By S M Chen, posted by D Kovacs, 4-7-16


“Good when He gives, supremely good;

Nor less when He denies:

Afflictions, from His sovereign hand,

Are blessings in disguise.”

Bro. Lawrence (aka Nicolas Herman) – 1614-1691,

Lay brother, Discalced Carmelite monastery

I was seven years old the summer our house burned.

It was, to me, a wondrous house, the only one I knew my first decade of life. White with green trim and green asphalt tile roof, it had two levels plus a small attic and basement and sat diagonally across from the red-brick plant that powered the school. Stairs connected ground level to a veranda from which one accessed the front door. Beneath the veranda was cool in summer, and kids and dogs would visit to escape the heat, if not the humidity. Crosshatched white latticework separated this sub-porch from the outside world and lent a semblance of privacy.

In the summer, we’d munch on watermelon slices, the ovoid seeds of which we’d sometimes let drop through spaces between horizontal slats of veranda flooring; and punish flies that alit on the rail, by hand if not by swatter. Sometimes we’d address them thus before delivering the coup de gråce: “Poor little fly, poor little fly, do you want to see God when you die? Well, see Him then.” Splat.

The partial basement, accessible from the exterior by a low entryway, featured a unfinished work area with various tools, some power (a band saw, drill press and grinder, all capable of inducing injury); a claustrophobia-inducing small dank room lit by a single dim bulb, containing shelves of canned produce, such as peaches and pears; and a narrow photographic darkroom from which, when the red safe light was on, wafted strange and not so wonderful odors of developer and fixer. A sizable Hasselblad enlarger dwarfed the shallow trays containing chemicals.

I was fascinated by the gradual emergence of images on photographic paper during the developing process. It was magical, like some of the tricks my father used to regale audiences with. He was a full time professor and part time magician.

Years later, when I first encountered the short story, “Footfalls,” by Wilbur D. Steele, I imagined the blind but hearing Portuguese cobbler Boaz Negro working in a space not dissimilar to our basement as he pondered how to vindicate his falsely accused son Manuel and bring justice to the person he believed responsible for Manuel’s disappearance.

It was on the stairs from basement to main level that I would shine my father’s shoes with a cloth and dark shoe polish. He’d tell me to just shine the fronts, but I gave him lagniappe; I shined the entire outside of the shoe. It seemed to me that parts that were less visible deserved equal treatment.


It was a warm, sunny day, the kind we had a lot of, and not at all atypical. My father, who was out of work at the time, interrupted my play by saying the trash barrel was full and needed to be taken to the incinerator. Open-air fires were permitted at that time and place.

He hoisted a large cylindrical cardboard container and I walked with him.

We passed the sugar maple tree my brothers would tap in springtime, drilling a horizontal hole into the trunk and inserting a small half pipe reed, which allowed collection of sweet sap in a bucket. Taking a portion of the tree’s life liquid, not unlike what the Red Cross did with me years later when I lay on a cot as crimson flowed from antecubital vein into collection bag.

We would have to be careful around this tree, for just to the east lay patches of poison ivy, which were easy to ignore in the excitement of play. A bad case of contact dermatitis was virtually to be expected during the summer for us boys. Treatment, none of which was particularly successful, included calamine lotion and Ivy Dry, the latter being used mostly for the weepy stage of the miserable eruption, which lasted, on average, well over a week.

Would that the consequence of transgression were so short lived.

Attached to the northeast corner of the house was a homemade bird feeder, mounted at lower window level. It saw activity mostly in winter, when cedar waxwings, scarlet tanagers, sparrows, and other feathered folk would feed on the seed we provided. They fought, flitted and fluttered noisily as we, often in pajamas, watched from inside on a nearby flattop radiator, relishing the warmth it generated, entranced by sound of bird and silence of falling snow.

In wintertime some of us, bundled in winter attire, would plop supine, move our arms up and down, and create snow angels as, faces turned upward, we’d revel in the light caress of wispy precipitation that fell from the sky. We’d find pristine snow, collect it, add milk, sugar, and vanilla, and create a variant of a milkshake.

North and mostly east we walked, along the edge of a field. Bales of hay lay uncollected, as rent from a deceased, dotting the landscape like so many bread loaves in an enormous outdoor bakery.

            Chen, hayfield

  Photograph by Pavel Voinov; generic permission

At the eastern edge of the field father upended the trash barrel into the open incinerator while I watched, excited by the sparks that flew skyward. We walked back more quickly than we had come. Father replaced the barrel in the house and we headed for the garden to squash potato bugs. Insects of varying kinds perpetually threatened many vegetables.

We had been in the garden only a short time when, suddenly, father yelled, “The house is on fire!” I looked eastward toward the house and viewed, with admixed fascination and horror, flames and smoke leaping heavenward, devouring the limbus between roof and sky.

As we raced toward the conflagration, we heard the wail of a fire truck. Neighbors had started to gather. Most stood awestruck. Along with us, they were unsure what to do.

Firemen leapt out of the truck and ran to the hydrant. Unfortunately, upon connecting a hose, they discovered there was no pressure. When pressure was finally established, it was so great that two men holding the business end of the hose couldn’t hang on, and, like a giant anaconda, it writhed forcefully out of their grasp, spraying water everywhere but at the intended target. They grabbed it and wrestled it into submission. When they were able to direct it at the house, a jet of water shot through the front door and out the back wall, which had been weakened by fire.

With time, the fire was extinguished. Fortunately, the main superstructure was intact. Part of the roof and upstairs were gone. Smoke, water, and burned wood were everywhere.

No one was hurt, but we could not stay. The bedrooms were uninhabitable.


At the time, #1 son was pitching tents. Not far from the village church lay some acreage that was used mostly during the summer for camp meeting. It was there we youngsters studied Holy Writ, memorized texts, and listened to tales of missionaries in faraway lands, stepping outside tents every so often onto soft fallen pine needles to ease the discomfort of sitting too long on unpadded wood benches.

#1 daughter was also at the campgrounds, working as a cashier checker at the bookstore, when the house burned.

#2 son was taking an algebra test at summer school.

#3 son and #2 daughter were biking their paper route, throwing prefolded newspapers close to houses as they passed.

That night, and many nights thereafter, the family was separated, various members staying at different neighbors’ homes.

Our closest neighbors put #2 daughter and me up. They had a black and white TV. The first time I saw the Howdy-Doody show I was enthralled, and wondered why my parents didn’t have a TV.

Years later, I understood. Particularly after reading a passage from John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.” Garp is running at night and sees houses where it is obvious the occupants are viewing TV. This bothers Garp, a writer as well as runner, for he knows that when people watch TV, they do not read.


So from whence came the fire? We may never know. Our best guess is that, like astonishing organisms that scientists have discovered survive prolonged extremes of heat, cold, and drought in places as diverse as Yellowstone National Park, Antarctica and Chile, embers in the cardboard barrel remained viable from incinerator to house, bursting into flame only after father and I had departed for the garden.

This propensity for delayed damage recalls Ogden Nash:

“A primal termite knocked on wood,

Tasted it and found it good.

And that is why your cousin May

Fell through the parlor floor today.”


Though we lost not a few things in the fire, they were only things. My parents would later refer to this event as another ‘blessing in disguise.’

My mother got a new kitchen and #1 daughter got an interesting topic for a writing composition. Insurance money paid for repair and restoration. The money also paid for some living expenses and allowed my father time to find another job.

Someone observed that misfortune often brings a family closer together. In our case, that is what happened. It also made us realize how fortunate we were to live in a town where the sense of community was strong and friends abounded.

Throughout their lives, my family, individually and collectively, experienced numerous blessings, some disguised, some not.

This is one that adheres to memory.