Sunday, October 24, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 226: Biomythography - Note 3, Save the Cat

A Biomythography - Note 3
by Secret Hippie

Not What it Sounds Like:
Saving a Cat from a Burning House

For fifteen minutes, I took apart my IBM PC 286 in order to put more RAM chips into it. When I had the RAM inserted, no bent pins this time, I partially re-assembled the computer. I blew a spritz of compressed air over the stainless steel, black-baked wafers, and green substrate.

When I hit the power switch, my system booted up. Finally, I had 2 megabytes of main memory. That was all I wanted to see. On the way to shutting down, though, I decided to test the modem by connecting to a couple of my favorite local BBS sites (bulletin boards, which were full of online chat, risque pictures, amateur writing, and games with primitive graphics). My phone connection was fine. I read up on the latest local computer news. Then, barely, I resisted the urge to stay up all night with games and turned my system off.

Even though the next day was free with no grad school classes on the schedule, I wanted to keep my sleep pattern adjusted to lights out before sunrise. That made class attendance easier.

When I threw myself on my twin bed, I noticed the smell of burning plastic. It didn’t mean much to me. Our next-door neighbors burned piles of trash sometimes. Plus my father always, really always, kept cigars burning around the house, sometimes two or three steaming away with the coals forgotten and nearly cold.

On the rare occasion when there was nothing melting in an ashtray, a stray breeze could push old smoke around the house and make me think someone was burning trash again.

When I woke in the morning, the air was smokier than ever. That was odd. I had heard my father go to bed before me. I hadn’t noticed him getting up but it was a workday for both of my parents. They couldn’t be in the house.

I wandered around to make sure neither of them had taken the day off. When I trudged upstairs from the basement, I noticed a haze of smoke in the kitchen. It was in the dining room, too. In fact, the further I looked in the house, the more I noticed the haze. Squinting down the longest upstairs hall revealed a silver mist. On top of that, I heard a faint buzzing sound. It wasn’t natural.

I marched through every room but I couldn't find out where the fog was coming from. The air smelled stronger upstairs, too, sort of metallic and burning rubber.

Passing through the hall, I heard the faint whining sound again but I didn’t locate it.

Finally, I went back downstairs and got to work. I had to. The grad classes had projects due and I had writing that wouldn't wait. To my surprise, though, my computer wouldn't turn on. It was dead. I clicked the switch a dozen times to be sure. I re-seated the power cable. I popped the surge suppressor. I tested the outlet with a lamp. It was working.

“Damn.” This seemed like sort of an emergency.

So I headed back upstairs. I marched around growing more mystified and more frustrated. Eventually, I decided the silvery mist was real. It looked darker than it had earlier. Also, I located the faint buzzing sound. It was coming from the smoke detector. Due to its feeble battery, it had pretty nearly given up the ghost. But not quite. If I put my head next to it, I could tell that the sound was definitely from the dime-sized speaker.

I decided to go outside and see if anything made more sense from there.

Out the front door and about twenty meters into the yard, since it was a big yard, I turned around. There it was – billows of smoke. Okay. My parents’ house was on fire. Gray clouds puffed from the east side of the house. Not from the chimney, which was fine and clear. Just from one side. Something over there was really burning, probably in the attic.

All my training flooded back to me and I discovered that it was, basically, no training. I had been in fires before, though, so I had memorized the basics.

1) Save the people
2) Call the fire department
3) Leave the building until the fire fighters arrive

So I looked around. My parents' dog had died the year before. There was no one but me and the cats. It was time to give the old heave-ho to our feline force.

“Come here,” I said and made the kissy noises my mother gave them when she had cat treats. There were no animals in sight. I crouched down anyway and put out my hand. “Come on now.”

A moment later, the grandmother cat strode into view. She muscled across the carpet to me, arthritic but strong. She was small and she was smart, about twenty years old but not senile. She ruled the house. In fact, she had been the head cat for at least five years. Once I got her out, that would set the tone for the others, I figured.

When I picked her up, she pushed her head against mine. When that wasn’t enough, she pushed again from my cheek to my neck. It was the kind of affection she gave when she knew she was getting a treat. But I walked her out the front door and put her down on the porch. I didn’t hand out any treats.

“Sorry.” Immediately, I pulled the screen door closed. She sat down on the porch and gave me an offended look.

It didn’t take long to find the next cat, a sixteen pound tom. Hands full, I opened the screen door with my foot and swept him out onto the porch.

“Damn it!” The grandmother cat darted back inside and ran away.

Fortunately, she was old and didn’t bother to run far. While she paused to clean herself, I scooped her up. I elbowed through the door and put her down at the bottom step of the porch. She growled as if I’d I'd betrayed her.

“Oh, come on!  The house is on fire. Can’t you smell it?” I pleaded. Then I found another cat, put it outside, and stomped the ground in time to prevent the grandmother cat from going back in.

“Hah!” I grabbed the next cat and paused as I headed out the door. I couldn't see the grandmother cat anywhere. Had she retreated under a bush to sulk? Maybe.

Anyway, there was a fire. I had to keep moving. I pushed the screen door, leaned down with the cat in my arms, and … the grandmother cat darted in out of nowhere.

“Okay,” I sighed.

I stomped around the porch to prevent the next cat from trying, closed the door, and gave up on our pets. The only phone in my parents house was the hallway phone next to the front door. I picked it up and called for the fire department.

“Did you get everyone out of the house?” the lady dispatcher asked.

“There’s just me.”

“Do your parents have any pets?”

“I’m still working on the cats.”

She told me, as I expected, to get everything living out of the house.

“It sounds like, by the time you finish, the fire truck will be there. They’re on the way from Poolesville.”


With a burst of energy, I captured the grandmother cat as she hid from me between boxes under the sofa. After that, there was only one more animal to find and somehow I managed. I was working on the house plants (also living things, after all, so they don't like getting burned up) when the fire trucks arrived. They had brought two, I noticed, a big one and a small one. That seemed like overkill. Then, to complete the set, they drove up an ambulance a moment later.

“Are you the owner?” A man hopped down from the passenger side of the big truck.

“Um.” I tried to explain that I was a graduate school student living in my parents’ house.

“Same thing,” he said, waving off further explanation.

The fire fighters seemed like regular guys to me. They were pretty genial, each and every one, but they were competent with fires, especially the veterans in the crew. Their chief asked me to lead them around the house and show them the possible sources of the fire. I did a lot of explaining. Fortunately, the dispatcher had told them nearly everything I had told her so I didn’t need to repeat myself much.

“Well, first thing,” said the chief. “We’re going to have to cut the roof.”

I experienced a flash of alarm about explaining this to my parents. “Do you have to?”

“Yep. It’s standard.” He gestured to where we were standing. “I really shouldn’t be having my men walk through without that. It’s supposed to come first. But you seem to be doing okay.”

“Well, then you have to.”

“I should warn you, it’s going to make things look worse. The air inside here will actually be better. It’s going to make things safer. But to you, it’s going to look alarming.”

For another twenty minutes or so, I moved pets and plants (including the grandmother cat one last time). After that, I carried out my computer and parts kits, even though it was probably too late for them. I couldn’t really make myself believe that the smoke had damaged them permanently. I carried out data disks. I moved the old CP/M computers.

A couple of times, men stopped by to ask where me where things were in the house. One of them was the chief.

To make sure I was still allowed, I said, "Do you mind if I keep moving stuff out?"

A pair of the fire fighters walked by. The chief patted the closest one on the shoulder. In retrospect, this crew chief was only thirty years old, if that. But he was in his element, calm and happy to talk.

"Yep. Keep going. If you feel bad, get out. Otherwise, we’ll ask you to come with us sometimes and point things out."

The cats had long ago gone into hiding in the bushes around the house. Although I searched for a few seconds, I didn’t see any of them. On one of my trips to the front yard, though, I noticed that the fire crew had finished cutting the hole into the roof. What the fire chief had warned me about was spot on. The hole made things look way, way worse. There was more smoke than ever. It billowed out in thick, dark clouds.

By that point, our activity had gathered a crowd. I was surprised to see so many people, actually, nearly a dozen, because my parents didn't have many neighbors. There was a football field or more between houses and many of the lines of sight were blocked by forest.

The smoke looked dramatic, though. It really had gotten worse, I judged. The fire, regardless of whatever weird way it had started, was getting stronger.

"You're not supposed to go back into the burning building!" someone called, a neighbor. I looked at her hands. She was wringing them. It’s not often you actually see someone do that.

"Well, the fire fighters are letting me." I didn’t know what to tell her. It wasn’t like I intended to stop. Everything that I could take from the house was an item that potentially didn’t have to be destroyed by the firemen or the fire.

My neighbor, though, seemed more than worried. She was scandalized by the fact that I was pulling out all of my parents' possessions and putting them on the lawn.

“Are they supposed to let you do that?” she said.

“I guess I could ask again.”

As I strolled through the house, the crew chief pulled me aside and said, "Where is the switchbox?"

"For electrical power?"

"Yeah.” He snorted. “We need to shut it down."

I forgot about any other questions I might have had and led him to the switchbox in the basement. To my surprise, smoke was now visibly wafting down the hollow shaft in the wall above the switchbox.

"Uh huh," he said with a half-smile, as if this confirmed something. "Can you hit the main breaker?"

"It'll turn off all the power in the house."

"That's the idea."

"You're not using any?"

"Not any more."

With that, I turned and shut off the house power. We went our separate ways for a few minutes. At some point, I started lingering on my parent’s front lawn. I had run out of possessions I could easily move. It seemed crazy to pull paintings off of the walls. It seemed trivial to rescue the vacuum cleaner.

That’s why the chief marched out to find me on the lawn.

"We found the source of the fire." he announced. "We had to go into the attic. Then we blocked airflows and watched what happened. It's an electrical fire."

"But I didn't see anything."

"Electrical fires are inside the walls, sometimes. We found the wall that's warm. It’s hot, actually, really hot in places. When we turned off the power to it, the fire kept burning."

"Oh, shit."

"We're cutting into that wall right now. I just wanted to warn you. We're going to take care of it and really put it out. But it's going to ruin the wall."

I watched black smoke continue to billow out of the hole his men had cut into my parents' roof. All of this had gone on without my parents. But it was their house, their stuff. Now that it was under control and I had time, I was going to have to call them.

"Well, you've got to, right?" I said.

He knew what I was thinking. "Right."

"Okay, then. Thanks."

That evening, with holes in the wall and the roof, with some of our family possessions destroyed, and with the wind picking up, I sat down with my parents to re-tell them the events from beginning to end. They had heard from the fire department. They had called their insurance company. They gotten out tarps for me to put over our furniture still sitting on the lawn. They had strategically closed doors and taped plastic barriers over holes. It had been tough few hours.

“Are we missing any cats?” my father asked.

“I got them all outside.” We all turned to look at the grandmother cat. She was sleeping on the sofa. “I don’t think they’ve all come back inside but they were all safe today.”

“You didn’t bring in all of the plants.”

“Well, they’re the one type of thing that won’t get ruined it if rains on them.” Plus I was tired.


My mother nodded. “They can stay out overnight, Bob. The plants will be fine.”

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