Seventy Years Ago Today!

This story took place 70 years ago today, March 25, 1939.

A boy of 10 asked his mother if he could stay up and listen to Tom Mix.
She said, “Well, OK, but you must go to bed right away afterwards.”

The boy enjoyed the cowboy western and then went happily off to bed.

He had a cozy room above the front door overlooking the street in this mid-19th century house with ell containing a kitchen and woodshed. A large barn was attached to the ell.

The boy lived in the house with his mother and father and sometimes his grandfather. On the evening of March 25th the father was away shopping in Lowell – the house was in Westford, Mass. – and the grandfather was away visiting the boy’s aunt. So, the boy was alone with his mother in the big house.

The boy had just dozed off to sleep when suddenly there was his mother shaking him and saying, “I smell smoke! I think the house is on fire!”

She grabbed the boy’s hand, pulled him out of bed, and dragged him bumpity-bump down the stairs and out into the street. There he could see smoke curling up from the ell and maybe some flames too.

May Day! May Day!! Yes, it was May Day, the town librarian who next grabbed his hand and began pulling him – red queen-like — toward the library just beyond a neighboring house. The boy tried to resist, but May Day was strong and tough, and she shushed him like she did unruly youths in her library.

Before he knew it, the boy was alone in the library. May Day told the boy in no uncertain terms to stay put before she and the library patrons dashed back outside to watch the fire. But the boy could see his house clearly, especially its barn, from the reading room windows, and besides, it was warmer inside the library than out – he had his pajamas on of course – so he did stay put.

By now there was considerable commotion out in the street and around his house. He hoped there were fire engines there although he couldn’t see any from the library. He began to see smoke rising from the barn, and then, whammo!, all of a sudden the barn burst into flame, quite literally becoming a fireball, even though this was indeed before the invention of the atom bomb. The boy thought, “Oh dear, I don’t think they’re going to put this fire out!”, and for the first time he became really worried and a little frightened.

It was about this time he realized he needed to “go to the bathroom”. What bathrooms? he thought. He rushed around the first floor of the library but didn’t see any men’s room signs. However, he noticed heating registers in the corners on the floor of the reading room. Hmmm, how convenient and nobody’s here, he thought. For many years thereafter the boy’s Uncle Gordon was want to make jokes about how the boy “peed down the register” in the library while his house was burning down. The boy never should have bragged about it!

Well, to make a long story short, they finally managed to put out the fire with half of the house and the entire barn burned to the ground. It seemed that hoses got tangled, or didn’t fit or something, and water ran out, etc., but eventually the volunteer force got the blaze under control. One of the firemen said later, “Well, we saved the cellar hole!”

The boy’s father came back from Lowell seeing hoses on the street leading to where? To his very own house! One can imagine how he felt.

The boy’s uncle Morton took him and his mother and father – he was an only child — to Concord to spend the night at his house, and uncle Morton presented the boy with a used bike which made him happy. He remembers trying it out that very night, or maybe it was the next night.

The little family spent the spring and part of the summer in a little camp on Lake Mattawanikee, also known as Forge Pond, while a new house was being thrown together using cheap hurricane lumber at the site of the old house. The famous New England hurricane had occurred the previous year.

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  1. GeologyJoe’s avatar

    great story. and hey, who HASN’T peed down the register? :)

  2. Steve Hayes’s avatar

    What’s a register? Apart from a book used to record attendance at classes, that is…

  3. Mardé’s avatar

    From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary the fifth definition of the word, register, is:

    5: a grille often with shutters for admitting heated air or for ventilation

    It often just sits on a level with the floor and if you stand on it when it’s emitting heat you can get extra warmth as the room is being heated. Of course, if you choose to pee down it, that will be frowned upon if it’s noticed by another person because the register is clearly not supposed to be a urinal!

    Joe, I guess you’re thinking of “register” in a more general sense, say, as any opening conveniently at hand??

  4. SleepyLaKate’s avatar

    Wow Dad, to remember the exact date and everything. Hell, I would have peed in the library register, too. I’m not sure I would have bragged about it, though.. Especially not to old Un. Morton. HA! thanks for writing that story down.

  5. Mickey’s avatar

    Funny but sad story, Marde…can’t believe it was seventy years ago!

  6. Mardé’s avatar

    Hey, Mickey! Your comment went through! See, you’re smarter than you think you are.

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