December 17, 1970
50 years ago our family home burned under a blanket of snow. Just as a Nor’easter is currently covering large portions of the Northeast as I write, so Central New York State had inches pile up that day. Yet the snow did not cover the heat everywhere.
Nixon was still president of the USA, soon to be visited by the newly appointed conservative British prime minister Edward Heath. Nixon would shortly attempt a White House photo-op with Elvis Presley to appease a younger restless generation. Pope Paul VI had recently been knifed by an attacker while visiting the Philippines. Smokey Robinson’s The Tears Of A Clown and George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord covered the airwaves, while Love Story hit the theaters. The Vietnam War was painfully dragging on while anti-war protests were uncontrollably growing throughout the country. All was heightened even more by the unbelievable event of the massacre of 4 college students by the National Guard at a Kent State protest only months before. There was heat everywhere.
That particular December day ship builders in Gdansk, Poland, for all he world to see, were defiantly on strike against the iron-fisted Russian regime. A nuclear test was held in the USSR, as well as in the USA at the Nevada test site; both countries trying to gain the upper hand of global power. The world was crazy then, too.
In the morning of the 20th we had left our family house in the country to engage in the normal activities of the day — work and school. Although the turbulent world waged on around us, our hope at day’s end was to retreat to our cozy home, lovingly decorated for anticipated Christmas. Home was familiar, safe and secure.
Later in the afternoon my mother was first to arrive back home from teaching. At our snow filled back door she immediately noticed that all the windows were strangely blackened. Telltale wisps of smoke had left their mark at the edges of the door frame. Quickly, before opening, she wisely released her grip on the door, turned and immediately trudged through the deep snow to reach our neighbors, where she called the fire department (no cell phones back then). She desperately called my father and I who were still miles away in town at work and at school, telling us to come home right away. There had been a fire in our house while we were away. Was this believable?
In the late afternoon riding through darkness in silent disbelief, our headlights picking up the falling snow on the road before us, my father and I had no idea how extensive the fire damage was. On the way out into the country night, we passed an immobilized fire department tanker-truck that had skidded off the icy road into a ditch. That was NOT a good sign!
Pulling up to our century-old house I could see that it was still intact, with snow thickly covering the roof as if undisturbed. All looked good on the outside. To me, it was a good sign; a momentary believable relief. Things would be alright.
Finally reaching the back door, reality hit hard. Other fire fighters who had arrived earlier had cautiously opened the back door and were safely venting it out. Inside, the flash fire had run out of oxygen hours before, yet not without burning up nearly everything it touched. Once allowed briefly inside, we crunched through the blackened and charred rooms still filled with warm but smoky air. All was a total loss. Our house was no longer a home; never to be the same. Tragically, the unbelievable had happened.
Later that night as I wearily crawled into a bed not my own, a Life principle and perspective came to me. From 17 years of age, it has never been forgotten: All that you love in material possessions amounts to nothing compared to the lives of those you love. We each could have lost our lives if the fire had started in the night or before we left for the day. Yet it didn’t and we didn’t. We lost our home, but we had each other.
The unbelievable happens frequently these days, just as it did 50 years ago. We often live our lives as if they never will. Yet the truth is, there is precious little of material value that we will possess all our lives. There is precious little that will cover all the heat everywhere around us, not even deep snow. On the other hand, this I know, the lives of others loved are irreplaceable.