The Gravel Pit Fire

I trust you wore your thermal socks, ’cause it’s cold out here!  We’re really going to talk about some hot stuff today then….

I have had a love of firetrucks since I was a kid.  I can remember sitting at the kitchen table in my Gramma & Grampa’s house playing cards with the family.  They lived a block off the main four corners of Bath.  (This town was so small that it didn’t even have a traffic light at the busiest part of town).  Suddenly we’d hear sirens.  I’d whip my head around to look out the big picture window in the family room and see the flashing lights of a volunteer fireman’s vehicle whizz by.  Then everyone would see me whizz by in a flurry of pumping feet, hands and cards flying everywhere as I raced out the front door to the edge of the yard to watch some real pros in action.

Bath had one of the best full-time volunteer fire departments in the state at the time–at one point, they were even known to have the fastest response time in the county.  And it just so happened that the fire department was a mere mile up the road from our house!  Our road cut between the two main roads of Bath Township like an “H”, so sometimes the fire department used our road as a shortcut of sorts to get to the other side of the township.  Which meant that quite often I was met with big red firetrucks flying down our road with lights and siren that could be heard a mile away…so all I had to do was bring the popcorn, a drink and a chair out onto the front stoop of the house to see it all pass right in front of me.

Remember that gravel pit I mentioned that Major and Babe would frequent?  It was right next door to our property with a handful of abandoned buildings at the front end of it.  One of those buildings was a huge old barn that sat about 50 yards from the road.  One Sunday afternoon in August, we sat in our living room watching T.V.  All of a sudden, we heard sirens and they were getting louder.  This only meant one thing:  HERE COME FIRETRUCKS!!  So, like the kids at the beginning of “A Christmas Story” when they’re looking at all the new toys in the huge glass storefront, I glued my face to the big front picture window in our livingroom and waited for the show to begin.

They went by our house all right….three or four or maybe even five different firetrucks and the like.  And then the sirens stopped.  “Why are the sirens stopping?”, I asked myself.  “They usually fade in the distance as the trucks move on down the road.  This can only mean one thing:  something is happening very close and I want to know what!”  So I flew out the door and ran down to the end of the driveway.  What I saw almost made me pee my pants:  all the firetrucks were along the side of the road right in front of the gravel pit….and smoke was billowing over the treetops of our side yard from something burning in the front where all the old buildings were!

I ran back in, told everyone what was happening, and then proceeded to sprint down the road to where all of the action was.  It was the big barn and it was absolutely engulfed in flames!  In fact, the heat was so intense from it that we had to stand behind a firetruck that was parked on the far side of the road and peek around the truck to catch ten-second glimpses of everything that was happening.  (Remember, the barn sat a good 50 yards from the road, so add to that the 20-30 feet further that we were standing from the fire and you’ll get a good idea of the size of this blaze).

We eventually made it back to the house after all the excitement died down.  Apparently, a farming neighbor that was just down from us had permission to store his hay in the old barn.  But he stored some wet hay in it, which meant that it was just a matter of time before spontaneous combustion occurred.

The fire department basically treated the barn fire as a “controlled burn”, which means that all they could really do is control how the barn burned to the ground.  This meant that for the next four days everything in, on and around us smelled like smoke–even with the windows shut.  For a while there, it almost seemed pointless to even do laundry or take a shower.  It got a little better each day–but then Friday hit.

The pile of ash where the barn used to be was still smoldering when Friday came.  Add to that the fact that the wind kicked up and you can see what’s coming next.  My brother was the first to get home and realized right away that the smell of smoke had gotten stronger.  He walked over to the front of the gravel pit only to see that a grass fire had started and was working its way towards our property!  Just as he was seeing this, a car was driving by.  He flagged it down and said, “Hey, you think you could….”, and the guy driving the car finished his sentence for him by saying, “….Yeah, I’m on it!”.  He sped up the road towards the fire department and the ever faithful Bath Township Fire Department came once again to the Cooley household’s rescue.

Everything returned to normal after that–even the smell of our clothes. But that wonderful memory is forever etched into my brain!  Even the recollection that with a fire that size, no one thought to bring any marshmallows.