That fire, like so many other fires, started as an accident.
Sitting here now, only a few feet from the southwest shore of Rangeley Lake, it seems strange that I would be thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago.
The sun has barely risen, and it cuts across the lake like a sheet of diamonds. But my thoughts remain with that cold November night and the fire that would become a defining moment of my rather unremarkable life.
Laura and the kids are still asleep, oblivious to the gentle sounds of the frantic chipmunks, some lovesick chickadees and the distant hum of an old two-stroke outboard somewhere across the lake. It is so tranquil, and now the cry of an early morning loon is all that separates me from my persistent thoughts about the fire.
The sun is now beginning to creep through the boughs of the white pines, birches and poplar trees that surround me, shield me from the reality of my normal life…the day-to-day of the real world.
Day One of our vacation and I am already anxious about returning to the rattle and hum of the mundane.
So I choose to think about the fire, and I am compelled to write about it right now, even though my fingers tapping the keyboard seems like the most intrusive of noises and distractions during an otherwise perfect morning.
That fire should have changed my life, but it seems like I can never hold onto the lessons learned or the love I experienced as a result of it.
I try to pass on those lessons to my own kids, but I fail miserably whenever I try to execute the wisdom imparted to me by one of the greatest men I have ever known.
But still, when I tell the story about that night, the kids dutifully do their part: listening intently each time to the story as if they are hearing it for the first time.
Instinctively, somewhere far beneath their thoughts about girls, fast cars and their I-Pods, they know that the story has merit, meaning and purpose. They respectfully, though reluctantly, pay homage to my past. I think they appreciate my candor as I describe myself back then: back in 1980, when I was the same age they are now.
Those days when I had a permanent hard-on and a black-light in my bedroom, the days that every father should remember if he sets about to raise sons.
Invariably, I tell the story about the fire on the first night of our annual Mecca to Rangeley Lake.
Sometimes, the story is told right after we get the campsite set up. Other times, I recall the night of the great fire while the family is gathered at the dinner table at the Red Onion, the downtown restaurant that has become as much a tradition on our first night of camping as anything else, including whatever horror stories that occur when we attempt to put Beulah in the water at the boat launch.
I know why I remember the fire when we come here, and I know why I tend to forget about the fire’s lessons while I hold myself hostage and pretend to live a life with meaning back home in southern Maine.
I know why I always feel better when I travel west of Farmington or north of Bangor.
I just wish my own kids could have met him. What better men they would be if they could have known him for just five minutes.
A road less traveled
In the early years, we brought only one vehicle to Rangeley Lake, recreating memories from my wife’s own childhood. Until I met Laura, I had never eaten at the Red Onion, searched for gold in Coo’s Canyon or frolicked in the frigid waters of the Sandy River.
So, each year, in the midst of July, I would load the Jeep with our camping gear and we would ride for what seemed like days along a vaguely familiar route: up the Maine Turnpike to Exit 75, and then through the outskirts of Auburn along Center Street to the middle of the Cities of the Androscoggin.
At this point, I would start feeling the pangs of nostalgia, and my hostages in the Jeep had no choice other than to hear me ramble about a distant time, when dinosaurs still roamed and Jimmy’s Restaurant and Truck Stop in Auburn was still open for business.
We would continue along Center Street, past the gas stations, the fast-food joints and an endless string of car dealerships.
The one constant in an ever-changing universe is my perception of Auburn, one of the weariest cities in Maine, where aesthetics seemed to be an afterthought at every turn. It has not changed much in 50 years. Despite the municipal marketing campaign, nothing much seems to be happening here.
But our moods would improve as we passed Lake Auburn on our left and crossed the invisible line into Turner. The air became cooler and the sun-scorched homes along the road became less frequent.
By the time we would cross into the hamlet of Livermore Falls I was completely oblivious to the kids in the backseat as they argued about Ninetendo, GameBoys, Pokemon or a million other things I would never understand.
Instead, the projector in my mind was playing reels from 40 years ago, and the nostalgia was kicked into high gear.
No, I never camped at Rangeley, nor fed the ducks at the pond in the village. But I knew where I was. I traveled this road more times than I could count, usually in the back of my parent’s station wagon, on the way to his house.
The house where the fire happened. . . or at least close enough.
Every picture tells a story
During those early years, we camped rather simply. The Jeep was loaded with just a tent, a canoe and some hand-me-down camping gear. For the boys, it was a great adventure into the wilderness. For Laura, it was a chance to recapture some fleeting moments from a contented childhood. For me, it was an opportunity to be master and commander: a chance to prove that I was capable of taking care of others far beyond the conveniences of the microwave, my mechanic and a nearby supermarket.
By this point in the trip, we would all grow increasingly anxious about getting done with the driving. My foot would get a bit heavier on the accelerator, and we would zip along Route 4, past Bear Pond Variety and on toward Farmington, right past the intersection of Route 108 — as if that long and sometimes lonely road through Canton and Peru were nothing more than an alley into the unknown.
But I knew differently.
Before long, we would arrive in Farmington, where I would invariably point out various landmarks to my hostages: the hospital ( the one where I was born is no longer there), the meager apartment where my parents brought me home from the hospital. The university and the dorm hall, where my father lived back in the dinosaur days.
My hostages knew that my uncle and my favorite grandmother were buried at the cemetery that slopes down the hill and away from the shoulder of Route 2 in Wilton, but we never stopped there. We just kept driving west.
A series of small towns like Phillips, Strong and Avon would fade quickly in the rear view mirror before putting the Jeep’s transmission to the test and climbing heavenward (and west) to Rangeley.
Of course, the years went by like they always do. The boys got bigger and the Jeep got sold. Before long, we began bringing two cars to Rangeley Lake. After all, we now were towing a boat and pop-up-camper. Never mind the two kayaks, the same canoe from Laura’s childhood, and about 30 coolers that somehow seem absolutely necessary to enjoy seven days in the mountains of western Maine.
The camping gear is certainly newer these days, and lately our campsite now looks a lot less primitive and a lot more like something that was orchestrated by General Schwarzkopf on the outskirts of Bagdad.
We also began some new traditions.
For one, each of the boys would bring along a friend for the adventure. Thus, we required a lot more infrastructure, and a lot more cash and lot more alcohol. Spending a week with four teenagers, a Golden Retriever and a 1977 outboard requires more patience than most men can spare.
We also started taking a new route to Rangeley. Sure, there is still the Turnpike and the tedious exercise of passing no fewer than 12 traffic signals on the three-mile stretch of Route 4 through the center of Auburn, but there was major difference that always pulls at my soul in the most bittersweet way.
Sure, the new route involves some white-knuckled driving, especially along the winding and steep stretch of Route 17, where breath-taking views at the Height of the Land could be deadly if you fail to navigate some hairpin turns. But the new route also includes an element that I find both haunting and reassuring: turning left onto Route 108 in Livermore.
Every year it is the same. The weather is perfect and I am leading our caravan down that familiar road that serves as gateway to the River Valley. My hands ease on the wheel as my truck hugs the turns into Canton. I know this place.
It will be only a few minutes now.
I glance in the rear view mirror. Laura is only 40 paces behind me with the kayaks mounted on the roof rack of her SUV. She is towing the boat, and its trailer lumbers behind her dutifully, anxious in its own way to once again to be free of its 50-year-old cargo.
I have the satellite radio cranked in my trunk. A perfect day only gets better when the next song comes on the radio: Smokin’ in the Boys Room.
My fingers tap the wheel. What was that girl’s name?
When I see the sign for Worthley Pond on my left, I know that I am close. It will be 58 or so minutes before we arrive at camp, but fewer than 10 minutes before I see that house on the hill.
This year, I am driving alone, towing the camper, the dog, six camp-chairs, a grill and a propane tank. I look in the rearview mirror , and I can see that Laura’s SUV is holding up just fine. She has Matthew and his best friend riding with her and towing the boat that is older than all of us.
Behind Laura, is my oldest son with his best friend, Henry. I know that Tim is frustrated with the heat, the drive and his mother’s pace ahead of him, but he is happy to be driving and away from Matthew’s taunts.
We come around the bend, and the hills on the horizon are painfully familiar landmarks. The road straightens and we approach the center of West Peru. The cemetery on the left affords an unobstructed view, and there it sits.
Built sometime in the early 1900s, the red brick cape sits high atop a hill, some 300 yards or so left of the fire station at the intersection of Route 108.
I hold my hand out the window, pointing left over the cemetery. I can only assume that Laura knows why.
That is the house. That house, where I first came home drunk. That house, where I learned everything necessary to becoming a man. And the house that I suspect he never loved as much as his first.
I cannot afford the luxury of daydreaming now. Our caravan turns right toward the ugly green and rusted bridge that crosses the Androscoggin River. On my right, Blaisdell’s Variety blurs past, and I am comforted that it seems no different than it was more than 30 years before. I imagine it still smells the same.
Past the store, on the right, is the American Legion Hall where we celebrated his 50th birthday party.
Jesus, I am going to be 50 soon. I was sixteen then. What happened?
Leonard was my mother’s brother, and the uncle I knew best. He was 16 years older than my own parents and, in my mind, he was nothing short of the all-powerful and mighty god Zeus.
My parents finally divorced in 1980, some 15 years later than they should have. Maybe it was the delay or the frustration associated with trying so long to live under the weight of false pretenses, but their divorce, like so many other divorces, was chock full of chaos and an emotional battlefield that raged without hesitation.
I was the most impossible of teenagers. My grades disappeared off the charts. The police brought me home on a regular basis. I was full of rage, and my mother was alone with the battle and the added burden of raising my younger sister.
To this day, I credit Leonard Brooks with saving my life. On those frequent occasions when I consider suicide, one of the things that prevents me shuffling off the mortal coil is the reminder that I have a debt to my uncle that likely can never be repaid.
He would not approve, so I trudge along.
Leonard had already raised three boys and a daughter of his own. My cousins were heroes to me when I was a young boy. They were hippies, rebels and the funniest people I ever met. They knew everything about small engines, Jimi Hendrix, guns and dope.
My uncle took me in as his ward so that I could attend high school there without paying tuition. Back then it was Rumford High School, and our mascot was the Panthers.
There should be a law against changing the name of a high school or its mascot.
Leonard was incredibly intelligent and self-reliant. He towered over most people and had broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes and a disposition that encapsulates everything you can imagine about a grumpy, old guy.
He was a champion of common sense. He suffered fools lightly and had little use for flatlanders, rock n’ roll and anything south of Lewiston, especially my father.
He worked as the director of student teaching at the University of Maine in Farmington, where he was held in the highest regard for his incredible teaching skills.
Unlike my father, Leonard rarely, if ever, raised his voice. He conveyed his displeasure with a silence that was pure torture. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you listened.
So it was, during my second year of living with Leonard that the fire happened.
It happened on a chilly Friday night in mid November. Earlier that day, Leonard had left with a few friends for a weekend hunting trip. I was not allowed to join them because of my lackluster chemistry grades and a backlog of homework that was the result of my own procrastination.
There I was: stuck with my aunt and my youngest cousin, Cathy, who still lived at home and was five years older than me. The weekend certainly looked bleak, and there was a cord of firewood that would need to be stacked in the basement before my uncle’s return home on Sunday.
Cathy, however, made plans to have a much better night. With a half-baggie of some half-assed, homegrown weed and a six-pack of Budweiser, she invited one of her girlfriends over for a back yard campfire. My aunt was oblivious and already in bed.
Honestly, I don’t remember the girl’s name or even what she looked like. But I was 16 and she was 20, and I was determined to impress her.
Maybe it was because they were completely baked, or maybe it was because the wood was too green for burning. It didn’t matter, their fire was not much more than a spark and a cloud of smoke until I came along with a one-gallon can of what I thought was kerosene.
It was not kerosene. It was gasoline. If you do not understand the significance of that distinction, there’s no point in my trying to explain it.
Sure, I stood back a few feet, but that was the only smart thing I did that night.
It was like an explosion, and I panicked. The flame traveled right up to the can of gasoline in my trembling hands. I did the only thing I could at that moment. I threw the can away from me, across the backyard and, in retrospect, far too close to the snowmobile and picnic table that were parked nearby.
Cathy panicked, but could not stop giggling. “Fire, fire, fire,” she chanted, before darting into the house for a glass of water.
Pouring water on a gasoline fire? Not too smart. But she was stoned, and I was a 16-year-old driven by hormonal instinct.
The damage looked much worse in the morning. The bulk of the backyard was scorched and reeked of gasoline. The picnic table was destroyed, and the snowmobile cover had melted and was now bonded to the charred remains of my uncle’s beloved Polaris sled.
I was dead.
I would never graduate high school. I would never get laid. There was nothing more to my future than the 36 hours until my uncle would release me from the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, the law’s delay and all the other trappings of human existence.
Dead man walking
I don’t remember much else about that weekend other than the extreme sense of dread that draped over me like a heavy woolen blanket on a hot July afternoon.
My oldest cousin, Steve, stopped by the house to pick something up. He made no effort to hide his amusement about the damage, but he offered some sage advice:
“The only shot you have at survival is to just man up and own it without excuse,” he said before adding the most important part. “You should also wait until he has had a chance to settle down and have a couple shots before you tell him.”
With that, Steve was gone, taking cover from the impending storm.
Finally, it was Sunday evening. I shook hands with the grim reaper as I watched my uncle’s Dodge pickup ramble up the gravel driveway in front of the house.
I followed Steve’s advice, waiting until Leonard had settled in and able to enjoy a a shot of his preferred Scotch, Vat 69, an awful dime-store blend of rot gut that Leonard somehow seemed to enjoy.
I was shaking when I approached the kitchen table. Cathy hid upstairs in her bedroom, quiet as a church mouse.
He peered at me over the rim of his bifocals. “Yes, young fella?” He seemed to sense my dread and probably noted my ashen complexion and trembling limbs.
“I had an accident while you were gone, “ I said with as much courage as I could muster, my voice cracking.
He stiffened in his seat. “An accident?”
“Yeah, in the backyard,” I stammered, wondering how I was keeping my eyes open. “It was a fire.”
“Well, let’s go take a look,” he said evenly, without trace of any emotion whatsoever.
Together we stepped off the back porch, and he surveyed the damage quickly.
“Let’s go back inside,” he said softly.
I followed him back to the kitchen table, ready to vomit at any given moment. He grabbed a pen and the back of a discarded envelope, drawing a rather primitive diagram with a circle and an arrow.
I sat down and he explained the diagram. “When you build a fire, you always, always know which way the wind is blowing,” he explained. “Always keep your back to the wind. If you are going to use an accelerant, do so before you spark anything,” he emphasized. “Do you understand?”
I could only nod in the affirmative.
“Alrighty then, “ he said as stood up and headed to his favorite recliner in the living room.
I was in shock. “What is my punishment,” I inquired.
“Punishment?” he chuckled with his blue eyes sparkling. “What possible punishment could I give you that would be worse than what you have put yourself through over the past two days? Just don’t forget the lesson.”
And that was that. He never talked about the incident again.
My uncle died in 1997, four years before I met Laura, Tim and Matt.
I wrote his eulogy.
The world shrank, and my 50-year-old Starcraft looks exactly like his boat.
I know exactly what he would say to me today. “The only thing you need is common sense,” he would say. And with that, he would sprinkle some salt in a mug of Budweiser and put his feet up on a tattered ottoman, content that all was well with the world, at least in the world he knew.
And that lesson is priceless, the one I cannot seem to convey to my sons.
Leonard would have loved my boys. He would most certainly approve of Laura, her carefree spirit and her lack of airs.
He would shake his head in dismay if he found out that I cannot back a boat down a ramp or build a bookshelf.
But none of that would really matter to him because he knew, and still knows, that I know how to build a fire.
And if you can build a fire, everything else is going to be okay.