Fire and Light: A Holiday Story


T’was ten days or so before Christmas, five years ago to the day that this issue of the Citizen came out. Preparations for the holidays were stirring. The artificial tree was up, standing beside Carol’s baby grand piano, in front of the huge picture windows overlooking the Sangamon River. We’d tried real trees, but our cat Shadow kept climbing them and knocking them down, ornaments and all, usually at 3 a.m.

Presents were bought, but much to the chagrin of our two daughters none were wrapped and under the tree. So they couldn’t shake and rattle them and ‘accidentally’ tear little holes in the wrapping paper (the presents were cleverly hidden in the trunk of our car…but don’t tell the kids, please).

Perhaps best of all, the year-long remodel of our little cabin in the woods was nearly complete. For a year and half, Carol and I had made the downstairs den our bedroom and we had just slept the first night in our brand new master bedroom, previously our front porch.

It was a school morning, and Carol had dropped off Alex early at the high school and headed into town for an appointment. Abbey and I were just leaving; letting the dogs out for one last time before we also left for the day.

When Abbey went back in the house she called to me that she smelled smoke. This wasn’t unusual since we’d been using the fireplace, but this was different smoke. I went in and smelled it, too. Then went down to the basement to check things out and sure enough a small fire was burning near the laundry and fuse box. I dashed upstairs to grab our fire extinguisher from by the fireplace and rushed back down. I was gone for 20 seconds, tops.

And in that 20 seconds the fire had engulfed the laundry area. Flames were suddenly crawling along most of the ceiling, and our little cabin was rapidly filling with smoke. I threw down our hopelessly teensy fire extinguisher, ran upstairs and headed out the front door while Abbey dialed 911.

When I turned to go back inside less than a minute later to recover well, anything, the doorway was filled three quarters of the way from the ceiling down with impossibly thick black smoke. Abbey and I and the dogs just stepped back, unable to go back in and retrieve a thing even our coats. We were still in our shirtsleeves and it was a chilly 31 out.

Perhaps the longest wait in my life was the wait for a sound, any sound, even the slightest sound of far off distant sirens signaling the approach of the Cornbelt Fire Protection District volunteers. So we stood and listened and watched helplessly while fire engulfed our home.

Considering where we live, their actual response time was an astoundingly fast 14 minutes from our 911 call (we found out later), but by the time they arrived, our fire was ‘fully engaged’. And we watched as our huge picture windows overlooking the Sangamon River shattered in the heat of the fire.  The new metal roof held in the heat while our belongings cooked inside.

Seven more rural fire departments were called out to our fire as they battled the blaze most of the morning and into the afternoon.

By 2pm, it was all over. Our cabin on the Sangamon River was a total loss. We stood in the yard as Cornbelt gathered their scattered belongings, suddenly with nothing but the clothes on our back. But at least our family was safe as were Josh and Georgia, our dogs (and the presents were still in the trunk). Country Insurance put us up in a hotel and gave us a check to buy stuff like shoes, deodorant and toothpaste (free plug for local agent Chuck Rippy!). Sadly, Shadow was trapped in the house and apparently died from the smoke.

Our burned-out house still stood, and the Christmas tree still stood in front of the shattered picture windows. But all that remained of it was a single piece of twisted metal encircled on the floor by little metal wires that used to be its branches. Carol’s baby grand piano was little more than a row of ebony and ivory (still white) keys lying in front of a brass sound board. The next day brought a 12 inch snow, the metal roof finally gave way and the whole thing collapsed completely.

And then it began: the outpouring of sympathy from neighbors we hadn’t yet fully come to know. From our church in Urbana, from my office in Champaign, from friends at Lincoln Trial and the high school that we didn’t even know we had. In just a few brief moments of our lives, we had lost everything; then in the next few moments, we began experiencing the amazing outpouring of benevolence from complete strangers.

We came to know the true spirit of the holiday season that year. People support each other; people share their gifts with one another. And the Spirit of Light returns.

Our family celebrates the Solstice, the longest night of the year, followed by the return of the light. Christians celebrate this season with the birth of their Savior, the Christ child, who spreads his light among the darkness of the world.  The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is observed by the kindling of lights on the menorah.

Humanity’s strength is our capacity for adaptability and resilience, even in the face of the blackest darkness. We soldier on, we move forward and like our return from the longest night of the year, we learn to appreciate the cycles of darkness that are always followed by the return of the light. And from the ashes, we rebuilt.

And the light has returned. Our brand new home on the Sangamon River makes that morning seem like a long time ago as life has moved on in ever changing cycles.

 As the memory of our holiday story fades to ashes, we are reminded of the Spirit of Light that pervades the holidays and gives us all hope and joy for the coming year.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, December 13, 2012, by Scott Hays

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