Posted by: nightmistwalker | October 17, 2018

The Ancestors Revisited

This evening, while engrossed in my nightly phone call with my mother, we began reminiscing about the time I spent with other relatives in the family. My folks owned a house at the Jersey shore, and my grandparents and my dad’s older sister and her husband would rent the top floor apartment for the last two weeks of August, ending in Labor Day weekend. The apartment had two bedrooms with double beds, a day bed in the dining room, and a day bed on the sleeping porch, which doubled as the living room. I was invited to be with them those last two weeks, as was my cousin’s oldest child, who is 11 years younger than I am. Yes, I was the designated babysitter, which I did not mind in the least. The three apartments on the ground floor would empty out by the last week, and Mom and Dad would come stay in one of the apartments for Labor Day weekend. It was a lovely arrangement for several years, and I grew close to my grandparents and aunt and uncle.

One year, my little charge became ill, and my grandmother insisted she go home. “Every child needs to be with their mother when they are sick,” she insisted, and since she had had 8 children of her own, we bowed to her authority. My aunt and I drove across New Jersey to take the child home, then made our way back to the shore. I was 17 that year, and my aunt let me drive her car on the way back so that I could get driving practice.

We arrived back at the shore shortly before dark. We had a late supper with the rest of the family, talked for a while, and then the grownups went to bed. I found I could not sleep. It was hot on the porch, and I was still excited from the drive. I read for a while (my uncle always brought boxes of paperback detective stories), then I finally tried to sleep.

Sometime after midnight, I heard the first sirens. We were 13 blocks from the downtown area, so the sirens were fairly loud. I laid on the day bed and listened. A few minutes later, I heard the sirens from the north. Since there were only two towns on the island, I knew that they both sent fire engines anytime there was a fire. I spent quite a lot of time in my childhood on Seven Mile Island, and I knew the direction that the squads would go. They did not come down to our area, and so I lay on the day bed and wondered what was going on.

A few minutes later, I heard a third set of sirens coming from the south. Now I sat up. The town south of us was Wildwood, which was on the other side of the inlet. Those fire engines came rarely, and they had to cross quite an extensive bridge in order to reach us. The engines, sirens blaring, headed north up Third Avenue, past our street, and I got up and looked out the front door. I could see nothing, but it was too late for me to think about sleeping. I was wide awake and full of curiosity. I went back to bed and tossed and turned fretfully, wondering what was going on.

And then I heard the fourth set of sirens.

I sat up. I had never heard four sets of sirens before. I was confused, as I could not quite place the direction the sound was coming from. Then, finally, I figured it out. They were coming from the mainland! I had never heard sirens coming from the mainland before! I got up once again and looked out the front door.

The entire sky was red.

Aghast, I unlocked the door and opened it. The houses across the street were black silhouettes against a blood red sky. I could hear the police cars driving up and down the streets. “Wake up!” the police were broadcasting from their car. “You need to evacuate. Wake up! Move your cars. Evacuate to the south beach.”

I hurried into the bedrooms and woke up my family. My uncle threw on some pants and ran down to the corner. My aunt helped me get my grandmother up, as it would be a while to get her down the stairs. 90% of the houses on the island were wooden structures and evacuating was the only way to escape. We were just coming onto the porch when my uncle came back.

“The fire is downtown,” he reported. “The police are only evacuating 10 blocks on each side. I need my cameras.” He disappeared to get dressed and my aunt and I looked at each other. My uncle was a commercial photographer and we both knew he would not be back until the last photo had been taken. We hurried up and dressed, made sure my grandparents were OK (Grandfather went back to bed, Grammie waited up to hear the news), and walked with my uncle to the town.

There was a massive pillar of smoke filled with red sparks heading out to the ocean. I was thankful it was moving east rather than south to our house. I worried for the two blocks of houses that were between the fire and the water, for any of those sparks over their heads could have set their houses on fire, too. Thankfully, they were safe that night. It was the downtown that burned.

Once at the fire, my uncle took off. He darted over the fire hoses and kept out of the way of the firemen. Perhaps they were used to news photographers, for they did not seem to notice him. My aunt and I headed west, out of the way of the fire, and walked through to the main street.

There were thousands of people standing silently on the sidewalk across the street from us. 96th Street, the main retail street in town, was a wide street and was empty except for a fireman’s boot directly in the center of the street. “I don’t have any money,” my aunt muttered. I didn’t either, so we just started to cross to join the crowd. Every once in a while, someone from the crowd would step out, walk over to the boot, put some money in it, and then disappear back into the crowd.
People moved to let us on the sidewalk without ever looking at us. They were transfixed by the fire. So were we.

After a few hours, we finally saw my uncle emerge onto the street, his cameras around his neck, looking for us. We waved at him, and he came over to meet us where we were standing. “They have it under control,” he said. “The Post Office will be saved. We might has well go home.” Hearing him, the crowd around us began to break up, and then the rest slowly began to disperse. We walked back to the house, reported to Grammie, and finally went to bed. Yes, I was able to sleep.

Roughly a quarter of the retail area burned. They never did rebuild the second movie theater. The renovation is done in brick and looks upbeat and modern. The fire was over 50 years ago. The memories can be found in odd places around town.

My grandparents and my aunt and uncle crossed over years ago. I talked with my 96 year old mother about it tonight. We do not know where my uncle’s photos are, although I was supposed to get them after my aunt died. My mother did not know the details, because she was not there. But I was. I am the only one left alive in that apartment who remembers.

I can hear the fourth set of sirens coming from the mainland. I can see the sky, as red as the stripes on the flag. I can watch my uncle darting toward the flames and the firemen working so hard to save as much as they could. I can see the silent staring faces watching the fire across the street. I can see the boot standing alone in the road.

If you ever see a fireman’s boot, put money in it. They are heroes and we should show our thanks.

If you have a story about your family, tell your children and your grandchildren. Honor those who came before us. Honor the shared stories that we live.

I am the only one left who remembers. And I will continue to tell the story.

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Responses

  1. Wow! What a memory. Thanks for sharing.


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