The House Fire
by David Robert Crews
Working at the Lodge was my vocation, riding around the vast, wild and wonderful Maine countryside while having a really good time with the local Mainer teenagers and being a country girl’s delight was my avocation.
This short story below is the very first one that I wrote, back in around 1999, when I began to finally write out my Northern Maine adventures—I have wanted to do so ever since back when I was living them.
I sent copies of this story, and all of my other stories about my times in Maine, to Fin and Marty. Unfortunately, they refused to acknowledge my writings; just as they always refused to acknowledge that I am the person who is in these stories and who can write it all out.
This first story here is a nice little wholesome tale about a young man from an East Coast American suburb having a very exciting time getting to know the local Mainers way up in the deep, wide woods of Northern Maine. I just fit right in up there. I hope that you enjoy this.
During the summer of 1968, just after I had graduated from high school in Dundalk, Maryland, I was on a two-week vacation up to my Uncle Finley’s hunting lodge, Katahdin Lodge and Camps, in Patten, Maine, when I was called upon to help at a house fire. That was during the summer when I turned eighteen years old. The day of the house fire, I discovered some fairly good and useful things about myself that neither I nor anyone who knew me had known are such a substantial part of me.
One afternoon, about a week and a half into my two week vacation at the Lodge, Gary Glidden, who was working for my Uncle Finley as a hunting guide, was driving one of the Lodge’s pickup trucks out the Lodge's driveway with me in the passenger seat when Finley came running out from the main building of the Lodge and frantically waving his arms and hands up over his head while yelling, "There's a house on fire up the North Road!"
It was obvious that someone had telephoned to the Lodge for help.
Gary had originally been going to turn right, south, out of the driveway, but in response to the emergency call he made a quick left, and we took off lickety-split flying along at high speed heading north bound up the North Road.
That road, which is Rural Route 11, meanders up and down the low hills that run along the eastern side of the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains. The first six miles of the road had houses scattered on either side of it at about one or two houses per mile. Then there were thirty-five miles, on the odometer, of deep woods on both sides of it until the road reaches the tiny town of Masardis, Maine. So, when my uncle yelled to Gary and I that the house on fire was "up the North Road," that was all the information that we needed to head to the rescue.
A little old widowed grandmother owned the house that was on fire. Granny’s house was a large sized, two-story country cottage, white with pretty yellow trim, well maintained, old and made of solid wood. She had raised her family on that property there. Built next to the cottage, but about thirty feet away, was a wooden shed, and then about fifty feet away from the large cottage was a smaller, extra, rectangular shaped wooden house. The shed and smaller house were all painted up nice and neatly the same as the large house was. The yard was well kept, with lots of healthy bushes and pretty flowers planted all around the place. On the three sides of the home that weren’t road front property there was a great, deep, wide, tall treed forest. Across the road from there the forest was much deeper—as much as eighty to a hundred miles deep, till it reached into Quebec, Canada.
On several previous rides up that way earlier during that week, while out bear baiting with Gary, I had taken full notice of Granny’s two houses sitting there alongside the only north-south tar road in that part of the Maine woods. Granny’s place was about twelve miles away from the nearest tiny town—Smyrna Mills, Maine, which was over to the east of Granny’s. I had taken full notice of the place because Granny had her cute little teenage granddaughter staying there for the summer. The girl was there during her high school vacation time, and she had attracted my attention in a similar way as to how a hungry bear strollin’ through the woods detects wild berries ripening on the bush—the most delicious looking ones just seem to pop right out at ya’ from the lush green background and catch yer’ eye. Each of those several times that I had seen the granddaughter and her granny they were out there working together in the yard, prettying up the place even more. And I clearly saw that they were always smiling warmly to each other and were obviously very happy and contented to be in each other’s company.
Due to the fact that I was about the same age as the attractive teenage granddaughter I had an immediate crush on her.
The granddaughter wore her hair in little pigtails. In 1968, that hairstyle was a sure-fired mark of immature teenage-uncool-ness down in around the Baltimore City suburbs where I was from.
At the time, it was not a popular hairdo at all for the in style teen girls in my neighborhood. But even though that hairstyle was uncool for 1968 era citified high school aged girls, them pigtails made that granddaughter look really good and country girl cute to me.
I said something to Gary about how attractive that girl looked. But Gary told me that the girl never socialized with any of the other teens around there at all, she showed no interest in boys yet, she was perfectly contented to spend all of her time with her beloved grandmother, so I’d best forget about wanting to spend any time in the close company of that sweet little cutie.
During the week before that, Gary had introduced me into the wholesome, healthy, fun and adventurous social life of the teenagers who lived in and around the Town Of Patten. Read my story “The Day I Fell In Love With Patten, Maine”, and you’ll see how that all began. So I knew that the advice he had given me about not bothering with the granddaughter there was the spawn of honest and sincere wisdom from a mature, worldly wise, twenty-eight year old lifelong local Mainer, and newly found friend.
When Gary and I flew onto the scene of the house fire, smoke and flames were eating up that nice old house at a rapid pace. There were already eight or ten people there helping out, which seemed strange because there usually isn't enough traffic on Rt. 11 to draw such a crowd so quickly. In that part of the country no local person would pass by without stopping to help.
Pete Gerow, the only neighbor who lived within easy sight of the fire, had been first to the rescue. Pete had tried valiantly, with a garden hose, to stop the fire at its source in the chimney, but there were many years worth of extremely flammable creosote caked up inside of that chimney and it was burning far too intensely for some measly little bit of water squirting from a garden hose to have any extinguishing effect on.
Granny was an intelligent and wise old country woman who must have known better than to let too much creosote build up like that, but she probably had a very low income and bank account to live on and may have been putting off paying someone to come clean out her chimney. Or maybe she had done that job herself most of her adult life, but then in her old age it had slipped from her mind to attend to that most necessary task.
Pete Gerow and the passersby had grabbed all of the small furnishings that they could save from burning and had carried those things out into the dooryard (Mainer lingo for front yard). As Gary and I jumped from the truck to run over and on into the house to help them, the last savable piece of furniture was being carried out of the burning house by one of the passersby who was stumbling out through a side door there being mercilessly choked and chased by deadly-dangerous, thick black smoke and by just as deadly, aggressive, ravenous, large, terrifying, blue edged, tongues of orange tinged flames. The women and men there on the scene turned towards Gary and I, quickly told us that it was now too dangerous to go back in there, then they moved away from the fire, in our direction, to get safely away from the intensifying heat and danger.
The closest fire station was seventeen miles south in downtown Patten, a little town of less than 2,000 residents. The fire alarm had been called in, but by the time that the firemen could have gathered up the two or three available volunteers and gotten to the scene of the fire, it would have been too late for them to help. So we were on our own.
The fire was raging and Granny was about out of her mind from traumatic anxiety. She kept trying to charge back into the fire after her cats. At least a half a dozen of us there on the scene had to form a shoulder-to-shoulder human wall to be able to gently restrain the unfortunate old widow from running in there after her cats. "My babies, my babies," she muttered, all the while attempting to get around us.
Granny was nearly bonkers now; her nerves were frying fast. She was going into shock, so someone said to take her into the extra house. In that smaller house there she would be out of site of the ravenous fire, which was eating up her cherished home, and most likely she’d be easier to calm down in there. At that point, I believed that we all feared that Granny would go completely out of her mind permanently or die from the stress of the overpowering awfulness of it all.
Two middle-aged women rescuers along with Gary and I took firm, gentile hold of unfortunate old Granny’s scrawny little arms and sparse shoulders then led her into the small, extra house. All that I ever perceived about the inside of that structure was that it seemed to be one large room, was clean and tidy, and that there was a bed in it that we steered Granny to. My entire mental focus had become locked onto the deeply distressed Granny, whom I feared was possibly about to die from the shock that was brought on by her traumatic anxiety.
We sat our little wide-eyed bundle of sizzling nerves on the bed, but she kept popping back up and attempting to go after her "babies". Granny’s granddaughter came in and said that all of the cats were accounted for, but that didn't calm poor ol’ Granny down a bit.
The teenage granddaughter went right back out so as not to be rude to her and Granny’s unexpected ‘guests’ out there. The folks out there now included my father, my mother, a couple of paying sportsmen bear hunters from the Lodge, my uncle and other local Mainers who had arrived in response to phone calls that they had received informing them of the fire. My father and another man or two were taking turns in the intense heat near the house fire squirting hot spots on the shed and extra house with the garden hose in order to make sure that the fire didn’t spread onto those structures.
Everyone there felt sad inside as they watched the fire consume someone else’s house, while all that they could possibly do was to wish that they could do more to help.
Gary and the two older women and I acted as a psychological tag team trying to communicate to Granny that everything was going to be all right, but she couldn't respond to us. The emotional shock from her ongoing trauma had her dazed and confused.
I don’t know why, but I seemed to have begun to receive small responses from Granny. Maybe I was trying harder than the other three. I had never experienced such a traumatic event before, and the three other people there, who definitely were much more mature then I was at the time, had most likely lived through their own traumas of similar magnitude. Quite likely, they had felt that Granny was probably capable of surviving this trauma. Maybe it didn’t seem to be as intense a situation to them as it was to me—I believed that the old gal was about to either completely loose her mind and/or her life.
The two middle-aged women got fed up with not being able to get any responses out of Granny, so they sidled on out the door. Although Gary was a twenty-eight year old, intelligent, mature, young woodsman, it became obvious that I was the only one beginning to get through to Granny.
Then Gary walked outside.
Me being only eighteen years old at the time, I was quite surprised by all this.
I glanced around and saw that there was no one else to help me with this situation, so I zeroed in on Granny with every bit of my maturing “people skills” that I could muster.
Granny sat on the side of the bed with her feet placed flatly, but sort of weightlessly, on the floor; her sparse little old shoulders drooped downwards under the heavy mass of her anxiety; her dwindling, aged arms dangled limply at her sides; and her mouth and old yellowed eyes involuntarily gaped open wide. Eyes that were nearly worn out from decades of watching her family survive, live well and grow in such a secluded location that was in a harsher than average natural environment, which is only suited to be home for the heartiest of individuals.
Granny appeared to come out of her shock a little bit and then she commenced to quietly moanin' n' groanin’ about losing her house. What else could a body do at a time like that?
I was standing over her, continuing to console her, when all of the sudden she bolted upright into a partially standing position, then wumpf! She had flopped backward onto the bed with her scrawny old arms outstretched and those well-worn, old woman eyes staring straight upwards in a fixed position—wide, yellowish-white eyeballs with dark pupils that were contracted down to the about the size of sharp pinpoints. Piercing pinpoints that made it look as if the light of life was quickly, mercilessly, painfully being squeezed out of the poor old gal. Her eyelids did not flutter a bit.
For a short eternity, I stood there somewhat shakin’ and shuddering at the sight of the old woman's apparent demise. I was sort of hovering over her, with my arms involuntarily sticking out at about forty-five degree angles from my body and my hands fluttering ever so slightly. I was floating up off of my heels as if I was about to sprout wings, liftoff and fly up to the ceiling.
Looking down on her I thought, "Oh my God! I just watched someone die!"
Then she came out of her intense shock, and to my surprise she sprang back upright again into a sitting position—with perfect, straight-backed, true lady-like posture. I settled back down on my heels and let out a solid sigh of relief, for my breathing had stopped temporarily during those ten or fifteen seconds when it had appeared to me that Granny's breathing was all over and done.
Granny was solidly back here with us in the land of the living now. She began to shake it all off and come to herself once more. Right on time, the cute, young granddaughter came in with a wonderful little smile on her face. Granny responded to her right away with the deep, affectionate love that they clearly felt for each other.
That was my cue to leave.
You may now be wondering if this story is going to end with me getting to spend time in the close company of that sweet, young, attractive teenage granddaughter. I certainly had made some kind of a good introduction of myself to her, and her grandmother who would have had to have approved of me visiting her granddaughter, but the idea of dating the girl never crossed my mind again.
In retrospect, I seriously doubt that Granny would have recognized me if we had crossed paths again in someplace like Putt Gerow’s, Pete’s dad’s, tiny little country store at Knowles Corner just down the road a short ways from Granny’s house.
I sure enough could have stopped by Granny’s house latter and reintroduced myself, while on one of my drives around the beautiful Maine countryside that I enjoyed taking in my father’s car. But, it was all too soul satisfying for me to go mess it up by having to be told by Gary or my aunt and uncle or my parents or Granny herself to quit bothering that girl and her grandma. If the girl simply wasn’t ready for dating yet, then why ask? Those two gals were quite contented to be living somewhat secluded up there in the woods together for the summer. And Granny was OK with living there by herself most of the time.
The events surrounding the house fire were far and above way too intensely and deeply gratifying for me to want to spoil it all by going after a girl who was not yet ready to be with any guy. It was very gratifying to be able to help them, and also to learn that I could help out in such a tragic, traumatic situation.
I could not have told you at the time, but the events of that day at the house fire had raised me to a slightly higher, solid based, level of maturity and feeling of self worth. Those good feelings were what I needed at the time, not the grateful, polite attentions of a shy, slowly maturing girl who wanted to only be with her grandma for a while.
Another thing is, Gary was my newly found good friend, and I was mature and intelligent enough to accept his original advice to allow that girl to be her happy, contented self and leave her be.
But don’t worry about, or scoff at, me. I had some real good times with a few of the local Maine country girls during those two weeks that summer.
Later on during the evening of the day of the fire, after Granny’s cherished house had burned to the ground, and everyone from the Lodge was back at the Lodge eating supper, my Uncle Finley jovially informed us all that there were two houses built there at Granny’s place because a decade or two before that summer Granny’s husband had divorced her and he had then built the smaller house for Granny to live in and he had married a second woman and had moved her into the larger house to live with him. In 1968 though, the only one left living there was Granny.
I have no idea how that all was worked out amongst themselves or how old their children were at the time, but it seemed to have worked just fine. That sure as hell does leave a person with a few interpersonal relationship aspects of the situation to speculate upon. Not just the multi-sexual partner possibilities, but did the husband have two completely compliant women there at his “beck and call” when it came to cooking scrumptious, hearty homemade meals and all that other good country woman wifely stuff too. Yeah! Maybe one was good with cooking up the best meats and potatoes and vegetables, and the other baked big batches of the best homemade-from-scratch desserts and breads. Or did the two women tell that man in no uncertain terms that the divorce decree was final and that the new marriage vowels were set in stone?
Two days after the house fire, Gary and I drove by the fire scene. The house was reduced to a pile of light, whitish ashes, which lay in its still intact fieldstone cellar walls.
But there were Grandmother and Granddaughter placing brightly blooming potted flowers all around those cellar walls and smiling from that powerful love they shared.
Gary's and my faces lit right up.
One of us said, "Look at that!"
The other said, "Isn't that beautiful."
If you also read or have read my other stories about Maine, you will see that when I went to work for my Uncle Finley and Aunt Martha, a few months after this first story took place, that they had decided that I was to work for them for nearly nothing for the bulk of my adult life and be their much abused quasi-slave; or, as far as they were concerned, I was to go straight to Hell.
That unnecessary bullcrap of theirs has caused my family and me a lot of problems. Most of what happened concerning these facts is all written out in my stories. Fortunately, there’s a lot of wild fun and good times in my stories too. Plus, you will learn some of what I learned about all kinds of things back then.
Between November 1968, when I began working at Katahdin Lodge, and November 1969, when I entered the U.S. Army, I learned more while working at the Lodge and living amongst the local Mainers then I ever could have learned in four years of college.
david robert crews