What is it about a building on fire that’s so fascinating? A warehouse in Granite City, Illinois, was on fire most of the day and the TV crews were all over it. Fire and smoke make good visuals, especially from “EyeInTheSkyViewChopper” or whatever they call it. In most shots, you could see people gathered around who had nothing to do with the warehouse — they just wanted to watch as the flames went up and the building went down.
When I was a kid, they built a luxury apartment building up the hill from where we lived. Not long after it opened and tenants moved in, the thing was on fire. That was the day I learned the meaning of the word “engulfed.” Within minutes, every kid in the neighborhood was on that hillside watching as firemen (there were no women on the job then) battled the blaze. We sat there for a couple of hours watching the inferno, as it consumed apartment after apartment, floor after floor. Windows popped out, blinds melted before our eyes, and smoke stretched to the sky in every direction. I swear the bricks seemed to glow with the heat. Every once in awhile, someone would say, “wow, I’m glad I don’t live there” or “those poor people.” But for the most part our reaction was, “This is so cool — a big fire, right here in our neighborhood.” We couldn’t take our eyes off it.
Maybe it’s instinctive in the human spirit; Prometheus lives inside us, or something like that. Why is a room full of lit candles so much more romantic, a jack-o-lantern so phony with a light bulb, a gas street lamp somehow more heartwarming? If Jeff Probst were here, he’d remind us that fire is life.
Next time you’re at someone’s house with the fireplace going, see how everyone seems drawn to it. They’re mesmerized by the flames, unable to so much as blink, like Ashton Kutcher on that first great date with Demi Moore. You see it at a campfire or bonfire on a beach. People gather around as if they’re paying homage to the fire deity. Maybe those Texas A&M fans weren’t really cheering for their football team, but for another huge log glowing orange.
In 1980, I lost an apartment to a fire (I realize as I type this that it’s going to look like I’m some sort of arson carrier, but this one was an electrical short that started two floors away while I wasn’t even there). Being a 22-year-old single guy, I didn’t have a lot of stuff, but what I did have was gone. Naturally, I didn’t have tenant insurance — the premiums would have cost more than my stuff — so I lost everything. At that point, “everything” meant my clothes, a stereo, a bed, a table, and about a dozen milk crates which doubled as a place for my records and my laundry.
Still, at midnight, there I was, standing in the street watching firemen spraying water on the flames shooting out of where my bedroom used to be. I stayed until they left, and then I cried.
Mostly, it was because I didn’t have a place to live and had to start over again. But a little part of me probably was sorry that the fire had been extinguished, and the show was over.