Sunday, February 21, 2010
Guardian Angel on Overtime (part I)
I’m vividly aware of two separate times my life was spared when I was younger. I will write two posts about the memories I have of those events.
The first episode I want to blog about happened when I was seven years old. My parents, little brother, Jim, and I went to San Francisco, California to visit some friends and family.
We went on quite a few trips during my youth because my grandparents lived in Arizona and my Mom’s seven brothers lived across the U.S. The way my father traveled with the family never altered during my entire childhood. Even though we always had a car, we never drove the car; we took the pickup truck with a camper shell on the back which was my Dad’s work vehicle. All the luggage and the kids were tossed in the back where we had a bed (which normally served as a shelf for all my Dad’s tools) with a four-inch foam pad on it for the trip while Mom and Dad rode in the cab of the truck.
The good thing about traveling this way is the kids were with the ice chest--thus the food and drink. The bad thing about traveling this way is the kids had a difficult time conversing with the parents about their needs--to make a rest stop or help with resolving disputes (probably considered a good thing by the parents).
Jim and I had coloring books, modeling clay, storybooks and little toys to keep us occupied during all those hours and hours of driving. Over the years of traveling like this, every single coloring book we ever owned had “I need to use the bathroom” written on the inside cover. We would have to pound on the glass and gesture wildly to get their attention and then hold the message against the glass for them to read our request. Also written inside several of these coloring books were phrases like: “Jim is being mean!” and “Georgia won’t leave me alone.”
Anyway, on this particular trip to San Francisco we left during the winter and along with all the other stuff we brought, Dad put in our portable kerosene heater because the camper shell on the back of the truck got pretty cold. He would light it and warn us about making sure it stayed upright and that nothing touched it. The domed top of the heater would glow orange when it was hot and put out enough heat to keep us from freezing to death while we colored, read, played and fought with one another in the back of the truck.
Somehow under these conditions on this particular trip, I became extremely ill. I was so sick, in fact, that my parents had to take me to an emergency room. I don’t remember much about my stay in the hospital because I had such a high fever, but when I was finally released the most memorable thing for me is I was given a green helium balloon by a nurse. Before this time I had never even seen, let alone owned a helium balloon, so I was absolutely enthralled with a balloon that would float on its own accord and needed a string to keep it from getting away. My parents were worried enough about me that Mom rode in the back with me tucked into piles of blankets on the foam mattress, while Jim rode up front with Dad. My Mom fastened the string of my wonderful balloon onto something in the back of the truck so I could look at it from my ‘bed’. My Dad had refilled and fired up the heater so we would stay warm and then he started maneuvering through San Francisco traffic to get us to our destination. My Dad was not a patient man and did not like driving in traffic (probably the main reason we lived in Hinckley). A few miles from the hospital his driving became very erratic and a quick swerve caused the kerosene heater to tip over, spilling the propellant all across the plywood lining the bed of the truck. The flame from the heater instantly ignited the kerosene and we became a rolling fireball. My beautiful green balloon was the first casualty of the fire, it popped immediately! My Mother was shrieking, but of course two windows (the camper shell and the pickup truck) with a few inches of air between separated us from my Dad and he could not hear her screams. I remember my lungs burning for lack of air within seconds and her yelling for me to pound on the glass. I was pounding and screaming and Mom pulled one of the quilts off of me and was trying to beat out the flames, but my Dad just kept driving through the streets of San Francisco. Luckily, someone in another vehicle saw our plight and caught my Dad’s attention and he stopped. He yanked open the camper and the tailgate of the truck and quickly pulled out the flaming plywood to finish beating out the flames outside the truck.
Shortly after the flames were extinguished we realized the second casualty of the incident was the beautiful handmade butterfly quilt that had been covering me and was the weapon used against the flames. My Mother had spent countless hours lovingly piecing and quilting on this creation and now it was charred black in many places and burned completely through in others. Then the thought occurred to my parents that we could have all died in a fiery explosion considering how close the gas tank was to the roaring fire. Also, another couple of seconds and my Mom and I would have been completely asphyxiated in the small area with precious oxygen burning at such a rate.
While all of these thoughts were stirring in my parents’ minds, I was sobbing on the bed in the truck. Both of them scrambled up to be near me and see if I was hurt. I didn’t get burnt and I wasn’t even scared about the fire, I was upset about losing my green helium balloon. They tried to comfort me and finally calmed me down by promising to buy me another balloon.
It wasn’t until years later when I was telling this story to someone that I realized I had been spared a terrible death by fire. During the preceding years whenever I had thought about that occasion I always came back to the fact that my parents had never replaced that balloon.