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Rain, Flames, And the Comfort of Home

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SINCE early morning, the rain had been steady, a perfect day to hunker down at home behind the computer for six or seven hours and add a few more pages to a slowly evolving novel. By 11 a.m. I was at maximum concentration. I didn't even hear the vacuum cleaner start up when Jose came to clean the carpets downstairs.

My computer sits on a desk in front of two windows in a room three stories above the neighborhood street. Too much staring at the computer screen can be relieved by glancing up and out the window to a tree and brownstones across the narrow street.

It was while staring this way that I heard and felt a house-shaking whomp! The two windows were suddenly completely filled with a sheet of very bright, red flames. The computer screen went black. Lights flickered. The flames disappeared. An odd growling sound rolled through the house.

As a native Californian, well-seasoned by earthquakes, I am not accustomed to sheer panic when huge events suddenly strike. I dove to my knees and automatically unplugged the computer and printer from the wall. Save the novel at all costs. Downstairs Jose was yelling, ``It's going to blow! Call 911!''

The air outside my desk window was filled with black smoke. My wife in the back part of the house was yelling, ``What happened?'' and my daughter, not 10 minutes out of the shower, was dressing to go to work.

The growling, like some huge beast, continued to roll and mumble.

Buried under the street, not 20 feet from our front door, is a large electric transformer. All transformers along these Boston South End streets are known to be ancient. Sometimes accumulated rainwater sets them off; sometimes overuse. And other times, the explosions are inexplicable. A year ago, two streets away, an explosion lifted massive gratings high in the air. Now, in front of our house, the gratings held, but flames reached the third floor.

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