Burning down the house

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

For me it came down to the mouse. Small and gray, fur matted from the firefighters' hoses, it ran out of the burning house and fell over dead.

    A perfect Saturday for a house burning: overcast, cool, almost no wind. The place has to go. Two dwellings per 5 acres is the law around

here. The owners already have a guest cabin, plus plans for a new and larger home. The stucco cottage is sacrificed.

    Not much to look at - small and low, stucco walls, green-trimmed windows, green roof. Fireplace in the living room, chimney for a wood stove in the kitchen. One bedroom, a funky hippy bathroom with the tub sunk into a cedar surround.

    My friend Scotty bought the place when her half sister got cancer. This was where Chris came to die, and Scotty says it was a good death.

    Everyone else who lived here loved the place. The weaver, Judy, who moved in after her husband left her for a younger woman, and stayed for 11 years, until her son bought her a place and the husband returned - an event that didn't please her as much as you might expect (the husband's return, not the house).

    The last couple, a woodworker married to a piano player, rented the cottage for four years and left only because it would be burned out from under them. They were very religious. During the time they rented a room from us, my husband was unable to find a video inoffensive enough that both of them didn't walk out, first Caroline, then Willie.

    The cottage brought them luck, and Caroline produced the miracle baby she'd been praying for, a girl they named Maria.

    When a date for the burning was set, they packed up their belongings and headed off for Tucson, Ariz., in a rented truck hitched to a trailer, crashing twice before they got out of the long curved drive.

    On this Saturday morning, the entire fire department has gathered with an assortment of ladder trucks, tank trucks and fire rescue vehicles. The cottage has been donated for a training burn.

    Already they have filled the rooms with smoke and practiced hauling out Burning Man - a figure made from tightly rolled, cast- off fire hoses, dressed in jeans and a shirt - as eerie a sight as you ever want to see sitting on a closed toilet in the dark bathroom of a house about to be burned.

    Burning Man simulates the experience of carrying a 250-pound unconscious person out of danger, a dead weight, limbs flopping and catching on every protuberance. "Like carrying me," one enormous firefighter says, grinning down at me, face apoplectic from exertion.

    Thirty-two of the 39 volunteer firefighters have showed up. Impressive in their heavy padded gear, pants held up with wide red suspenders, yellow glow stripes on their jackets. The city buys them the basic stuff at $1,000 a man, but if you want the custom fire hat with a brass eagle holding a leather patch, embossed with the stars and stripes, your name and the word "Fireman," you have to pay for it yourself. Most do.

    They set parts of the interior on fire with scrap wood and diesel fuel, then put them out. Each man goes in three times, as oily smoke oozes out the open attic vent and curls along the eaves. When an air horn sounds, a fresh team runs in.

    Wives, children and dogs have come to watch. Picnic tables hold sandwiches, coffee and a keg of beer for after. On a grill, bratwurst sputters. There are baked beans, pasta salad and gingerbread.

    When everyone has gone in three times and returned to the front lawn, heads wet with sweat, they let the place go.

    Flames lick up the bathroom wall, out the front door, and begin skipping along the window frames. The doorway fills with orange, and inside, stairs appear to be burning. There are no stairs. These are the local accountant's old records - 1997 back - 135 boxes of them from his garage. The burn was "a marriage saver," he said.

    The wisteria climbing the front porch shrivels to brown. The glass-paned windows explode. Flames shoot through the roof and the smoke rises, thick and black, into the gray sky. When, as the firefighters term it, the place is fully involved, they line up in front to have their picture taken.

    Two men with long hooked poles push the collapsing walls toward the interior. Another sprays the surrounding trees. When it comes to fire, asphalt roof shingles beat wood and stucco beats everything but brick.

    In spite of the beer and the bratwurst, which was excellent, seeing a perfectly fine house burn to the ground was sad. Everyone watched, moving farther back as things heated up, but no one cheered. It felt like such a waste of human energy and happiness.

    And then there was that mouse.



Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.