Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Boring Childhood Stories: Farmhouse on Fire

When I was 13, we lived on a farm. We weren't farmers, but we lived on a farm. To be exact, we lived in a house on a farm. We lived in a house on a one-acre portion of a 160-acre farm. The other 159 acres were rented to somebody else who used the land to raise cattle. So maybe we lived on a ranch. Anyway, since that "somebody" was only ever there to feed his cattle from time to time, we had the run of the whole place.

Now, don't be put off with the idea of living on a farm (or ranch). You're probably picturing something like endless flat fields of wheat, a big red barn, a couple grain silos, and broken down farm machinery. In short: Boring. Until I moved to ours, that's exactly how I envisioned a farm, too. Luckily for me, they aren't all like that.

What we called the Upper Pasture looked like typical farmland. For the most part, it was flat, bordered by barbed-wire fences and forest. Though it looked ideal for planting, there was nothing but wild grass growing for the cattle to graze on. A narrow, dusty gravel road snaked its way from the main gate to the house, sitting at the edge of a forested bluff overlooking the Lower Pasture. A second "road", really little more than two tire ruts in the grass, ran out from behind the house, skirted the bluff, and eventually made its way to the Lower Pasture.

The Lower Pasture was much more interesting and was where my brothers and I spent most of our time. Where the road wound down from our house, there was an old abandoned homestead and a swayback barn. These would have been a blast to explore and use as forts, but our parents warned us of a dangerous gas leak there that could kill us... and we were young enough to believe them.

The other way down was to follow the cattle trails through the forest and down the bluff. These ended at a flat plain of more wild grass, bordered by more forest, more fence, and the meandering Little Red Deer River. And smack-dab in the middle was an honest-to-goodness marsh. Amidst all that grass, here was a spot with low scrub-brush, mucky ground that would suck the boots right off your feet, and the remains of an old wooden hay wagon half-sunk into the earth.

As if this wasn't enough to keep three boys busy with exploring and make-believe, there was also "The Island".

As I said, the Little Red Deer River did a few twists and turns through the Lower Pasture. As it did so, it created "The Island", a few acres of land bordered by water on three sides and a neighboring farm on the fourth. The great thing about this little bit of land wasn't just that you could only get to it by wading in bare feet or jumping from stone to stone, it was "The Hill". That's right... "The Island" had "The Hill", a hill nearly as high as the bluff and the Upper Pasture. From here, we could look out over the entire Lower Pasture... homestead, barn, marsh, river, and all.

The real magic, however, happened in the winter when "The Hill" was transformed into "The Toboggan Hill"!

One sunny winter Saturday, our parents made the 3-hour round-trip into Calgary for groceries, taking my younger brother, Jeff, and baby sister, Crystal, with them. That left my other younger brother, Mike, and me to figure out what to do with the day. As I said, getting groceries was only a 3-hour venture, but my parents often took time to visit other family and friends when they "went to town", so we knew we'd be on our own for quite a while.

I can't say for sure, but in all likely-hood, we sat around in our underwear eating Corn Flakes and watching Saturday morning cartoons until noon. You see, up until puberty set in well and good, this was just a natural part of the weekly routine for us boys. Once the two-and-half channels we could get reception on started broadcasting sports and fishing shows, though, we would have been looking for something a little more entertaining. Sure, we had tons of dinky cars, loads of GI-Joe, and even a few Transformers, but what we really wanted to do was go tobogganing.

The two of us suited up in ugly parkas, mitts still damp from the day before, and running shoes (because we were too cool for boots) and made our way down the bluff, across the frozen river, and up "The Hill", toboggan in tow.

The snow was good and deep, I remember. The sun was out and it wasn't exactly warm, but not so cold that the snow was fluffy or crunchy. Instead, it was that perfect "packable" kind of snow that lets you carve trails on your first few runs down the hill that become like bobsled tracks your toboggan will follow faithfully forever after. I don't know how long we were out there, but the sun was still high in the sky when we got the fright of our lives.

Although we could see the entire Lower Pasture from "The Hill", the Upper Pasture and, subsequently, our house, was obscured by the line of trees at the top of the bluff. Those trees weren't nearly tall enough, though, to hide the thick, black smoke billowing from the exact spot we knew our house to be.

Had I used the stove that morning? Was I doing any ironing before we left? Had Mom left her blow dryer on and had it somehow slipped off the counter and into a pile of damp towels left behind after being used to mop up the water that overflowed the tub when my step-father fell asleep in the bath the night before, sparking into a smoldering fire that grew into an all-consuming blaze? These and other equally-improbable thoughts flashed through my mind before being replaced by, "FIRE!!!"

We dropped the sled and took off at top speed for the house, half-tumbling down the hill, skidding across the ice, and scrambling blindly up the cattle trail. The entire way, images of everything I owned going up in flames flashed before my eyes. The thought of my parents coming home to find us standing beside the smoking ruins of what was once our home was too much to bear.

The smoke was thicker and blacker than ever.

All of a sudden, Mike called out breathlessly, "Oh no! Boots!" Boots was our cat. Clearly, Mike was also contemplating losing everything dear to him, and the family pet was at the top of the list. I learned later that all Mike could picture as we raced to the house was that little cat, surrounded by flames, hurling himself through the fire and smashing out through the glass of the sliding French Doors on the balcony. Years later, an incident involving myself running full-tilt into a similar set of sliding French Doors would sink, once and for all, the notion of Boots saving himself this way, but that's another story.

As we broke from the trees at the top of the bluff, the house came into full view. No flames poured from the windows or lept from the rooftop. In fact, there were no flames to be seen at all. And there was an eerie silence, not the snap, crackle, pop of a house ablaze. Still, thick, black smoke continued to billow into the sky. From our new vantage point, however, it was obviously coming from the other side of the building. The garage?

I held apart 2 strands of the barbed wire fence for my brother, then hastily climbed through myself. My mind was numb at this point, completely incapable of understanding what was going on. But, as we rounded the corner of the house, it all become clear in a flood of relief and spent adrenaline.

There, in the driveway, stood my step-father, back from town far early than expected. In his hand was a stick which he was using to poke and prod a pile of burning tires. Although this Indian Smoke Signal approach was an effective way of calling us in to put away groceries, I can't help but think there must have been another way that was easier on the environment... not to mention our hearts!
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