This post is in response to a prompt from Kelly at *Weekly Anamnesis.* I like Kelly’s word prompts to help me think of something to write. She is not picky about when someone uses a word. It can be an old word, which I have used before. But today I am using “Smoke” which is actually this week’s word. Anyone is welcome to use her prompts. Just go there and follow the instructions. I love to see what different people write about the same word prompt.
June 18, 1980.
My mother and I had spent the day “hauling Jo.” That is what my mother used to call it.
When I was less than a year old, my parents moved from a rented house in the country to a tiny rented house in the city. It was in the not-so-nice part of the city, but in 1966, it wasn’t that bad. Very soon after moving they met their across-the-street neighbors, Jo and Roy. They were a childless couple that were old enough to be my grandparents. Their house had been in the country when they had built it who-knows-how-many-years ago, and it was the nicest house in the area. They were also the nicest people. They became family to us. Jo made every single birthday cake of mine from age 1 through age 30. (And for my brother through his 29th birthday.) We moved away when I was six, but always kept contact with Jo and Roy. Roy passed away in my late elementary school years, and after that my mother “took care of” Jo. Jo never learned to drive, so my mother took her to the grocery store and the beauty parlor and to lunch every week. Every. single. week. That is what “hauling Jo” was. It was not a negative thing; that was just the way my mother phrased things sometimes.
So it being summer, I had gone along on the weekly excursion. It is possible my brother was with us, but I do not remember him at all in this story. And I did not always go on these outings with my mother, but my 15th birthday had been the previous week, so I went if for no other reason than to return the plate on which my cake had been and give Jo special thanks for it.
The day had a specific routine. We would go to Jo’s house (still in the same place as my childhood) and chat with her for a while. Then we would take her to the beauty shop and leave her for about 1-1/2 hours while my mother and I ran other errands. We would return to pick up Jo and go to lunch. We always ate at a cafeteria in town. We always sat at the same table. Then it was off to the grocery store. This was the part I liked the least because grocery stores were always so cold. Groceries packed in, we would take Jo home and unload the groceries for her, then help her put them away. Then more chatting. This second chatting session could last for HOURS if we did not find a way to excuse ourselves. Jo had not had the happiest of lives, and she was lonely and old now, and she loved to talk.
On this day, I do not remember how long we stayed, but I remember it being a long time. And I remember the phone ringing. It was the old kind that really “rang” and had a dial on it. It rang several times. She never answered it. She was talking with us, and she had no reason to think the phone ringing was more important than the time she was spending with us.
We finally headed home. It probably pleased my mother we were so late because it left no time for her to make dinner. She hated cooking and pretty much all things domestic. We would be eating out that night.
As we drove south toward home (about a 25-minute drive), we were nearing the edge of the “big” city when we saw a giant plume of coal black smoke towering ahead of us. It looked as if it were in the next town, which is where we lived, though our house was not “in” town. I remember wondering what could be burning to create such a tall pillar of smoke and so black. We drove on, probably trying to decide where we would go to eat when my dad got home.
As we got near to where we lived, the smoke was still a giant ahead of us, but it was clear it was not in our neighborhood. We still wondered about it, but not enough to be concerned. As we got to our driveway, we saw a lot of cars parked in our yard. We saw people outside the cars milling around and talking to one another. That seemed strange. Very strange. We wondered if something was wrong. Mom carefully maneuvered the car to where to in front of the garage and got out. My grandmother, who had an unattractive flare for drama, raced up to the car as my mother opened her door. She wanted to know if we were OK. Why wouldn’t we be? I am sure I was rolling my eyes where no one could see me. She then chastised my mother because we had spent so much time at Jo’s and complained that she had “called and called” but no one at Jo’s answered the phone.
Then everyone was there at once. To me it was only confusion, but they wanted to greet us to tell us the news before we heard it on “the news.” That plume of smoke we had seen was a local manufacturing facility. It was the place that my father had worked since 1969 and in which he had purchased ownership not long after that. That smoke was coming from a company, OUR company. It was our lifeblood. It was burning, and by the looks of it, there was not going to be anything left.
I remember going inside to watch television. The news coverage was unbelievable. (Really, it was like news coverage usually is. Dramatic. Maybe my grandmother should have been a journalist.) The news was saying that there were poisonous chemicals being burned and released into the air and that people should evacuate. I had grown up with this company. I remember being four-years-old and sitting in a corner of the then small manufacturing floor while my dad worked because there was too much to do for him to go home, and my mother was working at the hospital as a nurse. I knew there were no poisonous chemicals. Then I saw my dad on television. He looked like I had never seen him before. He was shaken. My dad was strong. He was never shaken. I heard the words “total loss.” I heard the word “rebuild.”
My mother politely thanked everyone for coming, but sent them home. We had to go find my dad. He needed us. My dramatic grandmother said she should drive because my mother was too excited to do so herself. Thankfully, my mother declined.
When we got there, the smoke was not the giant plume anymore, but it would be days before it was all gone. There were giant steel beams lying in twisted heaps on the cement floor. The destruction was complete. I do not think I had ever been so afraid in my life. When I was little, our family was poor. We were no longer poor, but we certainly were not “rich,” either. I was 15. I was supposed to go away to a parochial boarding school that fall. I knew right then that it may not happen. My father’s business was completely gone. Only twisted metal and some smoke remained. How could he afford to send me to school? And we were getting ready to move. Would we still be able to afford the house with ten acres?
Before that summer I remember seeing my dad cry one time–when his mother died. When we got home that night (I do not even remember what we ate for dinner, if we ate at all), my dad cried. If I had been frightened before, I REALLY was then. As horrible as all this was for me, I could not imagine how much worse for him. He was only part-owner of the business, but it was his life. It was OUR life. He had been the one who worked day and night to build it to its present success. It was all gone. Up in smoke.
I spent the rest of that summer in a motor home parked on a concrete pad at the site of the fire while they were rebuilding. The office staff had moved into the offices of another building, but someone had to answer the phone at the building site. My dad said I would do it. I had “worked” for the company almost as long as I could remember. And most of it had been gratis, as was this, so I did not mind. There were no speakers or intercom systems, so when someone had a call, I had to trudge through the debris and building to find people. Being a somewhat prissy Girly Girl, I was always wearing clothes fit for an office, not a building site. The heels probably were not a good idea. There was an IBM electric typewriter in the motor home. I found my mother’s old high school typing book and taught myself to type that summer. That turned out to be a mistake because in typing class that autumn (at the boarding school), I had a manual typewriter. Though I eventually got to 93 words per minute on the manual, I cried in private the first two weeks at school because after using the electric, it was so painful to push the pinky keys on the manual.
By summer’s end, there was a place in the new building for the office staff, so I was no longer needed. My uncle (another owner of the company) gave me $100 for my working there all summer. I was shocked. And elated. I used it carefully to buy my wardrobe for the next school year. No one has ever made $100 stretch any further!
Today when I see smoke, I am transported immediately back to that day. But it is rare to see such black smoke. More frequently I see brown smoke. That is a sickening site as well, because it usually means a house is burning. I have seen that three times since living here fore six years. When it is white smoke, the water has gotten most of the fire out. But no matter what color the smoke, when I see it, my heart freezes, then it aches for the people whose lives the smoke is affecting.
“Our” fire turned out OK. Not one person was killed or injured in the fire. The company had another plant, and they had saved most of the molds. They did not miss one shipment of goods while waiting for the new plant to be built. They built a bigger and better facility. Every time I see smoke, I hope that the people involved have as good an ending to the tragedy as we had.