Tag Archives: house fires

Fighting Fire with Anger

Several of my friends are high flyers in professions that put them in the paths of stressed-out people. Human and animal doctors come to mind, among others.

Recently a friend (call her Suze) was lamenting that one of her favorite patients “no longer trusted her” because Suze  had delivered hard news that some pundit on the Internet swore could be overcome with homeopathy and divine intervention, not expensive medicines. When the patient died anyway, after a not-insignificant bill and a lot of tears on the part of my friend, the patient’s husband let fly with some fairly unfiltered accusations.

Listening to Suze describe how it felt to lose a patient AND get blamed for it, my mind went back to a conversation I’d held more than ten years ago. I’d been househunting, and a really lovely home was going for cheap after a fire. Both the realtor and the former owner had said with some bitterness that most of the damage was due to “water and fireman” rather than actual flames. I said as much in casual conversation not long after, and the group with which I was conversing shifted uneasily. Two of them were volunteer firefighters.

They told us what it was like to fight fires; you choose to enter a space where you know living beings are dying, and try not to join them while getting them out. You are angry, and you are afraid, and there is enough adrenaline coursing through your veins to literally kill you if it distracts from discerning every nuance of what’s happening all around you.

Intense concentration coupled with high emotion: that anger has to go somewhere. “Joe,” the younger of the firemen, described smashing a window with his axe “only because I was so mad. It has to go someplace, and you’re in what looks like Hell and you know somebody’s in there and you can’t find them. Hell, yeah, smashed windows is the least of it.”

And afterward, when the homeowner has their dog back, or not, and they survey the wreck of what their family nest became, the firefighters find a familiar pattern. “At first it’s ‘thank you thank you’ and then it’s ‘what the bleep did you do to my house?’ Just like us, their anger has to go somewhere. We know that. They yell at us because they’re scared and angry. It’s not personal. We know something about how that feels.”

It is difficult to be the person in a profession that fights literal, medical, administrative, or even social justice fires on a regular basis. It is also difficult to be the victim/person who needs that done. Cutting each other a little slack is a good idea. Suze will deal with survivor anger. Joe will continue to whack a window now and again. The people who counted on them to return their lives to normal will figure out that all the humans were on the same side, fighting a destructive force that has no feelings or plans; neither cancer nor fires are sentient beings capable of personal vendettas.

And perhaps we will try to be nicer to each other. By the way, check your smoke alarm batteries, and get screened whenever possible. Thanks.Fire


Filed under animal rescue, blue funks, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

A Little Help from our Friends

gutted buildingEvery year in September Jack and I trot happily off to emcee the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival in Tennessee. This year the chaos of getting away from a busy time at the shop and in my new book prep had us flying out the door Friday at 5 pm, shouting “and don’t forget to give Bert his pill” to Thom, the poor lad we’d sucked in at 10 that morning to shopsit the rest of the day. Since we’d be back Sunday and the animals have feeders and water jugs, and the yard is fenced, we weren’t worried. We got to our luxury hotel, bounced on the king sized sleigh bed a few times, and went out to grab an Indian meal.burning 2

When we awoke next morning to Facebook postings from home about the building downtown that had burned, you can imagine the luxuriated, lazy blood in my veins turning to jelly.

The building was a block away; no one was in it; all is as well as it can be. But I panicked, thinking about our three staff cats (one of whom resides by choice outside) two staff dogs (Bert the Terrier is terrified of loud noises) and three foster cats, sojourning with us until their forever families find them. Would Bert have dug under the fence to get away from an event so reminiscent of the dreaded thunderstorm? Would Beulah (outside greeter) be run over in the chaos of downtown fire traffic? Ernest Hemingway, our newest foster, landed with us Friday morning. He’d never even spent a night in our house; we took him straight from the shelter to have his balls cut off, thence home to abandon him for two days, and the firetrucks came. burning 1

(“Call this a rescue?” I could hear Ernie thinking. “Take me back to the shelter! I’ll take my chances!”)

So I did what any modern American woman panicking does: got on Facebook and begged our Saturday shopsitters Wes and Rachael to let me know as soon as they got there if everything was okay. And here’s what happened


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Scotland, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

After the Fire, the Judgment

Watching the NYC devastation, we tremble at what people lost. At least 20 lost their lives. Some must have lost pets. Many lost homes, perhaps as many as 100.

And then there’s the books.

Like the controversy over the marathon–to run or not to run, to devote resources or divert them–priorities get freely judged after a disaster. What you want, and why you want it, is up for grabs and questioning by everyone around you. You want to run a marathon? Are you nuts, or just selfish?

But for the people who got their families (skin and fur) out safely, it’s heartbreaking to think about what they’re thinking about, even if they won’t say so out loud for fear of judgment. From working here at the bookstore, as well as past work with the Red Cross, I’d say they’re thinking about the place on the stairs where they hung the mistletoe. They’re thinking about their baseball card collection. And they’re thinking about their books.

One of the first things people tend to replace after a house fire–once they’re safe and have a roof and food–is a beloved childhood book. We’ve given to fire victims over the years  copies of The Tao of Pooh, Danny and the Dinosaur, Heidi, a couple of Louis L’Amours and countless coloring books. (We have a policy that each such person gets one free book. Then about two years ago someone donated 200 coloring books, each with one or two pages used, so we started handing them out by the armload to parents of fire families; there’s not much for kids to do in motel rooms and the Red Cross couldn’t take them because they were used.)

Fairly often people get embarrassed when they start talking about their material losses. They sigh over signed baseballs, the high school portrait of their mom, a crystal punch bowl; everyone’s got a trigger. Then they give a strangled laugh and say, “It’s just stuff. It doesn’t matter.”

In the grand scheme, everyone knows that. But the objects of our affection are surprisingly deeply embedded–and usually carry more weight than just their size. You remember a book as much for how it made you feel, where you sat when you first read it, what was happening to you at that time, as for what it said. You can replace the words, you can recreate the memories, but you can’t reinvent that your grandmother’s hands held that Fanny Farmer cookbook, and this one is a copy.

Which sucks.

Evaluating layers of loss, seeking to restore, a need for normalcy and legacy–isn’t that all part of being human? As is trying to outrun our need to have them in the first place.

But had it gone on, would those marathoners have been able to outrun themselves?


Filed under Uncategorized

Holding her Grandmother’s Book

Yesterday before picking up my friend Cami from the airport I recorded a radio program for “Inside Appalachia.”

During the interview, the strange relationship between bookstores and fires came up. Most rural bookstores owners will be familiar with this phenomenon: one of the first things people replace after a house fire, once they have the basics covered, is their beloved childhood books. It was a shock, the first time a man who looked stronger than the mountains surrounding us got red about the eyes as we handed him a replacement copy of Beautiful Joe. “Had it since I was eight,” he said. “Stole it from the school library ’cause I liked it so much.”

Wayne, the radio host, laughed at this story, then nodded. “You know, the other day my daughter was looking through our bookcase, and she pulled out some books of my mom’s, things she sent us before she died, that she’d had since she was a little girl. And my daughter was just idly leafing through one of them, and I got a catch in my throat. There was something so wonderful, seeing that, her grandmother leaving this trail. They’re just objects, but objects that contain thoughts that inspired my mom all her life. And it never would have occurred to me to be that sentimental about them, but yeah, I wouldn’t have missed that moment for the world.”


(If you want to hear the “Inside Appalachia” interview, it airs the week of Sept. 28; check your local station, or visit the WETS website for live streaming on the day. Don’t forget caption contest VI is under August 29 if you want to enter, and Big Stone Celtic Festival is Sept. 22; come one, come all!)


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book repair, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, small town USA