Burning Down The House

It’s the middle of those three days in December. They probably aren’t “Those Three Days” for you, but that’s how I remember them. They’re just one-upon-the-other every year, December 7-8-9, and it brings me back to college in Albany, NY every year. This year, right now, today, we’re in the middle of a yucky winter storm (it’s yucky because the snow has turned to freezing rain (because, even though the temperature is just below freezing, PV=NRT, so you don’t always get snow even if it is below freezing, because the pressure is important too, over there on the left side of the equation. Oh – sorry, I got carried away. I loved Atmospheric Science 101 in college, speaking of SUNY Albany (well, I was), and the ideal gas law turns out to be important. So where was I?) – oh yeah – we’re in a yucky winter storm but it did start out with snow, even if it’s all just freezing rain now and expected to be freezing rain tomorrow, and the snow, at least, reminds me of Albany at this time of year, and certainly December 9, 1981, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

December 7 has always been important to me. Well, for as long as I’ve known about dates. That’s my dad’s birthday. It was my dad’s birthday before it was Pearl Harbor Day. In fact, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened on my dad’s 13th birthday (so somewhere around his bar mitzvah I imagine). In a way that was a bit emblematic of my dad’s life. Weird synchronicities like that. And it specifically being his 13th birthday. Except to note the curiosity of it, my father never talked about what it was like to have this attack on the U.S. happen on his birthday.  Years later, I thought about that for friends whose birthdays fall on the 11th of September.

Also, December 7 is one of my step-daughter’s birthdays. Even though she was born before the main events of the 8th and 9th, this didn’t figure in my life until much later. Still, a big day for our family. And she enjoyed (I think. I hope) sharing a birthday with my dad. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Then there was December 8, 1980. I remember where I was. I was in my boyfriend’s dorm room and we were just about to watch Johnny Carson, so the news was just ending. The show was running late, a newscaster came on and said, “we’re running late, we’ve just got word that John Lennon has been shot. Good night.” WHAT? I mean WHAT? We didn’t have the internet, cell phones, or twitter. And we didn’t have cable t.v. in the dorms, and even so, 24-hour news was just a new thing that Ted Turner was trying out anyway. Then the news feed came across the bottom of the screen. John Lennon had indeed been shot and killed.

That was a horrible day. People get killed every day, and it’s always a tragedy. It’s not more of a tragedy because a famous person is killed. It’s just a more public tragedy. And of course, that’s when it became certain that The Beatles would never get back together.

I don’t mean to make light of John Lennon’s murder. What I mean is, for many things in life, it’s never too late until we’re dead. Well, now John Lennon was dead. He’d allowed Yoko to break up the group. Well, groups break up. People grow and go their separate ways, but they don’t have to feud and not speak. And I could have learned that right then from John Lennon’s death, but it took me a little while.

You see, just a couple of years later, in about 1982 or maybe 1983, I got into a huge fight with my dad. In this case, my mother played the part of Yoko Ono (that’s a whole ‘nother blog), and I didn’t speak to my dad for nine years. NINE years. Fortunately for us, we did mend our relationship before it was too late. But we’d lost nine years.

Now John Lennon wouldn’t have that chance. The rift would be permanent. That was truly sad.

My boyfriend had only just bought “Double Fantasy” for me (yes, I had it before he was killed), and we listened to it a lot after that. I remember feeling very sad for Sean Lennon, who would grow up without his father.

So that was December 7 and 8. Then came December 9, 1981.  It was two weeks before final exams. Yeah, SUNY Albany got out fairly late. The uptown dorms (on the main campus) were all suites – two or three bedrooms off a suite room with a shared bathroom. I was living in a six-person suite on the 14th floor of the tower (Eastman Tower, in fact) on State Quad. The way the heating worked, it was in columns up the building, so it got really hot in the dorm, even when it was really cold outside.

I had been working on a paper in my room, but maybe four of us had gathered in my suite-mate’s room to watch “M*A*S*H”, and then we were going to take out the garbage. I was wearing, well, sit-in-my-room-and-study clothes. A t-shirt and sweats, and I’d put on loafers to take out the garbage. We’d gathered all the trash (ok, we were college students, it had been longer than it should have), and were heading out the door when I turned around and looked at suite mate’s room.  The ceiling was glowing orange. Um….

“[Suitemate],” I said, “you’re room’s on fire.” Everyone turned and looked. There was no mistake. We dropped the garbage. We ran. I remember pulling the fire alarm. Now, I knew there was a fire. I had seen the fire. pulled the fire alarm! Yet I was still startled when the alarm started sounding.

Here’s something about living in a dorm. Some students think it’s funny to pull fire alarms for no reason. So when a fire alarm goes off two weeks before finals, most students think it’s a prank. Until they see a group of terrified young women tearing down the stairs. No one who saw us had to ask. THEY knew there was a fire. I was not dressed for the snow.

We ran outside and I went to another dorm to look for a phone (no cell phones, remember) so I could call my boyfriend. I found some girls who were in, and they let me use their phone. I could see my bedroom from their suite window. I knew it was my room, because it was the room where all the black smoke was pouring out of the window. It hadn’t even been five minutes. Fires aren’t like what they show on t.v. They’re dark and sooty and they will kill you very quickly. I was glad to be out of there.

“Hi. My room’s on fire. I don’t have any clothes. I need to stay with you for the rest of the semester. OK?” Yes, it was ok.

Once we could go back in the building, we went to the dorm director’s apartment. He was a good guy. He made sure we all had places to stay and essentials. He let us use his phone to call our parents (long-distance).  All the phone calls started like this, “Hello, mom? Everyone’s fine.” Which is how our parents knew immediately that something really bad had happened but we weren’t dead.

Now, I really have to mention the Evangelical Christians here. This is because SUNY Albany has a huge Jewish population, and one of the dormitory quads even has a kosher cafeteria.  And it was pretty obvious from the article in the student paper that nearly all of us in the suite were Jewish (just from the last names). But it was the evangelical Christian student group that took up a collection among its members. They didn’t proselytize, they didn’t preach, they just followed their faith. They gave money to the two women whose room had actually burned, because they lost everything. The rest of us had heavy smoke and water damage, but we still had our things.

I did have to return a borrowed book to a professor with a soot-covered cover. Most of my professors were really understanding (with one notable exception). It was a thing that could have been awful, but we made it through.

I was frightened after that. It was an electrical fire, and I’ve been wary about electrical things ever since. But we did what we were supposed to do. We closed doors (I think. We certainly closed the suite door). We pulled the alarm. We left. Everyone was ok.

In 1983, Talking Heads released “Burning Down the House” and it became our anthem. We played it every December 9. We continued to mark the fire. All these years later, I still keep up with several of my friends from college. Some of us lived together all four years. “Burning Down the House” became our special song. I’ve gone to see Talking Heads a few times, and whenever they sing that it’s as if they’re doing it just for me. Well, for us. They probably don’t know it, though.

It’s stopped being a scary thing and become something that’s just woven into who I am now. Yeah, December 9, that’s the anniversary of the dorm fire.

So here I am, middle-aged. My youngest living child is in college now, and these events are largely associated with my college life. I suppose they’ve had a hand in shaping me. Some more than others. And every year at this time, December 7,8, and 9, I am reminded of this.

That’s all I’ve got, That’s my mite. Oh, except, if you want to burn down the house, my advice is to do it metaphorically.


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