~chapter nine~ ~children & dark angels~ ~part five~ ~trial by fire~

WordWulf By WordWulf, 23rd May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Domestic Violence & Abuse

~life is full of possibilities~success measured by survival~a future depending on lessons learned such as~fire tempers the spirit~ice applies a cold edge to it~fear may be the only damned thing you have left~that bit thing that means you’re alive~catastrophe can make heroes out of assholes~falling answers weird dream questions about toilet training~while spawning nightmares of its own~time washes away all sin so we sinners can do it again and again~amen~

~what fire (interview)~

~(Q) ~what role did you play in the event?~
~(A) I was an observer.~
~(Q) ~but you were involved in the event.~
~(A) ~yes.~
~(Q) ~what did you observe?~
~(A) ~I saw me.~
~(Q) ~how can you see yourself?~
~(A) ~how can you see anything else?~
~(Q) ~don’t answer my questions with questions!~
~(A) ~what?~
~(Q) ~that! Don’t do that!~
~(A) ~okay... so~
~(Q) ~so, if you’re watching yourself, then you can’t be you. So, who are you?~
~(A) ~I’m the one who watches me.~
~(Q) ~okay, fine. Did you ever see you start any fires?~
~(A) ~no, I ate fire but that was much later. Yeah, I never like set things on fire. No.~
~(Q) ~do you know anyone who did?~
~(A) ~my brother did.~
~(Q) ~why?
~(A) ~he was taught at a very young age by firemen to set fire to buildings and cars,
all sorts of things.~
~(Q) ~firemen taught him this?~
~(A) ~yeah, it was kind of a deed-reward trip. He set one off when he was five-years-old.
It was getting out of control, so he smashed one of those fire alarm boxes &
watched the trucks & men come to put the fire out.~
~(Q) ~wasn’t he afraid?~
~(A) ~of what?~
(Q) ~that the firemen would figure out he set the fire?~
~(A) ~naw... he was fascinated by the sirens & the hoses, all the noise & attention his
fires got. He liked to watch his little fires. He never thought of the next step until
he had one get out of hand.~
~(Q) ~are you telling me he continued to set fires?~
~(A) ~well, sure, after he got paid for that one.~
~(Q) ~wait a minute; who paid him?~
~(A) ~this big shot fire chief guy. He sees this little scrawny five-year-old freckled face
staring up at him from the curb. He says, “Hey kid, you know anything about this
here fire? My brother says, “Yes Sir, I smashed that alarm box with a rock to report
it.” Well, the guy gave him a silver dollar and a ride home in the fire-truck.~
~(Q) ~what did your parents have to say about that?~
~(A) ~Mom was working & Dad was at the bar. I was at home with our younger brother
and sister. I was oldest, six-years-old at the time, so I was babysitting them. It was
neat to have a hero for a brother & a dollar bought a lot of penny candy in 1956. First
time we had a whole dollar to ourselves. Our dad would have taken it from us if he
knew we had it.~
~(Q) ~so, you didn’t report any of this to your parents?~
~(A) Well, no, we didn’t.~
~(Q) ~why not?~
~(A) ~I told you; our dad would have taken the money from us &..~
~(Q) ~& what?~
~(A) ~what?~
~(Q) ~I think you know, there’s something else.~
~(A) ~there’s always something else, man.~
~(Q) ~was your brother still setting fires in the sixties?~
~(A) ~I don’t know; let me think. Are you saying my brother burned us down?
I’ll have to ask him about that.~
~(Q) ~is there anything else you’d like to share with me?~
~(A) ~there’s not a damned thing I would like to share with you!~
~(Q) ~do you know who started the fire?~
~(A) ~what fire?~

~trial by fire~

February tenth, Nineteen Sixty-One, the day of Itsy’s death, began just as explained in the previous post. After a while, Daddy was passed out across the bed. Momma and us kids were in the kitchen trying to keep quiet, not that a bomb exploding would have awakened him. You never knew with Daddy and we weren’t taking any chances.

It was cemetery quiet until the door to our unit crashed inward with such force that the chair under the knob broke in half and landed against the wall opposite. Thurmon had returned. He stood in the doorway like a ghost thing. His skin was gray and black except for its eye and mouth holes.

“We is on fire,” he said. “I come...” He fell forward and lay still as death on the floor. A wicked billowing of smoke belched from the hallway into the room in his aftermath. Momma moved his feet aside and I closed the door to protect us from the dark cloud.

When I was in Montana in the third grade, I met my first girlfriend, Jackie. We had both aced our spelling tests. The school we attended stood three stories tall and had an interior fire escape that was constructed of fifty five gallon drums welded together in a wide spiral. Those students who got a hundred percent on their Friday spelling tests (my girl Jackie and me included) were rewarded by being allowed to go up to the third floor and slide down and around, through the metal tube. The ride was over when we were spit into the school yard and free to go home or stand on the corner, a length of precious golden chain between us. While awaiting our turn, teachers kept us busy by lecturing on fire safety, what to do and not to do. Now I had a chance to test their wisdom.

The first thing I did was splash a pan of cold water in Thurmon’s face. He jumped up from the floor and ran into the kitchen. Without so much as a word, he opened the kitchen window, climbed out onto its sill, and leapt into the void. I peered down and saw him spread out on the ground where he landed. Good. There were many people in the yard, frantic, shouting, and milling about. They went rushing to Thurman’s aid.

My sisters were crying and Phillip’s eyes were so big, I thought they might just pop out of his head. Momma was shaking Daddy, urging him to get up, yelling in his face that the building was on fire. He replied to her pleas by cursing and swatting her away. I plugged the sink with a rag and turned the hot and cold water on full blast.

“Jackie, get me towels, blankets, clothes, anything!” I barked. Jackie brought me blankets and towels and I piled them in the sink under the running water. “Here, you guys,” I said to my siblings, “Take these wet rags and hold them over your mouths. Try to breathe through them. If your eyes are hurting, wipe them out with the rags.”

The door opened with a whoosh! Smoke filled the room again before Momma managed to get up from the bed and slam it shut. She stood with her back braced against it and cried at the top of her lungs, “Tom, for God’s sake, wake up and help me!”

Daddy tumbled from the bed, blinking his eyes. He held his hands up in a defensive posture. “What the hell?!?” There were flames licking up from the floor of the closet. Daddy got up and pulled the bed over to block the door. He shoved Momma into the kitchen. He saw what I had done with the rags and the water pouring from the sink. All seven of us children were bunched up in a corner by the refrigerator. I was weeping and holding the baby, forcing everyone to hold the wet rags to their faces.

“Good, Tommy, good!” Daddy said. “Hold on son, I’ll get us out of here!”

Momma had gone to the window and Daddy joined her there. He yelled to the crowd of people gathered below to go and get the ladders from his truck.

“We already did!” a man yelled back. “They’re using them on the other side of the building. Hang in there! The fire department is on the way! They’re bringing a ladder truck!”

Smoke fingers were crawling up from the bottom of the walls, eerie hands reaching accompanied by the sound of timbers screeching. “We gotta get out o’ here before the floor caves in,” Daddy said to Momma. “I’ll carry Lily, she’s the heaviest.” He touched Momma’s arm. “You get Linda.” He knelt down in front of Jackie and me. “Okay, guys, we gotta work together. Tommy, you carry Cheryl. Jackie, you get the baby.” He reached out and drew Phillip toward him. “Phillip, you get in between me and your Momma. Listen to me, everyone; here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll go out the door first, then Phillip in between me and Momma. Jackie, you’re next and Tommy, you’re last. You guys hold on tight to those little ones! We’ll each grab hold of the one in front of us and we’ll go real slow. Do you understand? We can do this, I know we can. Don’t let go, no matter what happens. We have to try to get to the other side where the ladders are or down the stairs. I want everybody to holler real loud and stay in one spot if we get separated. We can do this but we have to stick together. Okay, let’s go!”

Our fear was a palpable thing. All of us were chewing on the filthy wet rags as if they were a conduit to life itself. Each of us gripped the clothing of the one ahead of them and held on for dear life. Daddy moved the bed and the door creaked open by itself. Smoke poured in and the Sterner ants poured out. We passed the community toilet in the hallway and, just as we did, the commode fell through the floor. A great gush of heat gasped from the hole where it had been. Daddy was yelling for everyone to hold on but the roar of the inferno was swallowing his voice.
It felt like forever but we finally reached the door to the stairs and the hallway that would take us to the other side of the tenement. Daddy did a head count with his hand. The smoke was so thick, I could barely see Cheryl who was clinging tightly to my body.

“I’m gonna try to open that door!” Daddy yelled in my face, “You and your Momma have to hold everyone back against the wall!” Daddy wrapped a wet rag around his hand and opened the door to the junction between hall and stair. The door was blown off of its hinges and into his body. “Back! Back!” he yelled as he fought to block the blazing door with one arm, the other wrapped protectively around Lily.

Mercy was the door that would not latch or lock. I turned our little human train around and led the way back to the door’s wide open hole of light. Daddy let loose of the stair door and intense heat licked us in the tail. It is a miracle that we made it back to the apartment, each and every last one of us. I ran into the kitchen and threw soaked blankets from the sink to the floor. All the cockroaches in the world had risen to the top and were inches thick on the floor. Smoke filled the apartment and drew through the kitchen window like a chimney. Daddy took a chair from the kitchen and braced it under the door knob in the bedroom. I wept openly as I pushed my brothers’ and sisters’ faces into the soaked and teeming mass of bugs and cloth on the smoking linoleum.

The floor of the bedroom died with a screeching moan and the crooked bed slid into the hungry mouth of oblivion, into the black smoking hole of the closet. Down, down, forever down. “Stay there!” Daddy screamed as Lily and Linda fought to rise and escape the frenzied dance of the cockroaches. “Come here, Carroll and Tommy!”
Momma was holding the baby, a dishrag pushed into his tiny mouth, as I followed her to where Daddy was standing by the window. The hallway door creaked and formed a letter C as it was forced to embrace the chair holding it pinned in its middle. Smoke rolled in from every gap around it. “We have to get out of here now,” Daddy said. “The fire department is not gonna make it in time to help us.”

A loud whoomph! from the other room and a fresh blast of awful heat served to verify his statement. The building was being devoured by flames from the bottom up. “I’m gonna jump,” Daddy said matter-of-factly to both of us. “I want you to drop everyone out the window to me. Start with the baby and work your way up by size. If I break an arm or a leg, it will be from catching one of you but I will, by God, catch every one of you, I swear.” He pulled Momma close, just inches from his face. He looked into her eyes. “Carroll, I know you’re afraid of heights. We can do this. Promise me you’ll jump when the kids are all out.”

Momma handed the baby to me. She hugged and kissed my father. “We do what we have to do, Tom. I love you, now go!”

This is the image of my parents I will always hold in that deep down place inside me where one keeps such things. Daddy turned from her and climbed into the window opening. He yelled at the people on the ground to clear the deck. He smiled at me and Momma and said, “I’ll see you downstairs!” With that, he let himself down to the bottom of the window, hung from the outside sill and simply let go. I heard the excited screams and cheers of the crowd that had gathered on the ground when Daddy landed. Behind me, the raging beast roared its intent to devour us. Momma and I looked out the window and saw Daddy standing on the ground. He waved his hands frantically for us to begin dropping children out the window.

I had taken charge of Nicholas. I handed him off to Momma. She kissed his tiny scarred face then held his body out the window as far as she could reach and dropped him. Daddy caught Nicholas and the crowd cheered. He handed the baby off to a man standing by then waved his arms again. And so it went, one by one, we dropped those most precious to us into the arms of our fallen angel. Finally it was just Momma and me left in the smoking room. I wanted her to go first because I was afraid she wouldn’t jump if left by herself. I pointed out to her that I was almost eleven years old and weighed more than her already. What if Daddy broke his arms catching me. What then?

“Tommy go!” she ordered softly and kissed my face. It was more difficult for me by far to leave Momma by herself in that burning building than to drop forty feet into the waiting arms of Daddy. In the end I stopped arguing with her and just went. My Daddy was a roofer. He knew how to catch things when they were dropped. I pushed the standby man away when he held his arms out after Daddy caught me. I was a couple of steps from my father’s side, stood witness as Daddy caught the only woman he would ever love. He may have never learned to love her right but he caught her and caught her well.

The Red Cross hustled each of us into a waiting ambulance where we were warmed up and checked out by a doctor. All eight of us, the found, came out without so much as a scratch. Other than Cheryl, who screeched all the way down, not a whisper was heard from any of us as we commended ourselves to Daddy’s arms. That little baby girl never had another ‘potty accident’. She knew for sure that Momma had finally kept her word.

Daddy was taken to the hospital for x-rays. They kept him because his feet were broken in several places. That night Momma and us kids stayed with some nice Red Cross people and got to see ourselves on the television news. The highlight of the show was a lengthy interview with the hero of the day, the man Daddy handed us off to as he caught us one by one. The man just said, like any good citizen, he had done the right thing by his fellow man. He cited faith in God and divine intervention as a testament to not having so much as a stone bruise after eight people were dropped forty feet from hell into his arms.

I opened my mouth to protest and Momma touched a finger to my lips. “Don’t even say it, Tommy. People like us have to claim our small victories. Only we know what they are and the rest of the world be damned.”

The Red Cross arranged for the rental of a three bedroom house for the Sterner family. It was located near 32nd Avenue and Meade Street in North Denver. The deposit and first month’s rent were paid. Other charitable organizations came forward and supplied clothing and food for the victims of the fire. Momma helped me, Jackie, and Phillip make beds on the floor in one of the bedrooms. There were plenty of blankets for once because of the generosity of donors. She set herself up with Lily, Linda, Cheryl, and the baby. The third bedroom, hers and Daddy’s would be empty until he was released from the hospital. The Salvation Army promised to have used furniture delivered later in the week. I wondered wistfully about Joe.

Momma rode the bus to visit Daddy at Denver General Hospital the next day. “He’ll be okay,” she reported to the children when she returned home.

She told me later that Daddy’s broken arches and ankles were the least of his problems. He was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, something she called the D.T.’s. The doctors were running tests and were fairly sure he had Yellow Jaundice. They were worried about his liver and his single kidney. Later that night, after the kids were all asleep, Momma put her arms around me and whispered, “Don’t you worry. Hopefully, this is the wakeup call your Daddy needed to hear. That terrible place we were living in, the fire, all of it has brought us to where we are now. We have food and clothes, a nice warm house, all these wonderful people helping us. You’re ten-years-old, Tommy. Go to bed now; dream the dreams of a boy.”

I joined my brothers. I crawled in between Jackie and Phillip and closed my eyes.

“Psst,” Jackie said. His hand found mine under the covers and pressed four squares of Hershey’s chocolate into my palm. I savored the taste of the candy melting between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I knew I should heed Momma’s advice, be upbeat and hopeful, try to just be a kid, whatever that meant. I touched my forehead and felt the dampness of Momma’s tears. Daddy wasn’t home. The country western radio was playing, Patsy Cline singing, “I go out walkin’ after midnight.” I slipped away into the storm, my wing and a prayer, Momma’s Rain.

Inquiries: wordwulf@gmail.com
©2014 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by & property of
tom (WordWulf) sterner 2014©
~also available at Amazon ~
~chapter one~
~chapter two~
~chapter three~
~chapter four~
~chapter five~
~chapter six~
~chapter seven~
~chapter eight~
~curse of days~


1960, Alcoholism, Art, Colorado, Denver, Family, Fire, Free, Memoirs, Momma, Mommas Rain, Money, Mothers, Parenting, Peril, Philosophy, Photography, Poverty, Religion, Sons, Survival, Tom Wordwulf Sterner, Trial By Fire, Violence, Wikinut, Writer

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author avatar WordWulf
I write novels, poetry, songs,nonsense & lies. Sometimes truth sneaks in when I ain't lookin'.

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author avatar Lady Aiyanna
23rd May 2014 (#)

Been a victim and know the life and honestly, its not a fun game although many think its a Baptism of Fire when what it is is a game of Control, I am stronger and I want it that way.
Truth is children and victim are affected and victims van become the assailant too just for defense. Done it and not frightened to admit it and told the cops too with evidence.

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author avatar snerfu
24th Jul 2014 (#)

Right, done it and admitted it but the beautiful part comes when life begins to smile once more...brings back reflections of my life. Great article.

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