~a column by Colleen O’Brien
Last Saturday, the combined fire departments of the county burned down a Jefferson house. Most firefighters are sworn to prevent and put out fires, but they also must have lessons in how to do this. So, once in a while, they practice on a condemned building, in this instance, an old house in Jefferson at Harrison and Olive, rumored to have once been turned into a hotel, maybe a rooming house.
It was a perfectly square, two-story derelict that was shedding siding, porch railing, shutters and windows. Once, it was handsome, I’m sure, someone’s pride . . . someone with money. Whenever it was built, it took wherewithal of fortune and will. So it was sad to see it decrepit, birds flying in and out the second-story windows, blinds flapping, thin curtains blowing outside their windows.
What kids used to play on that porch, families gather in the big dining room? Was it first a wood stove that the woman of the house baked her pies in? Was it fitted with gas lamps along the upstairs landing? Abandoned houses are as sad as a broken wagon left in the alley. Both were once so important to someone, to many someones over the years.
The conflagration torched off by the fireman was thrillingly violent, the kind of window into possible horror that we human voyeurs gather to watch, hoping that no one will be hurt, but still, watching with an excitement inside us. There was a crowd of us gathering, neighbors and townspeople, walking and biking from all directions, taking pictures, pointing out the wall about to cave, the pillars melting onto the cement. The smoke roiled black at first, from the tar on the roof someone said. The firemen kept their wall of fire on all four sides, forcing the flames to turn inward, making the walls fall in rather than out. It was a completely controlled burn, which made the compelling destruction okay to watch without guilt.
Someone said, “Just look at that, how awful it is, how hot, how fast. We can’t imagine what 9-11 was like.”
This was a sobering pronouncement, even as the house disappeared before us into smoldering rubble and we began to drift away. The raccoons had escaped early, although one of them not early enough; he was singed, a victim of his own house squatting, wobbling away however as quickly as his unharmed cohorts, three critters escaping in three directions to take up housekeeping in somebody else’s empty house.
Years ago a house in my neighborhood was condemned and draglined to death rather than burned. That event, too, brought out the lookey-lous in our lawn chairs to watch hundreds of bats fly out of the attic at the final swipe of the big claw. That too was awesome and awful, another antique house biting the dust for want of TLC in its old age.
We are an odd lot, we homo sapiens, for some reason eager to watch things fall apart, to witness the center no longer holding, to chronicle a tidy form of anarchy loosed safely upon a very small corner of the world.