I’ve heard the saying plenty of times over the years: Where there’s smoke there’s fire. If that’s a true statement, then it also stands to reason that where there’s a smoke alarm blaring, there is smoke.
These are proverbs generally referring to the fact that there is usually some truth to every rumor.
Perhaps it was the metaphor that threw me off.
Early one Saturday in October of 1981, I wandered downstairs, barely awake, to the family room of our home on Marston Road. I had two things on my mind that morning: a waffle and some Saturday morning cartoons. A kid in 1981 had a very small window of opportunity in which to watch TV that had nothing to do with PBS, the news, Heehaw, or Lawrence Welk. That window was gloriously open from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. And I was on my butt each Saturday watching TV while that window was open. I took it seriously.
On this particular Saturday, my hunger for cartoons was matched only by my hunger for waffles and I was trying to satisfy both without missing out on either. I was a multitasking 10-yr-old. So I grabbed two waffles out of the freezer and dropped them into the toaster and popped them down. Typically what would happen next is that a person would sit, watch a little TV, and listen for the waffles to pop up in the toaster. But we were not a typical family. We liked to drive our appliances all the way to the junkyard or the grave, whichever came first. We got years more out of everything than any other family I knew. Years more than the manufacturer intended, I can assure you. Our toaster no longer automatically popped anything up. The pop up mechanism had stopped working months ago. Our method of toasting had become leaning over the slots and trying to determine when an item was golden brown and then flipping the switch manually with our poised fingers. That worked well enough when our focus was on point. But on this particular Saturday, I had come downstairs just as the Smurfs were coming on. The Smurfs were new, having just debuted in September, and my brother and I loved them. So as my waffles cooked away three stairs up in our kitchen, I sat cross-legged on the carpet with a goofy grin on my face and watched Brainy Smurf try to outsmart Gargumel. I forgot all about my hunger. I was living my best life.
Six minutes into the show, my waffles were done cooking. They were past done. They were so past done, their doneness had reached the smoke alarm that was mounted in the stairwell of our house. The alarm began to beep harshly. I’m just a tiny bit ashamed to say that even when the obnoxious beeping began, I did not look up from the Smurfs. In my mind, I had decided that my safety-savvy mother was testing the smoke alarm. Again.
It works, Mom. Now fan it so it’ll stop and I can watch my Smurfs and eat my…
About this time, my mother came flying down the stairs and into the kitchen shouting for my brother and me to get on our feet and get out of the house. It was only then that I looked up.
MY WAFFLES. Whoa, there, sister. The house is on fire.
The waffles had caught fire when no finger popped them up. The paper towels caught fire from the flame of the waffles. The curtains lining the kitchen window caught fire from the flaming paper towels. The cabinets from the curtains. You get the idea. It was all one big flame when I finally looked up at the urgent shouting of my mom.
Probably not the right time to blame it on the toaster.
“MISSY! Go get Mr. Shipp!” My mom was dialing 9-1-1 and shouting instructions at us as she reported the fire. I ran next door to get our neighbor, Mr. Shipp. My brother ran out into the garage to find a way to help. Mr. Shipp came running back with me and hooked up our own garden hose to fight the fire from the back door. My brother had come running back into the house with a canvas beach raft. He was using it to beat down the flames. But what actually happened was the flames just leapt onto his raft and now we had a portable Firestarter on our hands. Mr. Shipp turned the hose on my 12-yr-old brother, and his flaming raft, and put them both out.
“You kids get OUT of the house. NOW.” My mother had slammed the phone back on the hook and clearly did not require any more help from us. So Bart and I ran out through the garage and into the driveway. To wait.
By then the fire engines were wailing as they pulled up in front of our house. Firemen went in to inspect a morning of cartoons gone bad. When they got inside with their hoses, the fire was already out. Mr. Shipp had done good work. But the damage from the smoke was done. And irreversible. Neighbors had begun emerging from their own houses, finding the lure of sirens even greater than cartoons. I stood in the street and tried to explain to the few who were asking how this had occurred.
Well, you see, it’s like this. And it all makes perfect sense. Because you had to pop up the toaster on your own. The switch didn’t work. Curtains are flammable.
It was the toaster’s fault.
The rest of that morning is fairly nebulous to me. Cartoons were ruined. Waffles were burned. I was still hungry. Insurance guys came out and determined the house to be uninhabitable due to smoke. We packed our bags. The hallway going up the stairs was black as Satan’s soul and the scariest place in that house. Scarier even than the burned down kitchen. I hated running up and down the stairs as I grabbed my things.
That evening as darkness settled around the house as black as the burn scars inside, we pulled our car doors shut and headed to the Howard Johnsons on Appalachee Parkway. We had a room above a hopping bar where the music thumped into the wee morning hours. This was what our insurance had paid for. We were hoping the renovations would be a notch above the hotel room we lived in for a month.
I found the whole adventure far more exciting than the rest of my family. The nightlife was great. Morning breakfasts before school consisted of scooting up to a long counter at Yum Yum Donuts and ordering whatever I wanted while I listened to businessmen jaw about nothing. I was able to tell my friends I was living in a hotel. I probably left out that it was a Howard Johnson’s.
In the end, I think my mom appreciated the new kitchen, but she never thanked me specifically. When we were finally able to move back home, we took a tour of the new downstairs. The kitchen floors were new. The kitchen cabinets were new, now updated to reflect the 1980s instead of the has-been 70s. The paint–all new.
Before I raced up the stairs in the freshly painted hallway to chuck my stuff into my old room, I glanced one last time into the kitchen just to make sure.
Sitting on the brand new counter, pulled all the way out from the wall and anything around it, was a brand new, automatic, double-slotted toaster, shining like a polished silver dollar and ready for a Saturday morning waffle.