One Hot Evening In a Very Small Town

EVERY once in a while something big happens that reconfirms your faith in small-town living. It had been one of those rotten days when everything goes wrong. My mother and I set up the card table for a cozy, comfortable supper in front of the living-room fireplace. She laid her usual exuberant fire, a bag of waste paper and twigs to kindle the oak and cedar logs.

My mother and I live together in the farmhouse in rural West Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard, where she spent her childhood. It's a house that's been in the family since it was built 2 1/2 centuries ago. I moved back to the island recently from the big city, Washington, D.C.

The house is an island landmark, close to the road, shadowed by old horse chestnut and maple trees. From it you can look across open fields and pastures where bobwhites nest to the white-spired church in the center of town. When the wind is southwest, it carries the sound of the church bell ringing the hours and the smell of new-mown hay.

The warmth of the hearth fire is both physical and spiritual. It conjures up sweet memories dating back to something primordial, a holding back of terrible beasts, a soothing flicker of comfort. As my mother set a match to the kindling I started to say something about making too large a bonfire, when WHUMPF! - accumulated creosote and soot inside the chimney caught fire with a muffled explosive roar.

I raced outdoors. Six-foot high flames shot out of the chimney.

I raced inside and dialed 911. ``A chimney fire in the Riggs house.'' The operator got information she needed, and I yelled at my mother to get out of the house immediately.

You need to know something about my mother, who will be 93 on her next birthday. She is an unflappable New Englander to her bone marrow. ``There's no need to get so excited,'' she said. ``Your great-grandfather used to set fire to the chimney on purpose every year to clean it out.'' Behind her, the chimney roared like a jet taking off.

Within seconds, the siren sounded at the West Tisbury Volunteer Fire Department a half-mile down Edgartown Road. And within a couple of minutes, the first volunteer fireman arrived in his four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The chimney roared like a blast furnace, sucking in air to feed the flames inside. Globs of flaming tar dropped into the fireplace.

The fireman and I went up the stairs two at a time to the second floor, to my mother's book-littered bedroom, and felt the surface of the boarded-up upstairs fireplace. The metal stovepipe plate was too hot to touch. Then we went up to the attic, breathless, to check the chimney there.

My mother's house has unusually high ceilings for an old house. The attic peak must be 30 feet above ground level. At one time three fireplaces and a stove fed into the massive brick and oyster-shell mortar chimney. We felt the chimney. Still cool, but we could feel the rumble of flames inside. We moved the furniture away from it, just in case.

Sirens and flashing lights. Every piece of fire equipment in West Tisbury arrived, pieces of equipment we had argued about in town meeting, and finally voted to buy. Equipment blocked one lane of the Edgartown Road - two fire trucks and an ambulance, and almost a dozen vehicles of firemen called from supper, gardening, construction jobs.

Deep-throated engines chugging. Lights flashing. Radios crackling with static-shrouded voices. Our neighbors, camouflaged in yellow slickers, boots, and helmets, swarmed in, deferentially, purposefully. Two to the attic. Two to the second floor. Ladders up to the roof (``be careful of the flowers in the garden''). One fireman braced the ladder, three scrambled up to the high, high roof, chains clanking, lugging up heavy equipment.

Years ago there was a ``lookout'' on the roof (my great-grandfather, a sea captain, refused to call it a ``widow's walk''), blown off by a gale a half century ago. From the lookout you could see Tisbury Great Pond and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

The sun set. Twilight, darkness settled in. The volunteer firemen turned on floodlights to light the chimney and the men on the roof. Generators throbbed on the fire trucks.

Now that the fire (and her daughter) seemed to be under control, my mother returned to the house and put the lamb chops into the oven to keep warm.

In the living room, the ominous dull rumbling of the chimney continued. The firemen rolled back the carpet, away from the hearth, held a flameproof blanket against the fireplace, and shot off flare-like oxygen-depleting chemicals into the throat of the tall chimney to starve the fire, to cut off the supply of fresh air slurped up by the great draft.

My mother assumed her role as hostess. ``Those are your own names on the backs of your coats, aren't they?'' she asked a fireman.

``Yes'm.'' Into the radio: ``Can you tell if the flames are still spreading?''

The radio: ``No, we can knock down most of the burning stuff.''

``You must be Dan'l's grandson, aren't you?''

``Yes'm.'' To the radio: ``How hot are the bricks?''

The radio: ``Red hot.''

``When Dan'l visited, he used to sit right here, in front of the fire. Those andirons have been here since the Revolutionary War.''

``Yes'm.'' (Radio crackles.) ``Incandescent? Any bricks loose? Watch your footing up there.''

From the roof the firemen lowered a metal brush on a chain into the red-hot chimney to knock off still flaming tar.

Two-and-a-half hours after my call the firemen left, first clearing out the heap of burnt tar in the fireplace, rolling back the carpet, and neatening everything. By then, the chimney in the attic was too hot to touch. (It was still warm the next morning.)

As the firemen left, they apologized as if they had created the smell, a stinking combination of burnt creosote, old cigars, and unknown worrisome things.

Our profuse thanks, profuse apologies.

``We need the practice,'' one fireman said. ``I've been on the West Tisbury Fire Department for two years, and this is only my second fire.''

``It wouldn't do to have this house burn down,'' another said.

``Be sure to remember us at town meeting,'' the chief said.

As we set out our dinner plates before the empty, cold hearth, my mother commiserated on my rotten day. Actually, it ended pretty well, considering.

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