Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Picking Up The Pieces

(Written Thursday March 1, one week after the fire)

We began assessing the damage and carrying a few things out of the basement by early afternoon. The firemen had gotten most of the fire out and were ready to begin the mop up. I consider it remarkable that the firemen would give me permission to enter the burned out ruins so soon.

The intense fire had raced through the attic and burned its way down through the upper rooms but had not reached the basement. We immediately realized that there would some furniture and clothes that could be salvaged from there before dripping water from above would take its toll. The solid preformed concrete basement walls had never felt the heat and gave every indication that they would be sound enough to rebuild upon.

My spirits lifted a little out of my state of shock when I saw some more flats of undamaged plants on the four tiered plant germinating and grow rack located just inside the sliding glass doors on the south basement wall. I added these to the dozen or so already resting safely on the other side of the yard and returned to begin dismantling the grow rack. At least there would be a few living plants to start off the new gardening season. Craig backed his pickup up to the edge of the yard as Ric, Joy, and their two children arrived and the six of us began carrying bed frames and mattresses, an antique walnut typewriter desk, and Christine’s upholstery sewing machine to the bed of his truck. The grow rack, heat mats, and florescent fixtures went to the old goat shed at the corner of the yard.

There was little we could do for the remainder of the day but to stand around in shock and watch the firemen bury the site in fire retardant foam, meet briefly with our insurance adjuster, and try to answer questions. Christine and I spent much of the next morning checking out the rental house located about a mile and a half north of us, moving some essentials in, and running into town to buy some basic supplies, a new pair of insulated coveralls, rubber boots, and a few tools. On Saturday Kerwin, Phillip, and I went to town to buy a few more tools, and a new “scratch and dent” chest freezer. Sunday brought us six-eight inches of wet snow, canceled church, and an opportunity to spend some very quality time with my three children, resting and healing. Considering the stress we had been through for the past several days, only God could have provided the strength that sustained us.

On Monday morning Christine’s brother James and wife Doris visited and the day was spent moving some stuff to the rental house and trying to recover some more items from the ruins including our computer. Our neighbor advised us that it might contain a salvageable hard drive. He would check it out. The following day he gave us the good news that the damaged computer worked when he plugged it in and that he was able to back up the hard drive onto his data retrieval system. We met with our insurance adjuster again on Tuesday and Wednesday to do a room by room inventory of our losses and to continue looking for salvageable items. Hans went shopping for a digital camera and to pick up a donated computer and printer. He was then able to reload the hard drive from the old computer onto the donated computer and by the following weeks end we had a computer back up and running.

As we took inventory of our losses we realized that we were richer than we had thought we were. As the grim awareness of what we had lost began to soak into our consciousness we had to try to focus on what we had not lost. Considering the extent of the devastation, it amazed us what was beginning to appear as salvageable. However I could not keep from thinking of the mementos from my past that were most likely gone forever. There was the little wooden box from my long deceased grandmother Burkholder that contained among other things, a magazine article written in 1948 (the year of my birth) by my namesake. Marlin S. Burkholder. There was the high school algebra test I had passed with a grade of 104 one rare day when my neurons happened to be firing in just the right order; and the Phi Theta Kappa pin I had earned in junior college. Somewhere in the rubble there might be remnants of the bowling pin table lamp and the lathe turned footstool I had made in 9th grade industrial arts class. Various books I highly treasure came to mind—the new collegiate edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (replaceable at a price), Heck’s Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration (most likely difficult to replace), and James Foster’s Bible Pictures and What They Tell Us, a personally autographed gift to me from a third grade teacher, published in 1897 and full of beautiful woodcut illustrations, (irreplaceable). Christine mentioned her grandmother’s china set, now shattered amongst the ashes on the living room floor, and her mother’s china, stored in the attic for her sister Darlene.

The main floor was a scene of sickening destruction. Broken and charred furniture lay everywhere. The remains of two china closets, magazines, and old phonograph records littered the floor. The solid walnut lathe turned floor lamp that Christine had bought for $3.00 at an auction, stripped and refinished, lay charred almost beyond recognition beside the remnants of my favorite leather covered Lazy Boy recliner. The walls and room partitions were still standing but ruined. In the library room an entire wall sized bookcase had toppled, spilling its charred contents into the ashes. The acrid stench of smoke permeated the air and everything we touched. Here and there stood a piece of scorched but otherwise not deeply burned furniture that appeared to be possibly salvageable.

The kitchen was the least damaged. In one corner stood a smoked but otherwise not apparently damaged refrigerator. Four flashlights lying on top still worked. A house broom sitting in the eight-inch space between the wall and refrigerator showed no sign of having ever been near a fire despite the fact that directly above, the ceiling was completely burnt away. Food in the refrigerator was still cold and the icemaker was still full of unmelted ice. Much of the food and utensils in the cabinets was salvageable. The smooth top electric range, though a mess, looked like it might work again. The antique buffet sitting at the end of the kitchen, though covered in wet ash, had little fire damage.

The main bedroom sustained the most damage within the house. Here were two large built in closets containing most of our clothes, a large recently built cedar closet full of woolen garments, two chest of drawers full of clothes, and our bed—plenty of food for fire. All that remained standing and recognizable was the ornate and antique chest of drawers containing my underwear and work clothes, where we would make the most amazing discovery.

The chest was deeply charred and ruined. The tight fitting drawers were apparently sealed shut from melted polyurethane varnish and impossible to open. I squirreled a pry bar from the garage area and pried them open. Inside one drawer was most of my underwear. Several new packs had never been opened and the plastic was not even melted! Another contained four pairs of “Hippo sized” chore gloves and some extra heavy insulated socks I had special ordered from Gemplars for about $6.00/pair and $12.00 a pair respectively—not the kind of things one can run to town and pick up at Wal Mart. A small coin collection in the top drawer containing a large silver piece from Spain dated 1804, four buffalo nickels, and a handful of more recent 50 cent pieces was undamaged. By now I was beginning to feel that God was going to take care of some of my most basic needs. At least I was going to have clean underwear to put on tonight and I wouldn’t have to go around with cold hands and feet for the next few days.

As we moved from the bedroom into the breezeway and garage area we entered into a zone of total destruction. Here everything was burned to the ground. Nothing stood but the hulks of burned out refrigerators, a fuel tank, and the wood furnace. A long workbench on the back wall and all of my shop and garden tools was gone. Three chest freezers containing our stored food and my entire garden seed inventory had imploded in the intense heat and appeared as if a giant hand had crushed them, much like I would crush a soda can. Nothing remained of the market van, a car, a riding lawn mower, and my four wheeler, but sagging hulks of twisted and rusting metal.

As we began digging, a few treasures reappeared. Someone had removed the drawers from the large old desk I had repaired and refinished years ago and among their contents were seed catalogs, garden records and recent purchase invoices I would need to replenish my lost seed supply and carry on my 2007 garden plans. The desk itself survived with possibly the need for another refinishing. Beside the desk I found my lathe turned footstool buried beneath a fallen slab of drywall which had protected it from serious fire and water damage. Fire and water ruined my Bible but various photos, cards, and papers I didn’t want to lose and habitually placed temporarily within its pages were not harmed. The dictionary appeared with minor water damage. The Encyclopedia of Illustration was more seriously water damaged but I am trying to restore it. The bowling pin lamp turned up in the basement and now graces the end table by the sofa in the house we are now renting. The little wooden box was burnt up almost beyond recognition but the contents inside, including the old algebra test, were still intact.
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