Bay Reflection

Vol. 8, No. 8
February 24 - March 1, 2000
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Fire: A Time Remembered
by Connie Darago

Fire can steal everything but memories, as we learn from Darago’s memoir.

It was a bitter winter’s morning that January in 1968 on the plateau in southern West Virginia. Wind whipped the snow, and ghostly shadows danced in the scorching fire

Finding city life disappointing, we had returned in fall to our birthplace.

We had accumulated a fine little household, and our son was the joy of our young lives. We rented a house, ordered coal for the furnace, bought chains for the ’65 Chevelle and settled in for a hard Appalachian winter. George went to work in the coal mines thanks to the encouragement of Garland, his oldest brother.

After the holidays, we took a short trip and returned late to a frigid house. George started a fire in the old furnace, and I tucked our son, still snuggled in his snowsuit, into the crib. We talked as we dressed for bed.

Sleep came swiftly.

Suddenly I sat up. I couldn’t see. Pain surged through my chest as I screamed for George to wake up. I knew it was bad.

He groped for his jeans while giving me explicit orders to go to the front yard and wait near the porch. “I’ll get the baby,” he promised.

Fire was flickering through floor cracks as I crawled to the door. I fumbled across the snow-covered porch. It was pitch dark, and the stench of smoke filled the air. I waited.

Finally George appeared.

I wept as he passed the still-sleeping child my way.

“Wait here. I’ll get help,” he screamed as he disappeared into the darkness.

Off he ran in jeans and T-shirt, no socks or shoes. I stood swaying with the baby, watching flames engulf our house.

The sound of exploding bullets from George’s gun cabinet broke my trance. Asbestos shingles shot past like boomerangs. I hunkered, shielding our son.

Voices echoed through the darkness. Someone asked to take the baby to a nearby house. I numbly surrendered him. Fearing the gas tank would explode, neighbors pushed the car down the drive.

Garland made a last ditch-attempt to retrieve my purse from the kitchen. It contained all the money we had in the world. He had to give up as windows exploded.

We moved back as flames shot 50 feet into the bleak sky. No fire trucks would come to slow the ravening flames. The battle was lost before it began.

Thirty minutes later we watched the walls collapse.

The stove did a back flip and crashed to the fiery depth below. The hole was ablaze with a fury only the devil himself could appreciate.

We were coaxed to leave as the sun rose. I desperately tried to remember what had been. Clothes, furniture, money, shoes, photos, records, class rings and coin collections. They haunted my every step.

By mid-day we found clothes, shoes, gloves and coats, by-passed the ignition switch and drove to my parents, a mile away. Along with everything else, our son’s new toys were lost. He barely noticed, content with Matchbox cars he found in the car.

Word of our misfortune spread quickly. By evening donations were pouring in.

I sifted through clothes as George gathered items for work and the baby played, undaunted by new surroundings.

Only hours after the fire, life was continuing.

The next day we returned to the heap of charred rubble and climbed into the hole, hoping to find something had escaped the fire’s wrath.

Hope gave way to disappointment as we gathered a small box of somewhat recognizable items. Stacks of melted coins, bent gun barrels, empty picture frames and shattered china were now our worldly goods.

Three weeks later, we collected our new mismatched household and moved into a tiny house to begin anew.

The pain of our loss soon paled in comparison when Garland was killed by a mining cave-in two months later.

At the funeral, I overheard George tell a friend he had seen fire in the nursery walls. If he was too late, he’d decided, he would have gone back to bed and closed his eyes.

He became fearful of the mines. Six months later, we left.

The fire had taught us so much.

We had returned home kids, seeking safe haven in a familiar place. We were leaving adults, forced to meet the challenge life would thrust before us.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly