The Flames Fueled Our Courage

As I sat on the freshly washed clay tile floor in the doorway of our new home in Panama, hoping for a breeze, a distant crackling noise caught my ear.

"What's that?" I asked my husband.

"Just dry leaves rustling. The wind's coming up."

We were preparing for the arrival of our furniture the following day, and with the year-end holidays past, had little with which to busy ourselves. Our new home sparkled and shone. A well-earned rest in the heat of the day seemed appropriate.

Again the sound disturbed me. January is the beginning of Panama's summer, or dry season, when many trees shed leaves and quickly put forth new ones. There is little resting time between seasons.

Somehow it didn't quite sound like dry leaves to me, but Frank had lived in Panama before and probably knew natural sounds better than I did.

I resumed my enjoyment of the mountain view and my happiness in the design of our house. From the kitchen I could see the fourth green of the golf course in back, and by pivoting around could view acres of waving grass in front, red-brown and gold against blue mountains.

I stood up and looked toward the sound. Wispy blue smoke trailed upward from a spot at least a mile away across a wide meadow of tall grass.

"It's a fire!" I said, trying to contain my excitement.

Windblown flames soon became visible, growing in height and breadth as the sound increased. Tall flames rolled toward us like a huge ocean wave about to break on the beach.

"What are we going to do?" I asked. "Shouldn't we move the car down the street? Are we going to stay?"

"I'm going to stay," my husband said. "We'll make a line of water along the far edge of the lawn and throw up some water to wet the eaves."

"We could buy a hose at the hardware store and be back in 20 minutes," I suggested. The fire was moving fast but still a long way off.

I had forgotten that, as an engineer, it was Frank's daily job (indeed, his mindset) to do things as economically as possible. "Why?" he said. "There's a hose coming with the movers tomorrow."

The house was cement-block and tiled-roof construction, hardly in danger of burning except for the wooden eaves, but it was brand new and sparkling white. We wanted it to stay that way.

I scooped up our passports, driver's licenses, travelers checks, and keys, stowed them in the car, and drove down the road a bit. Ours was the only house in sight. There was no phone, no fire department to call.

I ran back to help carry water and find wet towels to cover our faces. We had only a tea kettle, a double boiler, and a mop bucket for the job. We ran back and forth with our pathetic quantities of water until the 50-foot line at the edge of our lawn was well soaked. The flames were roller-coastering toward the house and would reach us within minutes. As flaming bits of grass blew around us, we threw water at each other to prevent our clothing from catching fire, and to cool down. It was fun. It broke the tension.

The smoke thickened, and I handed Frank a wet towel to hold over his nose and mouth. I looked down at our feet, now flecked with carbonized pieces of grass. We were both wearing sandals. "Golf shoes!" I shouted over the noise. "We have to put on our golf shoes!" and ran indoors to find them.

Frank threw the last bucketful of water on the eaves and stopped to look at the smaller, quieter flames nibbling at our green grass. The line of water held them at bay until they died out at the edge for lack of fuel. I handed my husband his golf shoes, now unnecessary.

It was an exhilarating moment. We had contained the fire with the humblest of utensils, emerged unscathed, our documents and pocketbooks intact, and our beautiful new house unscorched. Tomorrow the hose, useful for future year-end blazes, would come with the furniture.

"I'm glad you're not as afraid of fire as you are of spiders," Frank said, by way of a compliment.

"Anyway, we probably didn't have enough time to buy a hose," I answered, in the generosity of the moment. Later he made an excuse to drive to the hardware store, and returned with a hose.

WE sat at our picnic table that night, watching the flames leapfrog up the mountain, flaring now and then as they fed upon fallen tree-trunks or piles of leaves trapped in a ravine. At the peak they formed a beautiful necklace that glowed all through the night.

The golf club's maintenance crew had been on the job during the fire, dashing around in golf carts to turn on greens sprinklers. Next morning, a huge bullfrog, fully the size of a Cornish game hen, sat calmly in the bunker of the fourth green enjoying the temporary puddle.

Grasses and small shrubs designed by nature to survive intense heat remained standing, their green color turned to beige, with blackened shreds of grass at their bases.

Birds, small animals, and foxes were house-hunting.

In a few days, vivid green shoots would start up once more in Panama's exuberant tropical growth pattern, obliterating the ugly black until next year.

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