ceiling with newspapers and magazines dating to the early 1940s. There was also old glassware, china, and furniture -- in surprisingly good shape considering the circumstances. In fact, I still possess a few of those pieces, though most have been discarded along the way and across the miles.

The night of the fire I was preparing to leave for my second year at the Georgetown University Summer Forensics Institute. it was a Thursday, and my parents had taken my sister with them to their weekly bowling league, so I was home alone with the dog.

Let me pick up the story in a distant voice (my own) as recorded in my personal journal -- a sort of pre-electronic blog created with pen and paper -- two years after the event.

Monday, July 18, 1977, 11:15 a.m.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of our fire. We didn’t celebrate or anything, and I didn’t even remember it until almost 10 o’clock last night. The story of my fire is very interesting, perhaps I’ll record it here for posterity.

I don’t remember the time of the fire, although I’d guess it started between nine and ten p.m. I was preparing to leave for Georgetown the next day. My suitcase was all packed, along with my typewriter and evidence carrier. We were to leave early in the morning, so I was going to take a shower & get to bed early.

I took my shower and, when I got out, I noticed an unusual amount of steam in the bathroom – then I realized it wasn’t steam, it was smoke! First I ran to my bedroom to check the wiring on my stereo – no – then to the attic – nothing – I looked outside – nothing. Then I went to the top of the stairs and called to see if anyone was home. No. I went downstairs, looked in the basement door, and saw red lights and smoke rushing out. So I went over to the kitchen phone, called the fire department. (I remember saying we had a fire in our basement. “Oh, I suppose you want my address? 1503 N. 70 Street. Thank you” and hung up.) Then, perhaps dangerously, but as I ended up all right in the end, not fatally, I went upstairs, put on some pants, grabbed a shirt and socks, took hold of my suitcase, and went outside, next door, to wait for the fire trucks. I rang [the next door neighbors’] Walders’ doorbell, but no one answered. They ran out, however, when they saw the flashing red lights and heard the sirens.
At the time, I was clueless about what had caused the fire. We later learned that an electrical amusement in the basement -- a bowling machine that one might have found in hundreds of taverns in the Milwaukee area -- had shorted out. The fire started small and worked its way up the walls in the front of the house, effectively destroying the front parlor and my parents' bedroom. Fortunately for me, little damage, except that from smoke, affected my room and most of my belongings, though everything in the attic was destroyed by smoke or water.

In my haste to grab clothes (in an effort to avoid arrest for indecent exposure) and my packed suitcase, I forgot all about our dog, a toy poodle named Bonnie. She was later found by a firefighter at the front door, gasping for breath. That fireman used an oxygen mask to resuscitate her, and she went on to live a long life, retiring to the Nevada desert -- though she was always spooked by bright lights and sirens after that night.

The whole neighborhood muyst have been out for the show. [Fellow debater and Marquette High classmate] Mike Zanoni was there, somewhere, and he called up Fleis [assistant coach Jim Fleissner] to say “Richard’s house is on fire and I haven’t seen him anywhere.” Fleis, genuinely concerned, responded something like, “Well, this Richard is going to be fried.” Mike found me, and I called up Jim to give him a progress report – I still wasn’t sure whether I would be able to go with him (and Berny [McCabe], Martin [Dowling], & Scott Murphy) to GU. I told him what had happened, and attributed my calmness under fire (so to speak) to my “debater’s demeanor.”
The crowd that gathered was astoundingly large. I found it hard to believe that so many people lived in my neighborhood.

It took me quite a while to reach my parents. (This was before cell phones and pagers.) They had left the bowling alley, but one of my aunts came to the phone and told me they had gone out for drinks after the league had finished up. I finally tracked them down at an uncle's house. They rushed home, but found an insurmountable barrier in the form of the crowd, which reached to the end of 70th Street and poured out onto the sidewalks along perpendicular Milwaukee Avenue. My mother, understandably hysterical, cried out, "Let me through! That's my house on fire!" The crowd parted and the firefighters guided my parents to our yard, where the fire had been reduced, essentially, to embers.

The crowd wandered away – I’m sure there were a lot of people there I didn’t know then, but do know now – and I gathered up my things to go to spend the night at Uncle Carl’s [Carl Sincere]. We tried to get rid of the smoky smell in my suitcase and things – & succeeded, except in regard to my suit bag, which gave our room at Georgetown a distinctive odor for more than a week.

The next day, despite going to bed at 1:30 a.m. (after wanting to retire early), I woke up about 5 a.m. – maybe 5:30 – ate a very light breakfast, then visited my house. Boy, was it a mess. The carpets were soaking wet, the walls were burned up, plaster was all over the floor, windows were broken with glass spread all over. The stench was unbelievable. I went into the basement to get some clothes – my red & white checked shirt & blue pants. It was really a weird feeling to be in there.

Jim picked me up at 8 or 8:30. Scott was with him and we loaded the car. Next stop was Berny’s, then Kraidii’s [Chris Kraidich, MUHS debater-alumnus] – we told Chris my house burned down, and he didn’t believe us. But he did give us a bottle of schnapps. It was Martin’s birthday that day (Jim’s the next day).

A note on some characters: Jim Fleissner was two years ahead of me at Marquette High, and he had just graduated. He was starting his first year as assistant debate coach on the Hilltop, and went on to a successful career as an attorney and law professor at Mercer University in Georgia. He is now the deputy to the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

Scott Murphy
, I discover, is also an attorney, living and working in Florida. Martin Dowling is an academic and fiddler living in Ireland. Berny McCabe and Chris Kraidich are not easy to find, at least not through a Google search. The same goes for Mike Zanoni, though his debate partner, Steve Illa, is a lawyer in Washington state who has got some press for his defense of people persecuted by the war on drugs.

Our coach at the time, James M. Copeland, was (and is) legendary in the world of speech and debate. He spent a long career as a championship coach before turning to adminsitrative duties, and he recently retired as secretary of the National Forensics League (NFL), the governing body for interscholastic debate and speech. (My own greatest triumph as a debate coach was when one of my teams beat one of his teams in a Georgetown Institute tournament back in 1981 or '82. A minor triumph, to be sure, but an accomplishment that was much savored at the time.)

The story continues:

We drove that day around Chicago (I slept a lot through there), through Indiana, and stopped in Springfield, Ohio. I think it was a Best Western Motel. It had a swimming pool, but it was too cool to go swimming. We did go bowling. I did okay. On the way back to the motel, we got stopped by a train which had stopped in its tracks.

The next day, after watching Martin eat some disgusting apple pancakes at a restaurant in Springfield, we left for the last leg to Washington. We drove through Ohio, West Virginia (state with such towns as “Martin’s Ferry”), Pennsylvania – where we stopped in Breezewood for Kentucky Fried Chicken – then caught Hwy 70-76 through Maryland into DC.

The long car ride was memorable, if nothing else, for the music we heard on the radio. This was in the heyday of AM Top 40 radio. Jim's station wagon, if I recall, did not even have an FM tuner. Along the way, across six states, we heard "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain & Tennille 18 times in 16 hours. We kept count. Indeed, we couldn't help but count, the song was so persistent that by they time we arrived in Washington, we thought that "Sedaka is back" referred to us.
On entering Georgetown, we breathed a sigh – of relief, of elation, of satisfaction, of memory. We got to New South [residence hall]. Mr. [James J.] Unger [director of the Institute] asked if I was the Richard whose house burned down.

Everyone had heard the news by then – Mike [Zanoni] & Steve [Illa] had carried the torch all the way to Washington with them. [MUHS debate coach James M.] Copeland greeted me with:

“Richard, I understand your house burned down.”

“Yes, it did,” I said.


The story of our fire has a happy ending, in its way. I missed it, but my family and their friends were on the local TV news the day I left for Washington, cleaning up the mess I left behind. When I returned three weeks later, we had moved into a small apartment on Sherman Boulevard in Milwaukee a few miles from our home; we stayed there for a few months and moved back into our house just before Christmas.

The fire caused some structural damage that permitted us to make some architectural changes that my mother had wanted when we first bought the house but couldn't afford to do: We knocked down the wall between the front parlor and the middle parlor to create one huge living room. All the carpeting and wallpaper in the house was replaced, as was the furniture (with all the tackiness one might expect from furniture purchased in 1975). My parents sold the house, at a slight profit, four years later, and moved to Las Vegas. I ended up here in Charlottesville with some of the antique furniture that, owing to its position in the back of the house, survived the fire.

In a postscript to all this, about a year ago I received an email from my aunt, Maureen, who had recently been invited to the home of the parents of one of her kids' teammates. To her surprise, it was the same house at 1503 N. 70th Street in Wauwatosa that my sister and I had lived in, in the mid-1970s. The decor was different, but the house was the same. She sent along some photos, which I unfortunately lost in a hard-drive crash. Talk about a time-warp!


Biotress said...

I came across your blog and just thought I'd say "hi."

Rick's Sister said...

I like the story...I needed more of the sister character though. I bet she is facinating!

Mary (Sincere) Giersch said...

I'm glad it was the old bowling machine instead of your sister's Easy Bake Oven.

I got busted, post fire, for leaving that puppy cooking all night on your sister's shag carpet bedroom floor while I was babysitting. (I was a pretty bad babysitter, but at least I worked cheap.)

I remember my parents, Carl and Kathy, helping re-wallpaper the living room after the fire. I'm sure it was stylish then, but I'm recalling something with lots of gold hi-lights running through it.

Oh, well, my mom sent me your blog link and I thought I'd say hi from Idaho, the latest and greatest vacation spot for George W.