It was as unreal an experience, as it was terrifying, to see our house burn. My mind was too slow to catch up, my actions robotic and inside a fog.
An ordinary Saturday morning without a wife, when you have to do everything yourself. My wife Anne and our youngest daughter Jacki had joined our first-born daughter Janice who was holidaying in Europe, after her high-school graduation. Daughter Debbi persuaded me the night before to clean our own house instead of helping us moving, as was the plan, my brother Sidney and his household who were moving to Langley. I didn't see the need for cleaning our new house but figured that she had her reasons and in truth she had, because she had harnessed loads of green beans out of our garden and with some help, from who I forgot, but it wasn't me, had cooked them, put them in plastic bags and deposit them in our freezer.
My son Len and I drove the short trip silently to my brother's house leaving Deb home, in bed. We immediately ran into difficulties. Sid was wrestling with a refrigerator too large to fit through the door opening in the basement. 'How did you get that thing in here.' I asked. He explained that he had taken the lid off the fridge and moving it in sideways it fit just through the door. Let's take the lid off then, I suggested and that's where the problem appeared to be because Sid had taken his tools to the other house already, which made me wanting to say 'how come you can be so dumb...' but I myself had taken my own tools out of the truck as well and so was forced to go home to get a screwdriver, a lousy screwdriver. I was far from happy.
The second story of our house was connected to a free standing large garage by two heavy 4x14 inch beams carrying a platform from which an six feet wide stairway from the entrance traveled down to the ground walkway. The first floor of the house contained a double bedroom for Janice and Debbi on one side and my office, washroom and Len's bedroom on the other side. The upstairs held the kitchen, dining, and living room, the master bathroom and Jacki's bedroom. Besides a great view over the farmer fields, it showed two main roads, one leading from the Pacific ocean going north, the other from east to west where it disappeared in the tunnel under the the Fraser and via Richmond led to Vancouver.
I got what I wanted out of the garage, but before going back to the truck noticed a little cloud of steam clinging to one of the beams, which I thought was odd, but kept going toward the truck, opened the door, yet something called in me to check things out again. I retraced my steps, walked to the rear entrance under the platform to have a closer look at why that steam was emerging from the beam.
I opened the door and ran into the blackest cloud of smoke hanging from the ceiling unto about two feet from the floor, it was very dense and very black, and it was just hanging there.
Two thoughts simultaneously raced through my head – Debbi in bed, and - get a water-hose! I yelled 'Debbi get out of bed,' ran for for the water-hose, ripped open the tap, no water, ran inside, no Debbi, on top of my lungs now, get out of bed Debbi the house is burning! Still no water, Debbi quick! I can't hold the fire! Finally a drivel of water no more than old man peeing comes out of the hose. 'Call the fire department Debbi,' but that was already too late, as the telephone wires were burned through already.
And then thank God, through the smoke, on bare feet, jeans over her nighty, Debbi appeared but she was there, alive.
“Run to the neighbor, tell them to call the fire department, quick, quick.” Debbi ran while I got finally a bit of water out of the hose which was of no help anymore. Debbi said later that by the time she got at the neighbors and looked back, the fire had busted the upstairs windows, shooting flames to the outside with the force of a flame flame thrower. I still saw a chance to move a tent trailer out of the garage and then heard a firetruck siren in the distance, and another one and still another one from different locations, rapidly becoming louder and closer.
Then Debbi cried “My kitties, my kitties.” With the fire going full blast I ran around the house, busted a window, crawled through it to the bedroom of Debbi and Janice to rescue a box with half a dozen kittens which Debbie had in her room. The mother cat was nowhere to be seen for three days. But then I noticed something that made my heart stop. Her room had a sliding-door to the outside which was open only enough for a cat to crawl through but nothing else, they had stopped the door from opening wider with clothes-hanger wire in a way so complicated that no one was able to quickly undo it. If Debbi had not come out of her room when she did, she would not have had a chance, she would have been trapped inside.
The Delta firemen were quickly on the job with several trucks but at noon the house was no more except for a part of the kitchen wall and a few parts of the second story floor, and the wooden stairway to the second floor. One of the firemen asked me if I had a fire insurance. Another shock. Did I? I was not at all sure if we had put a fire insurance on our own house. My head made a noise like a fly in an empty jam pot.
We were building quite consistently about eight houses a year, sometimes more,and as soon an foundation was put in we automatically asked for insurance, but this was our own house and I was not sure at all if we did. And, my telephone was burned up with the house.
In the afternoon, when the firetrucks were gone, and the sightseeing crowd found no excitement to watch a smoldering ruin, my children had disappeared to a friends home, and I kicked into the rubbish expecting to find something that had escaped the hellfire, I eyed our king sized water bed. The blankets were gone and the top of the plastic water-bag had burned away right up to the waterline.
An elderly lady appeared on the end of our driveway walking toward me. She was originally from eastern Europa, and all of a sudden I felt a little emotional, everyone had left, my children were gone, my wife, the oldest daughter and the youngest were in the Netherlands, but here came at least somebody for me. She carried a salad-bowl with greens, I would've rather liked a pizza, but still my heart melted and my stomach growled as I walked toward her with outstretched arms to receive her gift.
Not missing a step she brushed past me “Not for you, for rabbit,” she said, leaving me with empty hands and - an empty stomach. That is when I thought of joining my children at the Froese's who lived half a mile down the slough on which our house was built. I barely knew them but our kids were friends with theirs and I had seen them in church. Mrs Froese was a great cook, I heard from my children and who knows maybe she would have compassion on an homeless man to let me enjoy her cooking and perhaps she let me have the use of her telephone to call our insurance agent about how much my house was insured.
If it was at all insured.
Sorry Mrs Meindersma, next week more.