Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Story: Gretchen, Wake up, the Barn's on Fire by Bruce Mero

Happy First Sunday of the Month! Linking up to Sian's Sunday Story to share a piece of my childhood. 

Gretchen, Wake up, the Barn's on Fire
by Bruce H. Mero

          A strange popping, crackling noise woke me.

          "What the heck is the cat doing now?" I mumbled, only to get a barely audible grunt back from Gretchen.

          I listened for a minute or so.  The noises continued so I decided to investigate. It was just passed four thirty, but when I opened the bedroom door, the orange glow streaming through the opposite window was startling. I walked a couple of steps toward the window when the reality of what I was looking at hit me. It was not sunrise I was seeing, but flames...our barn was on fire!

          I yelled to Gretchen as I slipped into a pair of jeans..."the barn is on fire, wake up!"

          I bolted down the stairs and ran to the back door. The barn on the north side of our farmyard was burning, flames were leaping into the night sky. I ran for the telephone, only to find Gretchen already telling the person on the other end of the line that we had a building on fire. We both went to the back yard, but the heat from the fire kept us a distance away. There was nothing we could do. Gretchen had the presence of mind to have grabbed the camera on her way outside and she was snapping photos of the fire. We could not get close to the barn. After what seemed like an eternity we could hear fire sirens in the distance. The Lee Center Volunteer Fire barn is about four miles from our place. The fire trucks were rolling, getting closer with each scream of the sirens. I put my arm around Gretchen to give her a hug and realized that she was only wearing panties as she stood there. I suggested that she might put something more on before the fire trucks arrived.

          "Oh, right!" she replied, leaping up the back steps and inside the house as the Fire Chief's vehicle pulled into the driveway.

          "My guys will be here in a minute," he said as he came along side me on the lawn. "By the looks of it, your barn's a goner, I'm afraid. Are there any hazardous materials in there, propane tanks, gasoline?"

          Just then a small explosion within the barn and a flaming streak rocketed toward the sky.

          "There are a hundred paint cans stored there," was my reply. The previous owner of the farm had been a painter and left us all of the paint he'd accumulated during his tenure here. We'd thought that it might be useful, so not discarded any of the paint in the several years we'd owned the place. Another can exploded and smoke and flames trailed the rocketing can into the sky.

          "What else is in there?" said the Chief as his first truck pulled into the yard and his guys piled out, putting on their turn-out gear as they unrolled hoses.

          "Tools, garden tools and my beekeeping stuff," was my reply. "And Chickens."

          "Chickens?" the Chief questioned. He then shouted instructions to his crew, telling them about the paint and the chickens, as more flaming paint-can comets exploded into the sky.

          Gretchen returned, more appropriately dressed for our early morning company.

          Within minutes two dozen volunteer firemen were working the fire, shouting instructions to each other and spraying water onto the flames from hoses hooked to a tanker truck which had arrived. While they worked to put out the fire, I could hear the guys making clucking sounds and joking about fried chicken for breakfast.

          At some point during the excitement, Mitra joined us in the back yard to watch the fire. She'd slept through the sirens and trucks arriving and the yelling, said it was the chicken clucking sounds that got her out of bed.

          The Fire Chief asked me to cut the electrical circuit to the barn if I could, the heat from the fire had melted the insulation from the electric line between the house and the barn and the wire was now on the ground and arcing, making fires in the dried grass. At some point the hoses were turned onto the shingles on the house closest to the fire to cool them and prevent a second catastrophe.

          By daybreak, an hour and a half after it was discovered, the fire was out. Firemen were rolling up their hoses and removing fire clothing. Still, an occasional clucking noise could be heard from the guys stowing their gear. Only a portion of the back wall of the barn still stood, the rest of the barn and the greenhouse we'd only recently built on its south wall was gone. It was a total loss.  Before he left, the Chief told me that a Fire Inspector would be coming to see if they could find a cause for the fire, though he would report that the likely source was the greenhouse...the fire had appeared to spread from there in two directions. The Fire Inspector arrived later that morning. Eventually, it was officially determined that the opinion of the Fire Chief was straight was the greenhouse where the fire initiated. The official ignition source was determined to be a faulty heat tape in the growing bed in the greenhouse.

          I called into work, told my secretary what had happened and took the day off. Mitra skipped school.

          Mitra and I spent the early morning recovering roasted chicken carcasses and burying them ceremoniously in the orchard, thirty of them. We found burned-out paint cans a hundred feet from the charred remains of the barn. That the fire was intense was evident in the pools of melted glass we found where the greenhouse windows had melted. Gretchen contacted our friend at the insurance company and informed him of the fire. Norm told us to begin to make a list of the items we'd lost in the fire. Later that afternoon an insurance adjuster arrived to look things over. He reiterated the request to list the items we'd lost, but asked that we add a replacement cost for each item and the approximate age of each. The Sears catalog was very helpful. Admittedly, though, unaccounted-for items that were burned-up in the fire are still coming to memory, all these years later.

          Mitra recalls the clucking noises made by her politically-incorrect bus driver as he delivered her to our driveway each day for weeks after the fire.

          We did alright. The barn and its contents were insured. The insurance adjuster and insurance company were fair. We were eventually able to re-build the barn and replace the items we most needed that were lost in the flames. Hence the second part of this story.

          The day after the fire I went to work. Gretchen combed through the ashes to recover whatever was left of our possessions, though there was little the flames had not consumed. Mitra went back to school and told tales of the previous day's adventure, complete with the chicken clucking stuff of the firemen.

          At the end of the morning staff meeting, my boss, Sherm mentioned our fire and announced that a barn-raising party to replace the lost structure would be happening soon and that he wanted his engineering staff's full assistance with the design and construction of the replacement structure. I was not even thinking replacement, so soon after the fire, but Sherm turned me in another direction by his announcement and our loss turned positive.

          Within the month we had a generous check from the insurance company for the loss of the barn and its material contents. The chickens, however were not insured. By then we had also settled on a design for the replacement barn and had secured the requisite permits from the Town of Lee. The building inspector commented, when we submitted our plans, that he'd never before seen an architect-stamped set of blueprints for a chicken coop. Of course, our new barn was to be more than just a chicken coop. We had designed into the barn a large, rat-proof space for a new flock of chickens, a large woodshed, greenhouse and a drive-thru spot to park our tractor and trailer and ample space to store our gardening tools.

          Sherm had set the next phase into motion. We had an insurance settlement. The Lee Center Volunteer Fire Department allowed us to burn the remainder of the barn. We then hired a guy with a backhoe to dig us a hole behind the barn and bury what remained of the barn and greenhouse (and some other useless stuff that we'd had kicking around). The backhoe broke-up the concrete floor of the barn. We then discovered an unintended benefit of the had completely wiped-out a colony of Norway rats that had been living in a den beneath the concrete and eating free from the chicken feed we'd been providing our, now-defunct birds twice daily. The fire had consumed the oxygen from beneath the slab and the rats had all suffocated.

          Within a week, seven dump-truck loads of sand and gravel covered what remained of the old barn foundation (as well as numerous old tires and several defunct small appliances, including an ancient TV set). The plan was to install a couple dozen 12' pressure treated posts within the new fill, pour a concrete floor and then do a barn-raising weekend a couple of weeks hence. Things went according to plan, mostly. We rented a post-hole digging contraption from the local rental place to place the poles, but were offered a discount on the rental because the throttle on the motor was not working properly. That should have been a clue. The device required two digger-contraption holders and a throttle control person to make it work. Gretchen was the throttle controller, my friend Bill and I were the diggers. It took a couple of holes for us all to get accustomed to the digger, but after five of so holes we were pros....that is until we dug a hole and hit that old TV set we'd buried within the fill. Before Gretch could let-off on the throttle, Bill and I had rotated six or seven times around the auger (which had drilled through the TV screen and stuck itself in the wires and plastic case of the TV set), feet dragging and hollering "Shut-it-off" to Gretchen. It took an hour and a half to extricate the auger from that old TV set. After that the digging was easy since none of the other junk we'd buried was encountered. We completed setting the poles the next day.

          We hired a friend, Louie to do the concrete work the next Saturday. All went well...Lou and his accomplice were pros. That next week in after-dinner sessions, Gretchen and I, Dad and Mary and my Uncle Ted built 26 roof trusses. 4000 ring nails and 250 nail plates later we were ready to raise a barn. Fifty people were invited, twenty showed up...not all of them willing to work. Jimmy wanted to chill, in the shade in lawn chairs with my Mom and her friend, Jody to watch the proceedings. (Jimmy... accordingly to Jody... hit on her - 30 years his senior and offered her a joint behind the other barn.) We dared not ask what happened. The rest of those folks who came contributed mightily. My boss Sherm and friend Bill set all 26 roof trusses. We did refuse to tap the keg of beer until the roof steel was on late in the afternoon, figuring (correctly) that once the brew flowed, the work stopped. We did, however, have a most of the barn up by the time that first beer was poured. We ate and drank until the keg was empty. Chicken was not on the menu.

          Over the next few weeks, Gretchen and I hung the glass on the greenhouse and installed doors at both ends of the woodshed and into the chicken coop. It was nice enough to live in, and a huge improvement over what we had been taken by fire less than a month before.

          That was 25 years ago. We are still using the woodshed, greenhouse, tractor shed and chicken coop, functions that our new structure was designed to provide. It works perfectly...just as it was intended. The building inspector was so impressed with the design that, over the years he has recommended others in the town make a visit to our place to see our barn...a  complement to the guys who worked with us on the final plan.

           The community that came here to put out the fire and help us rebuild is the best part of this story. The fire guys clucking chicken noises while they put water on the flames is  memorable. The barn raising unforgettable. Whatever came of Jimmy's offer to Jody the mystery. Never in a million years would I recommend a fire to bring folks together, but it worked for us.


  1. Great story - seems like all farmers need a fire story and I'm glad this one ended well (possibly not for the original chickens though..).

    Such a cool record of family memeories, love these stories. x

  2. OH no.. that would have been an awful experience, but then the new shed may have helped with the painful memories..

  3. That must have been a very traumatic experience indeed. I think I'll be thinking about those poor chickens for the rest of the day..

    ..but a super story full of atmosphere and little details which add to the enjoyment so much. I loved the barn raising photo! many thanks for joining in again this month and adding your story to the library

  4. What a bonfire! Poor chickens....clucking sounds would certainly have a specific meaning within your family:):):) And I note the short shorts on some female members putting up the new barn....nothing new with fashion!

  5. Wow what a detailed and interesting and scary story. This looks great in the end though!

  6. Gosh what a traumatic event but what a great community of people and a fab new barn.

  7. Glad the fire wiped out the rat colony - do not like wild rats!

    Poor chickens but that is one awesome barn/greenhouse. Great story telling too.

  8. Poor old chooks! Another great story by your dad
    Alison xx

  9. Such an amazing story...heartbreak, humor, and hope. Another wonderful piece of history preserved!

  10. Great to hear that something good came from the fire. That barn is very nice. Great story.

  11. Great Story, sad that so many chickens had been roasted but at least that was the worst of it. Thanks for sharing.


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