Some say that our sense of smell is one of the strongest memories we have. To this day I can’t smell a fire without thinking of my father.
My dad was a volunteer firefighter for many years. He’d come home from a long afternoon of trying to put out a brush fire and leave his gear on the floor of the basement, which at that time was our main play area. My brother and I had been told time and time again not to touch his gear, but I remember at least a few times where we’d sneak into the cumbersome trousers and jacket, and try to balance the heavy helmet on our heads, laughing at how silly we looked. The smell of fire and smoke on the gear was overwhelming and it would transfer to our clothes and so we’d eventually get in trouble for playing with the gear even though we swore we were nowhere near it.
To say that my dad only loved firefighting would be a fallacy. He also loved fire-making. At the start of the day he would burn sausage or bacon, the smoke wafting through the hallway and setting off the fire alarm. While he stood at the stove fixing breakfast my mom would fan the smoke alarm with a towel while my brother and I stood nearby with our fingers in our ears. This went on for many years, so much so that my husband has also witnessed the burning of breakfast sausage and eventual smoke-filled hallway that follows.
Back when it was considered normal, he burned garbage out in a rusty barrel in the backyard. We didn’t have a garbage truck in our town and when you needed to get rid of your garbage you either had to burn it or take it to the dump. He burned a lot of garbage. We’d watch from our swing set or sand box, sneaking water from the nearby precautionary hose to make a moat for our castle.
Sometimes on a summer evening we’d go to the neighbors’ house and build a big bonfire in their driveway. Our families would sit around the fire and make mountain pies and roast marshmallows and hot dogs and stay out later than we were normally allowed. We’d do the same thing when we went camping, which was at least once every summer until we were old enough to hate camping. That was about when my brother and my dad started going camping with their Boy Scout Troop and then they’d both coming home smelling like a campfire. We’d light fires in the fireplace at home and my dad would poke at them with a stick until they were roaring and crackling. We were taught to enjoy fire, but also to fear and respect it.
Even our main vehicle was a Chevy Blazer. I have numerous memories of being piled into the car on the way home from church or a shopping trip and we’d see a plume of smoke rising from a far-off tree line. My dad would always find an excuse to find the fire. If the fire was in town, we’d drive by the bank “to see how warm/cold it was outside” (the bank had a large thermometer) or stop to buy a Sunday paper and then we’d also check out the fire. If the fire was off in the distance, we’d take “the back way home” and just happen to drive by the field or house that was burning. Sometimes we just went and saw the fire with no excuses. I remember once we bundled up in our warmest clothes and went on a drive to look at Christmas lights and we just happened to pass a house that had recently burned to the ground, killing the elderly woman who lived there. A morbid fascination indeed, but it was his way and so it became ours.
Last year M and I were headed to Lowe’s one weekend and we saw a lot of smoke rising up close by. M saw how big my eyes got, and knew what our new afternoon plans were. We navigated roads we weren’t entirely familiar with until we got very close. Too close. My eyes burned and the acrid smoke got into my lungs, making it hard to breathe. The smoke was so thick we could barely see to drive. In retrospect, it wasn’t a smart idea. The fire was huge, a mulch plant that burned out of control and spread rapidly due to strong wind gusts. It burned for hours causing nearby I-95 to shut down after wind blew fire right across the interstate. We went to see the damage the next day only to witness firefighters hosing off hot spots that still burned more than 24 hours later. Entire fields of thick, black char spread themselves right up to the side of the road. It’s amazing that there wasn’t any loss of life or any major damage to property, other than the mulch plant.
Today my dad would be blowing out 62 candles. Though he’s no longer with us, his spark burns on in my heart. And when our smoke detector goes off for no reason, as occasionally it is want to do, I can’t help but think that it’s my dad’s way of saying hello and reminding us that though he’s no longer here, he’s always a part of us. Happy Birthday, Dad.