Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From the Ashes of Ash Wednesday

Every town has its sorrows and tragedies, big and little.  Personal and communal.  Some cast a longer shadow than others.  The Collinwood School Fire which occurred on Ash Wednesday 1908  has been looming over this community for 105 years. I've only lived here for going on eight of those years, but it looms over me enough that I couldn't bring myself to post any of the photos of the aftermath of that disaster. The skeleton building.  The people standing, stunned, outside. A hundred five years isn't long enough to erase that shadow, even though anyone who was directly affected is long gone.

As I've mentioned before, the novel I wrote when we first moved here introduced me to a guy who grew up in my new neighborhood at a time when the memory of the fire was, if not fresh anymore, still very much alive. John Pritchard, retired black CIA guy, was my guide to Collinwood and in Twice As Dead he introduced me to my new home.

Writers will tell you that characters come alive, make their own decisions, get into their own scrapes, and tell you stuff you didn't know -- which is as unnerving as it is amazing and wonderful. John helped me write myself home in this new place and he helped me learn about the fire. It was a big theme in the story of his friendship with Andy Corrigan, who was his best friend for life -- even when Andy was, like, twice as dead.

Here's what John said:

"149th takes you past the new Memorial School.  It’s “memorial” because of the first elementary school that stood on that site. Collinwood Lakeview was a name that struck terror into the hearts of educators, parents, and students for decades, because it was that school that burned down on Ash Wednesday1908.  A fast-spreading fire exploded out of the basement, up through the wooden structure, feeding on dry wood joists and oiled floors. Over two hundred seventy children died, more than half of the school’s students, most of them crushed by panic into a vestibule by a first floor door.
I’d been horrified and fascinated by the fire when I was growing up here.  It always seemed to me back then that, after that day, Collinwood must have been like Hamlin Town.  So many of the children gone, the Pied Piper of death having called them away from school forever.  The rest, the ones left behind, lost, mourning.  Limping through life. 
Andy and I had gone over and over all the facts we could find about the disaster.  It was the thrilling tale of terror that cast its smoky midnight shadow on the walls when we slept over at each other’s houses.  One piece of the story, the account of two best friends who both perished in the fire—one returning to the blazing building to find the other—was inspiration for a lot of youthful bravado.  We swore we would both have gone back for the other.  But, of course, in our scenario, the rescue was successful. We always found the better, smarter escape route and lived on as heroes forever.  For years—until we got old enough to consider it silly—we swore our loyalty with the pledge, “I’d walk through the fire.”          
A Memorial School had been built in 1910 next to the place where the burned school stood, and a Memorial Garden was made.  That school had been torn down and the garden now occupied the corner of the schoolyard of the new, latest version, of Memorial School.  They’d kept the original plaque which I remembered read something about a stunned nation in mourning and said, “a caring community remembers.” It didn’t mention anybody resting in peace, or the grace of God.  Maybe they just didn’t have any heart for that.  This newest school was a bright, modern building.  It appeared that whatever else might go wrong here, fire shouldn’t be a problem.  Maybe the ghosts could leave it to this new generation of children and go wherever ghosts go when the unfinished business is all done."

And when John's adventure was all done, he took me to the memorial service for the 100th anniversary of the fire.  Election Day, 2008. 

"March 4, 2008 was the centennial observation of the anniversary of the Collinwood Lakeview School fire.  Appropriately, maybe, the weather was awful—cold rain getting on towards ice and snow.  They had planned a little ceremony in the remnant of the memorial garden at the new school, and I went up there for it. After some cold standing around, making awkward small talk with a scattering of somber old guys, I was glad when they moved the service inside the school. 
It was warm and cheery in there.  All primary colors and nice artwork done by the children.  They’d made round badges with the names of the lost students in kind of abstract designs—tasteful and nice.  Not the nightmare drawings Andy and I might have made of the fire had we had the assignment at their age.  I figured they’d had some thoughtful instruction.  A handful of the kids were present for the program and they wore their pretty badges. 
They stood almost under a stairway leading up to the second floor—the sprinkler system, painted a contrasting primary color, was pointed out by the principal as something positive that had come from the tragedy: a new standard for safety in schools all over the U.S. The children stayed mostly at attention, with some minor incidents of nudging and giggling. These were brown children, I noted, while the lost ones had all been white. 
Some people said some things. A couple of congressmen—a white man, a black man—were there and shared the reading of a proclamation.  As I was leaving, in the cold rain, someone began tolling the bell in the St. Jerome tower.  It had been a hundred years ago, just about to the minute, that the janitor had rung the fire alarm to signal the end of so many worlds, including his own.  Three of his children were there in school.  Only one made it home. They were going to ring the bell a hundred and seventy-five times.  Once for each child and one for each of the two teachers and the neighbor who perished, too.
The tolling of bells for the dead, like the playing of taps, the firing of guns, the flying of the missing man, is always solemn and majestic.  It struck deep in my heart and I felt emotion, rising, clenching my throat, but the moment eased as the bell went on and on.  I walked through the parking lot, listening.  It was election day.  With people coming and going around the school building.  Casting their votes for a future that might be different from the past.  
As I drove by the church, I still could hear the bell sounding, piercing the skin of the Jeep.  So many. 
One hundred years is surely an adequate span of the time that heals all wounds.  The wrenching grief had faded as one by one the mourners had all died, too. The spirits had no cause to linger any more. Only a soulful pathos remained.  A cold March morning with a heavy, overcast sky and the sound of bells.  All in all, it was good to have been there.  I was glad I had come."

So, I was there with John Pritchard on that day.  I can tell you that the tolling of that bell took just about forever and was one of the saddest sounds I'd ever heard.  But it was part of the process by which I came to feel rooted in my new home.  "I was glad I had come."