The year was 1981. It was a typical summer day in Newton, Iowa: hot and humid with not a whole lot going on (at least not yet). I was mowing the front lawn, but I can’t recall if I had volunteered to do the job, out of sheer boredom, or if my father had insisted on putting his eldest son to work that day. I do know I was pushing the old lawnmower back and forth, aiming to keep straight lines, from one end of the yard to the other. I kept going back and forth, over and over, seemingly caught in a lethargic state. Once in awhile I’d mix it up by following a square pattern, instead of the boring straight lines, to avoid falling asleep while manning the heavy piece of machinery. There was a time in my young adult life when I actually enjoyed performing the tedious task. I don’t think this was that time.
I remember in the past pleading with my parents, on more than one occasion, in hopes of coercing them into allowing me the privilege of experiencing the customary chore that every adolescent boy dreams about. A few of the younger fellas in the neighborhood had already encountered the time-honored task and were even getting paid for it, so I confronted my father with that arsenal of information. It did not matter to him how the other fathers were raising their boys because under his regime I was still too young to mow, and he thought it was utter nonsense to pay your own family for helping out around the house. As an adult I can understand and respect that sentiment, but as a teenager desiring some cold hard cash I just figured he was being a cheapskate.
I continued pushing the shabby but capable lawnmower, while dreading the approaching embankment that assuredly gave even my father fits from time to time, and flinching every time I ran over a rock, twig, or numerous other items hidden in the tall grass. (Oh that’s right, I was suppose to inspect the yard for such things before starting the engine.) My little brother had been entertaining himself, the entire time I was mowing, by riding his bicycle in circles out in the street in front of our house. Suddenly, he pulled up along side of me and nonchalantly said, “I think our garage is on fire.” My brother then peeled out back to the street and continued riding in circles, but this time he added a few figure eights to his repertoire. I wish I could say I immediately took some action at that point but I didn’t. I’m not sure if I thought my brother was joking or if the startling information I had just received only added bewilderment to my current lackadaisical state.
Only when my brother almost immediately returned and made the same declaration did I suspect there must be at least some validity to his disturbing claim. I turned off the mower and dashed over to the garden hose, already hooked up to the spigot, located at the front corner of our house. I decided to take a quick peek around the house before turning the water on to see what exactly I would be dealing with. My eyes widened and my jaw surely dropped when I saw one whole side of the garage engulfed in flames. I dropped the useless “weapon” after realizing the dire situation at hand would be comparable to me bringing a knife to a gunfight. I was wise enough to know (even as a youngster) that I was no firefighter. I was barely old enough to mow for heaven’s sake.
A few neighbors had witnessed what was happening and called the fire department, so I could already hear the distant sirens from the fire trucks coming to the rescue. Fortunately, nobody was inside of our nearby house at the time, but I remembered our two dogs, Ginger and Lucky, were helplessly corralled in our fenced in backyard. I rushed to the wooden fence and hollered at the family pets to come away from the spreading fire. For once in their lives they eagerly minded me as they trotted over to the opposite side of the yard where I was nervously waiting. I hopped over the four foot fence, and I must admit I felt a bit heroic as I lifted each dog up and over the barrier to safety. A substantial crowd had now congregated, out in the street in front of our house, to catch a glimpse of the burning inferno. The onlookers were a mixture of concerned neighbors and ambulance chasers. My brother and I joined them. We didn’t know what else to do.
While surveying the situation and standing in awe of the roaring fire, that was consuming the two car garage and its contents, I spotted my parents up the street. About a half an hour earlier they had walked to our local elementary school to vote. My father’s curiosity, of the emerging commotion, undoubtedly was getting the best of him because I noticed his strides were getting longer and longer as he got closer and closer to the alarming spectacle. Eventually my father was in an all-out sprint, leaving my mother behind, after realizing the magnitude of the unwelcomed occurrence and where it was taking place. He instinctively sprung into action by grabbing the garden hose (I had deemed useless) and began spraying down our neighbors garage, only inches away from the blaze, so their property would not be damaged.
The fire department finally arrived and swiftly doused the flames before the garage fire could spread any further. Thankfully, there were no injuries and our home was spared, but the garage and practically everything in it was considered a total loss. The brown-paneled Ford station wagon, our family of six would cram into on the weekends to watch a double feature at the drive-in movie theater, was lost. The green Honda motorcycle, my father thoroughly enjoyed giving all of his children rides on (my mother wasn’t a fan), was lost. The Christmas decorations, acquired over many years and stored in the garage’s roof rafters, were destroyed. Every single handmade ornament crafted (with love) either at church or at school, for my parents by all four of their children, was reduced to ashes.
My little brother and I were almost reduced to tears, a day or so after the fire, when the town’s Fire Chief summoned us for questioning. He was investigating the cause of the fire and for some reason assumed we knew something. The intimidating man probably interrogated us for only ten minutes although it seemed more like ten hours. The Fire Chief kept insinuating my brother and I had to know something about how the fire started. He strongly suggested we were either setting off fireworks or experimenting with cigarettes before the fire erupted. The Chief then artificially tried befriending the two of us, after failing at his attempt of getting a confession, by saying there was no shame, and he would understand if we had lit some fireworks or had engaged in underage smoking. Neither my brother nor I gave in to the Fire Chief’s persistent hounding because we had the truth on our side.
The cause of the 1981 garage fire remains a mystery to this day. I did not know at the time of the fire that a beautiful girl, new to town, was amongst the spectators gathered in front of my house. Who could have known another fire would ignite, less than two years later, after I formally met and then began dating the “new girl.” It’s still somewhat surreal, after all these years, knowing that one of those ambulance chasers eventually became my lovely wife.