Of fire and fences

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(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth and his family recently had to fall back on the safety net of 911. It’s a good net, Philip is pleased to report.

(Baruth) I’m pulling a cork from a wine bottle about two weeks ago, when I see a little bloom of flame through the sliding glass door in the dining room. Fire in darkness can’t be mistaken for anything else, but I immediately assume, as you tend to do, that my neighbor is doing a steak on the grill outside his house.

But this is late November, and we have a fire going in the woodstove ourselves it’s some of the first bitter cold of the winter and no one is going to stand out in that weather just to grill a steak. He’s gotta be burning leaves, I think, and I’m a little concerned, moving toward the window with the bottle in my hand, and then the flames suddenly expand, in that all but supernatural way that fire has of quadrupling itself in an instant.

Now I’m out on the porch with my wife and daughter piling out behind me and what it is is that that our backyard neighbor’s large shed is on fire, along with the leaves and sticks piled behind it.

Annika keeps her head and does the brilliant thing: she calls 911. I do the not-so-brilliant, male thing: I run out to the common fence-line to see if I can put the fire out before it’s out of control. Forget that there might be cans of gasoline or turpentine or anything in the shed that might go at any minute; I’m convinced that there might be a window of a minute or two where I can stamp out these flames.

When I get there I have nothing with which to fight the flames. The only thing out at that end of the yard are two large plastic trash barrels for leaves, so I haul one of these empty barrels up and and throw it over the chain-link fence. Then I jump over the chain link myself into the neighbor’s yard and try to hammer out the flames with what amounts to a big plastic tub.

If you can’t guess whether that worked or not, then you’ve never tried to hammer out flaming leaves with a big plastic tub. It didn’t work, and by this point I can see that the fire in the shed is far too big to be stopped, even if I could put out the leaves behind it. And then I realize what I haven’t realized to this point: while the rear property line is marked by chain link, the side property line is a big rambling six-foot wooden fence. That fence is now also on fire, big flames rippling up into the wind, and the fire is moving by way of the fence up into my yard, toward my own leaf pile and my own house and my next-door-neighbor’s house.

And then I do something else which is not brilliant but which, I’m still kind of proud of: I run into the garage and grab the hose I stowed away for the winter. But I have trouble threading my hose onto the spigot even in broad daylight, and in the dark and the cold I can’t get the thing hooked up.

But it’s all right because then the miracle of modern American society is realized. And now, literally six minutes after my wife reported the fire, two massive firetrucks roll up to my house, and disgorge eight or ten firemen. These firemen unlash axes and hoses and in a few minutes they’ve smashed through the back wall of the burning shed and put out the leaf piles and the fence, soaked it all down good. By then my next-door-neighbors and my wife and daughter and I are all out on our front lawn, in the cold, standing there in that particular stunned way you do when firemen are saving your lives.

And we’re talking with our neighbors in a way we never have before, the way you talk to cousins, with a silent understanding of your essential connectedness.

By the next afternoon the charred six-foot fence has been pulled down, so there’s nothing now dividing our yard from our next-door-neighbors’. It’s just one long stretch of land with two houses standing side by side. In the spring we’ll split the cost of a new fence, but for now the absence of it is oddly comforting.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont. His latest novel is titled “The X President.”

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