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The Fire

Behind my childhood home, to the east – just past the stand of pines that offered a great secret sitting place to hide in; at the north end of a triple-wide gravel driveway sat the white barn. Below it was the cold storage where the fall crop of apples would be stored until they were all sold through the winter. The white barn was where my cats (strays that were constantly dropped off at the farm) had their kittens. In the winter, two tractors and two big, flatbed trailers were stored in there in the center of the huge building. It also seems like other equipment was stored there, but as I remember, those items changed year-by-year. It’s been a few decades ago but it seems like the two tractors and trailers were there every year.

This looks like the tractors on the orchard where I grew up/

There was also a smaller room toward the back northwest corner that was locked and always smelled funny. One time the door was left open and I investigated to see what that smell was. The room was full of big bags of powder chemicals used to spray the trees to keep bugs from damaging all the fruit and killing the trees which explains the unusual smell. It was an odd smell, but not particularly unpleasant, just unlike any other smell I’ve ever The bags were so big I couldn’t budge them even when I threw my entire 9-year-old weight into it.

This gives you an idea of what the white barn looked like, inside and out…but it was white outside.

In the rest of the space, the two sides that made up the space between the two sets of doors and the corners of the building, there were stacks of crates. Not those huge, big box crates you see along the orchard roads in autumn. But small, bushel size crates. They were stacked three in a sort of package; end-to-end horizontally; almost as high as the ceiling. We (my neighbor and best friend SH, me, the orchard owners nephews, brothers RB and MB) were not allowed in the white barn. But that didn’t stop us, it only made us more careful not to get caught. The CIA probably never had a spy that was more slippery than we were. We got in, and out, and spent hours playing in there without getting caught. We didn’t think of it as being naughty or bad, we just thought of it as being our ‘right’ to play and the world was our playground. The things we were told were off limits just meant we had to be more careful not to get hurt. Or so we thought.

These are the big box crates that go into cold storage. Sometimes you see them in the orchard.
This is the crate sandwich that we used to play with.

This is how the small bushel crates are supposed to be used.

We spent countless hours in those crates, building long tunnels that had many turns, levels, and false bottoms where you would fall down a tunnel you couldn’t easily climb out of at our heights. I guess they were actually mazes, complete with dead ends and traps. Little did we know that we were quite good as engineers or architects, even though none of us went into engineering as adults. 

Farther east, was the lavatory and the part of the storage where the tractors and equipment were driven in for repairs and maintenance. SH and I thought it said “labratory” (we never got close enough to really read it and I’m not sure we would have realized what it spelled even if we had). We believed there was at least one or two mad scientists kept in there because we never saw them come in or leave. 

Just a quick sketch (I’m tired) that shows the layout of the land…not to scale.

Further east, on the side of the big door that rolled up near the ceiling was a small door that was the “office” which held a standing height desk along one short wall that had various papers, pads, pens and pencils and a phone. We played in there also, but we didn’t waste paper or supplies, we just played make-believe with real looking and feeling props.

In the level below that, there was a large room that was turned into a recreation room/dining hall for the migrant workers who came in the fall to harvest the apples. Continuing to the east from that part of the storage was a long, low bungalow that was a single room filled with single beds. I think that was used by the single men who came to work while families were housed in small cabins at the back of the orchard. More about all that in a different post. 

For now, I want to talk about one particular night that still lives vividly in my memory even 57 years later. The night of the FIRE. Notice that’s in all caps.  I don’t remember the exact order of events…there was the smell of smoke in the air, the glow of flickering light in the night sky, the phone ringing, yelling voices in the distance, then running people to the east, tractors roaring to life, confusion, adults running outside, me being yelled at to get across the street (even as I write this all these years later, my throat tightens, tears fill my eyes and my heart-rate increases) which placed me south and upwind of the fire. I watched as my grandpa and the owner, RE, raced back-and-forth moving to safety everything they could as the flames grew and fed on more-and-more of the building. As the flames greedily burned up through the floor of the storage proper, small explosions could be heard that provided a bright momentary flash of brighter light as cans of different flammable liquids ignited or exploded due to the intense heat. 

Fire trucks rolled up and many more men and neighbors arrived to assist in trying to save the storage and equipment. I think they tapped into all the wells in the area and I think they had a pumper truck to start applying water while they were  hooking up to the wells. So many men, lights, sounds, smoke, flames, explosions, confusion, fear, fascination, and speculation as to how this happened. There were several women from the neighborhood at the edge of the road with me and my grandma and the owner’s wife, VE, watching and worrying that the men would get injured. As the fire department started to get actively fighting the fire, my grandpa and RE came to stand with us and watch as the horror continued. 

I overheard RE and my grandpa telling VE and my grandma that there was concern that an accelerant had been used to start the fire because it got so hot so fast. Water seemed to  have little effect against the flames as they were being fed by more flammable liquids as they spread. There was some concern that the white barn could also burn because of the accelerants feeding the flame and a possibility that the wind could shift. Because of the chemicals stored in the white barn and a potential for more explosions, perhaps our house could even catch fire. It was now past my bedtime, but I wasn’t allowed to go back across the street to my home because of the possibility of fire jumping to our house.

As we continued to stand, watching with horror as the scene played out in front of us, the fire chief walked across the street to where we were all standing. I heard him tell RE and my grandpa that they were going to have to water down the side of the white barn nearest the storage. He asked what was in the barn, RE told him. Then the chief asked if they could hitch up the flatbed trailers to the tractors and use them to pull out all the crates on that side of the barn. I thought my  heart would stop. 

My grandfather looked stricken as he turned to look at me. I swallowed a huge lump of fear in my throat and stepped forward and tapped on RE’s shoulder. He turned to look at me and I confessed to the fact that we had been playing in the barn and had created traps and such in the crates. His face went white. So did my grandpa’s. The fire chief stepped closer to the two men and they shared a few rapid sentences between them. They turned to look at me and the fire chief said, “There’s no way around it and no hope for it, you need to go in first and dismantle the traps and keep us from getting these men injured. A broken leg in there tonight could cause someone’s death.”

I think I stopped breathing at that point. I was terrified. Terrified that I had been caught and my grandparents were going to be so very disappointed in me. Terrified that if I hadn’t been there someone could have died because of me (us), and terrified that I was going to burn to death. We hurried across the street then. I led five grown men with very serious expressions on their faces into the white barn as the flames came closer. The white barn was filling up with smoke, it was about halfway down the air space when we got inside and filling more toward the floor all the while. I went first up into the crates, telling the two men closest behind me where they could safely step. I was really wishing the other three kids were there with me, but they weren’t. As grandpa and RE hitched up the trailers to the tractors the other men followed me and listened as I told them where to stop and where to step.  I had to go fast and I felt the weight of responsibility nearly crush me. It was hard to breathe, maybe because of that weight, maybe because of the smoke. 

I don’t know what happened to me, but I stopped thinking at that point. I went into some kind of trance or robotic mode where I ripped across the crates stacked in the barn, dismantling tunnels and traps faster than I would ever have thought possible. Five men were hard pressed to catch and relocate the crates as I threw stacks of crates to them. They followed me across the barn as I went high, deep and wide tossing crates to them. They caught them, stacked them on the trailer closest and eventually, more men arrived to help. After what felt like forever, with my back and arms aching, we reached the point where I could say, that’s it, there’s nothing else built in here, they sent me out and the men finished loading the remaining five or six layers of crates. As soon as they cleared that side of the barn and had the tractors and two trailers out the firemen rushed in and began wetting the east side of the barn from both inside and outside simultaneously. 

Before we were able to return to our house RE found me, put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed and said, “Thank you for being honest with me about the crates.” He never mentioned anything about it to me again. I’ll never forget how haunted and stressed his face looked. I don’t know if he and my grandpa ever talked about it. But no one ever mentioned my role in it to me ever again.

My grandparents only said they were disappointed in my refusal to listen to them when they’d told me to stay out of the barn. My shock and the fear I’d felt having to go into white barn was all the punishment I was going to get. It was enough. I never played in the crates again. I listened when they told me not to do something. I realized they weren’t telling me not to get caught, but that injury could ensue.

The investigation following said the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or two that had been thrown into the building basement where the dining hall/recreation room was. I believe I heard that they figured a disgruntled employee had found a way to get even. I think that was when we started locking our doors for the first time that I could remember. I’m not sure I ever felt really safe again after that. It was so close. That disaster took such a heavy toll on people that I knew and cared about. That one night aged RE and my grandpa tremendously. 

They managed to save the barn, the lavatory and the cold storage below the white barn. But the garage/storage area and office parts were a total loss. All the metal conveyor belts that would be  hooked together to roll the small crates to a sorting area were twisted metal that was unusable and almost totally unrecognizable. Two generations of tools used to repair the tractors, tires, trailers, crates, and more were all gone. All the paper products, tickets, receipt books and other paper and cardboard items that I can’t even think of … gone. 

Everything gone. 

Two generations of work and growth gone – in just a few hours.

It has never been rebuilt.

The week after the fire SH and I went into the remaining side of the crates. We dismantled all the tunnels and traps; we re-stacked the crates the way they were supposed to be. That was the last time we went in there.

The farm is still operating and apples grow and get picked every year. There are some smaller structures built to do repairs in, but the grand building that used to stand there has never been replaced. And like I said earlier, just really thinking about it and remembering that night, brings tears to my eyes and creates a flight-or-fight response in me. It was quite an event and quite a night.

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