Carolyn and I are fans of the Moth Radio Hour on NPR where real people stand up before a live audience and tell a story from their life. Some are funny. Some are poignant. Some offer insights into our relationships with those around us. If I ever got invited on the show, there are a few stories I think would be worthy of sharing. This is one of them.
In the fall of 1972, I received orders to Vietnam. One of my Army buddies invited me to a farewell dinner at his apartment in Oakland, California. It was in a typical brick apartment building — an 8-plex as I remember. They were what we called back “garden apartments” back then, meaning each had an small balcony off the living room.
We drank a lot of wine and told a lot of lies about how we would catch up with each other after I got back from my doing my patriotic chore. As the hour grew late, I said goodbye at the door to his apartment and headed down the stairs to the street. That’s when I saw a flicker of flame coming from the roof of the house next door.
The house was a relic, one of the few old Victorian style wood frame buildings in the neighborhood. It had a wide porch and a big oak door with an oval window. There were gable everywhere and maybe even a gargoyle or two. It looked like it belonged on the set of Dark Shadows.
I called out to my friend, “Call the fire department. I think the house next door is on fire.” He shrugged and said, “Don’t worry. They’re just a bunch of hippies.” Those were the days of Haight Ashbury. Big Brother And The Holding Company still got a lot of air time on the radio. Hippies were everywhere and not everyone appreciated their “If it feels good, do it” life style.
I was headed down the sidewalk toward my car when a large tongue of flame sprouted from the rooftop. I ran back up the stairs to my friend’s apartment, banged on his door, and told his this was for real. The house next door was on fire and he needed to phone it in. By now, we could clearly see the flames growing bigger. He made the call.
The fire department arrived in just a few minutes. One of the firemen went up and pounded on the big front door. It took a while, but eventually a light went on in the front hall. A gaunt man with long hair wearing granny glasses came to the door. He seemed totally unaware of the fire — or anything else for that matter.
“Sir, come outside,” the fireman said. “Your house is on fire.” The young man came out onto the porch then down the stairs to the sidewalk. As he turned to look up, I could see the flames reflected in his glasses. He stared for what seemed like a long time and then he said, “Oh, wow!”
“How many people are inside?” the fireman asked. “Oh, wow,” the young man said. The firefighters went in and started searching the house. Eventually, 12 more people emerged from inside, including three young children. They had been sleeping in a bedroom on the top floor near where the fire started.
Every time a new person came out of the house, the young man said, “Oh, wow.” He said the same thing when he saw the children come out bundled in blankets and looking confused. Maybe one or more of them was his. It was hard to tell from his reaction.
Not long afterward, the house seemed to shudder and then groan. Then it burst into flame with fire licking out of every window. The people who had been inside stood at the curb and watched as fire consumed their home. “Oh, wow,” they said in unison.