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The fire distinguisher

The local newspaper, which constantly and continuously shuns orthography, tells us Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Orff had a chimney fire at their home. The fire department, we are informed, responded and distinguished it. After the fire was distinguished, a social hour was enjoyed, to which Mrs. Orff contributed two apple pies. Let us assume they were warm. It was my whimsy to wonder if the firemen could extinguish one apple pie from the other, but Neighbor Connie shrugged a Gaelic shrug and told me it was no use. She had responded to this newspaper's abecedarian improvisations for some time, even after postage went to 20 cents, but she ceased when the editor graciously printed one of her letters and spelled her name wrong.

The Orff chimney fire, followed by apple pie, is merely another in a long list of distinguished rural fires that merits notice. Fires in the aggregate are statistics, and can be tragedies and disasters, but out in the rural areas there has always been a spectator value even in the saddest cases. Perhaps this is a consequence of distance - a fire too remote from the central hosehouse is mostly a foregone conclusion. It might as well be considered without emotion, and firemen were often congratulated on saving the cellar and the RFD box by the roadside.

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In the small town where I grew up the volunteer firemen customarily stood guard about the village on the night before July 4th, each man with two buckets of water by his feet. They waited to see if a skyrocket would find a dry shingle. To forestall a blaze, the chief always thumbtacked a notice in the post office, calling attention to an imaginary town ordinance:

''Under penalty of prosecution, in advance of any fire, blaze, or conflagration, any citizen causing same shall give ten minutes advance notice to the Chief of Hose Company.''

This served well, but fell into desuetude as the town grew and became less chummy and the fire department modernized and got expensive. Outside of town, too far to come running with pails, the custom was to save everything in a house and then stand back to see the roof go into the cellar. If the firemen got word and did come, they usually arrived to the glow of hot embers and found the neighbors sitting around under trees chewing sandwiches brought on by the wimminfolks.

There was one fire in my recollections that was a good deal more distinguished than some others. It was at the Duncan place out on the Woodchuck Road, far end of town. Abbie Duncan was about to make soap, after a morning's work in the pantry, so she revved up the kitchen range. It was a Modern Clarion, with shelves and warming oven, and it probably got too hot and started the chimney, which in turn set off the roof. Abbie kept her head, and cranked the party-line telephone in one long, wailing jingle. This brought 10 to 15 people to answer, and also Central, so in no time everybody knew the Duncan place was afire. People came, and it took just a few minutes to get everything in the house piled in safety on the lawn. Everything, that is, except the red-hot kitchen stove, and Abbie stood there wringing her hands and lamenting that it was goodbye and farewell to three pies and a marble cake in the oven. That's where things stood when the firemen arrived, the radiator on the Model T hose truck boiling. The boys laid out hoselines and stuck a suction pipe down the well.

Well, news of those pies and that cake put a different light on the matter. So grainbags were found to use like potholders, and the men went into that smoke-filled kitchen and gaffled onto the Modern Clarion and hiked it outdoors to join the other things on the lawn. Took a risk getting it, but in the excitement of a fire extra courage and strength prevail. When Abbie opened the oven, there were the pies and the cake to make it all worthwhile. Just done to perfection for the social hour that followed.

But the firemen did a miracle. They put out the fire. Some cleaning up and a little carpentry, and the Duncans were in good shape. So before the crowd went home, everybody turned to and carried everything back into the house. Everything , that is, except the Modern Clarion. Nobody could figure out how, in the excitement, the thing came through the door. Had to unbolt it and carry it back into the kitchen in pieces. Nobody could ever understand it. That was certainly a distinguished fire.

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