There was a fire in my neighbourhood this week. It seemed very close to my place – based on the location of the column of smoke and the nearness of the sirens, at first I thought it might be on the next street over. Ron decided to wander up that way and see what was going on. We live in suburbia, but we’re also close to a lake surrounded by woods, and he was curious if it was a brush or a house fire. I decided to tag along. Due to some personal history, this is not something I’d normally do, but it struck me as an opportunity to do a little experiment.
Okay, I realize that last part is going to require some explanation.
I grew up in a village of a few hundred people surrounded by farmland. It was this little pocket of humanity in the middle of a sea of corn and cows, and I hated it. Lots of people take a romantic view of small-town life, and I realize some people genuinely enjoy it, but to me, it was nothing but isolation and boredom.
Oh, and gossip. Just so much gossip.
All of these things were never in evidence more than when there was a fire.
One of my earliest memories is of a barn fire on the outskirts of town. I was in bed, asleep, when I was awoken by a commotion in the living room. I remember lots of voices and footfalls, and then my mother coming into my room, getting me out of bed, and wrapping a jacket around me. I then joined my entire family, along with a good chunk of the village’s population, at the intersection of the main street and the road that led out of town, where we stood gazing across a cornfield at our neighbour’s livelihood going up in flames.
There was a lot of
speculation gossip about how the fire started. The only specific theory I remember was that it had been set by a recently fired (or perhaps it was just a disgruntled) farmhand. I’m certain the only reason I recall that was because at least one of my brothers was involved in the conversation, and the following day my father lectured them about how much trouble they could get into for saying such things.
Well, for saying them in public, at least. Because my father did his own fair share of speculating within the confines of our home.
I remember being scared. For a while, I was terrified that the next time I was bundled out of bed in the night, it would be because my own house was burning down. But as time went on, my unease shifted from the fire itself, to the image of my neighbours standing on the corner in a ghoulish tableau, discussing what we’d done to deserve it. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the appeal.
I mean, I get being drawn to fire. Human fascination with it is well-documented and has been studied to the hilt, and I definitely fall into the category of people that can happily stare at flames for ages.
But that’s a campfire, or a fireplace, or even a candle flame. Going out of one’s way to watch a fire destroy someone else’s life … It taints things.
I’ve carried that unease with me ever since the night I stood in the dark with my neighbours. It got a lot of reinforcement while I was growing up. I remember another barn fire and three house fires in my village by the time I was a teenager. (A friend recently suggested that’s a lot, and perhaps we should have been looking for an arsonist, which I’d never considered before. Shortly after that, my Big Brother told me that for years, on Hallowe’en, someone would dump a hay bale in the intersection of the main street and road out of town and light it on fire, which I think only reinforces my friend’s point.)
I never “attended” any of them, but various family members did at least some of them. When my mother didn’t go to watch the second barn fire, out of curiosity, I asked her why not. Her response was that it was far enough away she’d have to drive to it. While I was never able to follow her logic, in her mind it was okay to watch the misfortune of others so long as it was within walking distance. Somehow, driving to do the same was crossing a line.
Where waking up your sleeping child to drag them along to the spectacle fell on the spectrum was never addressed.
I’ve not been anywhere near a house fire in over 30 years, but I’ve known that squeamishness at watching the misfortune of others still existed within me. I do slow down as I drive past accidents out of a concern for the safety of first responders, but refuse to look at the vehicles involved or any other damages. For some reason, the other day, when I saw the smoke and heard the sirens, I became curious to see if being in the situation as an adult would feel the same as it had when I was a child.
Would I experience the same disquiet? Or would I wonder what my childhood self had been so worked up about? And how would the inevitable crowd behave? Would gossip be the purview of the small-minded small town? Or would suburbanties be having similar conversations?
Upon reaching the lake, we knew it wasn’t a brush fire. The instant I realized it had to be a building that was burning, I began to feel anxious. My anxiety grew as we continued along the street and came upon the scene of fire trucks, flashing lights, more cars than my neighbourhood sees at rush hour, and a throng of people all staring in the same direction.
There was no gossip. The crowd was creepily silent, except for one man who was shouting at the passengers in a stopped car. While my mother would never have dropped an f-bomb in her life, his tirade still brought her and her odd set of rules to mind. Somehow, in this man’s mind, the people in the car weren’t doing things right.
Personally, I think we were all at fault. I didn’t stay a minute, yet I’ve rarely felt such guilt in my life. I thought I might be physically ill, and feel a genuine disgust with myself for having gone to watch, no matter what my motivations might have been. My attempt at self-reflection should never have been made at the expense of respect for others.