by Vivian Wagner
Dad loved a crisis. We had plans, and we had back-up plans. Creek floods required monitoring the height of rushing mud, and when the waters receded, digging out the mud that covered our water-intake barrel. Snow storms required chains to be laid out and put on the four-wheel-drive, the family to be loaded in. We huddled in blankets and snowsuits and boots, waiting for the long trek to come. These emergencies brought out the best and the worst in Dad, as he felt they were opportunities for our family to work together. He’d survived the long emergency of the Holocaust in Hungary, his own family intact. And though in the wake of that childhood he no longer believed in God, he had a Jewish sense of the inevitability of suffering and the attendant necessity of survival. In his mind, family and emergencies were inextricably linked.
One Saturday morning in the middle of a hot, slow summer when I was eight, our neighbor’s barn caught fire. Dad saw the smoke rising from a hillside near the Zabel house about a mile-and-a-half down the road, and he came running into the trailer. “I’m going to check it out,” he said. He hopped into our Landcruiser, and dust rose behind him. I went with my little sister Ann into our yard by the Quonset hut, and we looked toward the Zabel house, saw the smoke rising above the cottonwoods, willows, and pines, into the mountain sky.
When Dad came back, he told us it was the barn, that he needed to bring the tractor down to help build a fireline on the hill. We gathered shovels and hoes and loaded them into the truck. Dad climbed onto the seat of the green Caterpillar, and it roared to life. He went first, and we followed in the truck, down the driveway and toward the smoke. Once in a while, he looked back at us, and I could see fear in his dark eyes. I saw the strain on Mom’s face, too. I knew what that fear meant. The fire could become a wild fire and spread through the dry brush and pines, up the canyon to our place.
When we were closer, we could see the billowing smoke and orange flames. Mom parked and told us to wait by the house while she went to see what she could do. Ann and I did as she said, watching as a crowd of people we had never met gathered on the lawn with Mrs. Zabel. Steve and Jon, the Zabel boys, were by the creek, on the fringes of the action. The county firefighters arrived and parked their tanker truck in the driveway and piled up the hillside with hose, buckets, picks and axes, their yellow uniforms lending authority to the proceedings. I held Ann’s hand and we stood on the side of the lawn, feeling isolated. A woman I didn’t know gave me a hug and offered a tuna sandwich. “Everything’s going to be O.K., sweetie,” she said. “God’s watching over us all, and He’ll make sure everything turns out fine.”
I looked at her, wanting to believe. But my family never talked about God. I was a practical eight-year-old raised by a father who believed not in God, but in himself, in his family. If the oil for one night turned out to light eight, it wasn’t because of a miracle, but the careful tending of the fire. Still, I ate her tuna sandwich, and the lady started praying, Dear God, Please watch over us and put this fire out and be here with us all. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen. Despite myself, I leaned against her, feeling her soft dress against my face. Listening to her voice, smelling her sweet perfume, I started crying. At first just whimpers, little choking sniffles, and then long, uncontrollable sobs. The more she talked, the more I cried, and then my sister began crying, too, and the woman put her arms around both of us. “It’s OK girls,” she said, her voice almost foreign in its certainty. “Everything’s going to be OK.”
Gradually we calmed, our tears dried, and our sobs diminished to short bursts of hiccups, spaced further and further apart, until finally we just sat on the cool grass, hand-in-hand, watching everything almost dispassionately. As we drank from paper cups the God woman brought us, the barn burned. Crisped hay and charred wood flavored its dark smoke. As the fire spread from the barn, the smoke swirling over the hillside began smelling of bitter piñon pine and sage.
For a while, we stood just on the edge of disaster. Dad had always drilled this into us, that the end could come at any time, and that we had to always be prepared. In the end, though, the fire spread around the hillside, right up to the edge of the fireline, but not past it. “See, God is with us after all!” said the God woman, winking at me.
After a while, Mom came down from the hillside, her flannel shirt torn, her face smeared with soot. She got a glass of water from the table, smiled at the lady who had been watching us, and put her arm around first me, then Ann. She smelled of wood smoke, soot, sweat. “We can go home now,” she said. “Your dad will come later.”
As we got in the truck, I searched for him in the crowd by the creek. I saw him leaning on a shovel, talking with firefighters. He’d survived. We’d all survived. The fire had been stopped, the crisis averted. He waved a blackened hand toward me, and I waved back. I’d never seen him look so happy, so bright and alive.