Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Fire

Patricia and I were living in a small, 3 room basement apartment on Wood Street in Ames, Iowa.  It was September 1958, and we had been living there since January.  We moved there after getting married in November 1957 and both of us quit our jobs as dance instructors at Arthur Murray’s and I returned to Iowa State University to complete my studies and to obtain a degree in Ceramic Engineering.
Patricia was 3 months pregnant with our first child.  It was Saturday night and I was scheduled to begin my required Senior Inspection Trip on Monday.   Suddenly we were awoken by commotion from our landlord, Mrs. Weirson, who lived upstairs and I instantly knew the reason, as the smell and fog of smoke was everywhere.  The upstairs was on fire.  We quickly climbed the 6 steps from the basement to the entrance landing of the back door and dashed out.  We were safe.

Then a panic thought entered my mind.  My expensive books I had just bought for the coming term seemed to be at risk.  Of all the things we owned, they were the most valuable possession.  So I ran back down to my study area and scooped up my books. I ran back up the stairs and by that time the fire was had grown a lot and was very much visible in the entry way as it came out of the kitchen above. The heat was very uncomfortable even though I was exposed only for about 3-4 seconds as I plunged out the door, my arms filled with books. A few feet away I dropped a couple of them but I had been so intent on escaping the fire that I didn’t notice it until later where I found them in decent shape but smudged with black ash. They later became a constant reminder of that night.

I had a crew cut then and my hair got singed as well as the hair on my arms. “Wow”, I thought, I just did a really stupid thing. While I have never been in a fire since, I always remember how fast a fire can spread the intensity of the heat and smoke.

The firemen were there almost as soon as I came out the second time and the fire was put out, destroying only the kitchen area. But of course there was some water damage and the smell of the fire was everywhere. Two persons in the second floor had to be rescued from a window.

We were able to pack up some clothes and secured most of our other belongings in my 1950 Mercury. I left Monday for my trip on time and neighbors across the street put up Patricia while I was gone.
My clothes smelled of smoke all during the trip, but no one seems to notice that my hair was a slightly different color on the ends. Boys peroxiding their hair were not uncommon back then, so maybe it was overlooked because of that.

My senior trip included visiting refractory brick companies in Missouri and pottery companies in Illinois and Missouri. We visited Hager Pottery in Joliet, the south works of U.S. Steel in south Chicago, A. O. Smith in Milwaukee, and Maytag in Newton, Iowa. This was my first exposure to the world of big time manufacturing operations and the value of the trip was plain for me to see.

When I returned to Ames after a week, it was plain that we could not continue to live in our basement apartment and I learned of a place just 8 miles away in Kelley, Iowa (population less than 50), in back of a big building that housed the post office on the first floor in front of the building, next to the only other store in town. I remember that the rent was $40/month a reduction of the $60 we had been paying. We had to buy our own heating oil and the added expense of gasoline reduced our savings but we still lived cheaper. We had plenty of room and someone we knew lived in the same building. We burned our own trash outside and we had railroad tracks, just outside, and an occasional train would awaken us in the morning especially when it was cold and the screech of steel on steel would pierce the air. The ceilings were 16 feet tall and the plumbing was very elementary.

Our son, William Joel, was born in March just after a sizable blizzard which closed the roads from Kelley to Ames. Some men arrived at our door step two days before we left for the hospital. They had heard Patricia was on labor and had a snow plow outside to help us get to Ames. Fortunately, the rumor was false, but it was reassuring because I had wondered what I would do, if her labor started.

I remember our place in Kelley fondly, and, looking back, it seemed a perfect place to jump off into a better life for us after I graduated and we moved to Dayton, Ohio.