Rain, Flames, And the Comfort of Home

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.

``Is going to blow again!'' yelled Jose, who had been vacuuming just in front of the downstairs window when the transformer blew. His red flames were apparently much redder and brighter than mine. For some reason he had a potted red poinsettia in his hand and was headed swiftly for the front door. ``I come back next week,'' he said, clutching the poinsettia, and was gone.

There was another whomp! and flames shot skyward. We decided to evacuate too, just as sirens could be heard getting nearer and nearer. You think you will know what to grab at a time like this, just in case you might never see your house again. Family photos? Your great-grandmother's silverware? Immediate evacuation means we grabbed coats and umbrellas as we rushed out, stepping into acrid black and brown smoke that swirled out of the grating.

In the pouring rain, we stood with other people around the corner from the building while several fire engines and police cars with twirling red and blue lights arrived. Three more times the beast sent red flames into the air. The police said all the houses near the transformer were being evacuated. ``Three hours at least,'' said a policeman.

We stood there a little bewildered, concerned and prayerful, the slanting rain soaking our backsides. ``I don't have any socks on,'' said my daughter. Shoes, yes. Socks, no.

I watched the flames spurt again. Had a $20 surge protector connected to my computer done its job in saving my novel when the first surge had hit? Would we see the inside of our house again? Did I forget my socks, too? (No, I hadn't.)

With soaked legs and shoes, we walked to the nearby Prudential Center Mall and bought a pair of socks for my daughter. She went off to work.

My wife and I stayed in the mall sitting on a bench while hundreds of dry Christmas shoppers passed by, unaware that we were temporarily homeless and wet. Our discussion over the next 20 minutes hinged on the idea that one can never know what problems people might be dealing with as they pass by each other in life. Making no quick judgments about the appearances of others is suddenly easier to do when you ``look'' normal but are temporarily homeless. If you don't have a home, what is home? And if you have a home, why do so many people feel homeless?

We ate a slow lunch at the mall, still amazed that the world looked so normal. Then we walked back in the rain, just as the police were taking down the yellow plastic ribbon tied to trees and iron fences that had kept foot and car traffic from our street.

A policeman told us the power company had finally shut off power to the transformer and rerouted the street to another transformer. ``You should have power in a few hours,'' he said. The street looked the same; no damage to cars, trees, or homes. The grating over the transformer was blackened but otherwise as ancient looking as always.

Inside, we lit candles and a fire in the fireplace. We read books and magazines. It felt like home. We discussed how little we could get by on if we really had to. Jose called and apologized for running off with the poinsettia. Later we were told that an account of the explosion made the local evening news.

Outside, a man in a fully protected, plastic yellow suit, boots, industrial-strength gloves, and headgear went down in the transformer hole and sent up buckets and buckets of toxic water that were dumped into barrels and then sealed. At least 10 men stood around while he worked.

By 7 p.m., the electricity popped on. Damage was limited to a microwave oven that wouldn't work and two smoke alarms that got zapped by the electrical surge.

Upstairs, I tentatively plugged in my computer and turned it on. All the introductory computer stuff flowed across the screen. I asked to see my novel, please. Some more screen changes and preliminaries flashed by; then, bingo, there were all 150 pages, for better or worse, just as I had left them. Bravo to the surge protector. Bravo to the power company.

Home again.

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