By BRIAN LOWRY
The evening of April 30, 2012, will long be a date that our family remembers. I had returned home from my workday, tired. Melinda and our 12-year old daughter, Kelsie, were seated in our living room playing a trivia game. I soon joined them.
At 5:30 p.m., one of the roosters crowed from the orchard. Melinda asked if I thought I should get the feeding and watering chores taken care of since I was more-than-usual tired. Because the sky was darkening and the air was warm and humid, I told her that it might not be best to go out just yet. We heard then two distant claps of thunder. They were not coming in very short intervals. In fact, nearly 15 minutes passed before we heard additional thunder.
We were contemplating a trivia question, which Kelsie had answered correctly about Australian sheep drovers, when a charge that sounded and felt like an exploding bomb rocked the house. The earth trembled. The three of us sprang up from the couch, our eyes as big as Leghorn chicken eggs. We walked about the house quickly. Believing it had been lightning hit, we were keen to find the source of entry. The fire alarms pierced our ears with their shrieking.
In the utility room, the phone rested on the floor, eight feet away from its base on the wall. It was astounding to imagine the force that had kicked it that far and to see that all the wiring attached to its base had been ripped from the wall. A dark black charcoal arc stained the wall around the base, but there was no evidence of fire there.
Within the next few seconds, we made our way upstairs and immediately smelled smoke and sensed heat. As I walked through our bedroom, I realized for the first time that my breathing had escalated and that my heart was battling against fear. We walked to the balcony, opened the door and stepped out on the deck. We looked up at the long expanse of soffit above our heads. Smoke rolled from the vent holes not unlike that seen when corrugated fiberboard expels smoke from its ribs.
I told Melinda that, though I still did not know where the source was located, the house was without doubt on fire. I ran back down the stairs and called 911. I reported to the attendant my name and address, telling her that the house had been struck by lightning and was now on fire. She kindly reassured me, gave me instructions not to stay in the house longer than would be safe. She told me that she was dispatching the fire department.
By this time, no more than three or four minutes had passed, but our minds were processing and planning as if three or four hours had come and gone. It was strangely similar to the experience of a dream wherein many events unfurl over a seemingly long period of time until one wakes up, looks at a clock and realizes that only a few minutes have passed.
Melinda quickly gathered up Kelsie and our two house dogs, Buddy and Molly. She got them out to my car while I called my sister, Joyce, to tell her what was going on and to ask that she come get Kelsie. Melinda grabbed all the pictures she could find while I began packing out our musical instruments.
After my sister had taken Kelsie and the dogs to her house, Joyce’s husband, Steve, Melinda and I filled both of our vehicles with as much of our belongings as their interiors and trunks would hold. Once full, the three of us stood alongside each other in the driveway. There was an immovable moment when we simultaneously witnessed deep, black smoke billowing from both gable ends of the house. I remember thinking that a force like a muscular smithy cranking air to his forge controlled the events taking shape in our attic and Kelsie’s bedroom. I could not imagine a greater force subduing him.
Melinda and I hugged then. Steve carried upon his face the heaviest kind of worry and compassion. It was as if we were reading together the thickening plot of a novel that we inferred would end with our house, its furnishings and the rest of our belongings reduced to a massive ash heap.
Nevertheless, for Melinda and me, there was a distinct moment when an inexpressible peace replaced all of our fear and mounting grief. It was perhaps the quickest movement toward acceptance and trust, in the midst of tragedy, that we have known. I cannot explain the experience other than to count it as a merciful gift imparted to us. Soon thereafter, the first volunteer firefighters arrived.
Our neighbor and fireman, Bill Pfaffenbach, was first on the scene. Immediately behind him was another neighbor and fireman, Jim Moon. Melinda walked briskly with Bill into the house and up the stairs to the attic. Bill was carrying a large fire extinguisher. He later told us that he was expecting that things could not be all that bad in such a short time. However, when Melinda and he opened the attic door, that expectation was altered in the twinkling of an eye as flames scurried up the fly rafter and adjacent rafters over Kelsie’s bedroom.
Jim had just moments before passed our house on his tractor, pulling a planter behind. When he saw Bill coming our way, he turned his equipment around at the end of the road and high-geared his way back to our farm, parking in the field across from the house. I told him what was happening. He was much surprised, as he had not seen any smoke when he passed those few minutes earlier.
Before the two of us reached the front porch, the first fire truck arrived. Immediately thereafter, a most unanticipated and moving thing occurred. The men and women of our rural Leota community pulled their cars, trucks and, in one case, storage trailer, into our front yard. They were careful not to interrupt the work of the firemen, but determined and persistent enough to organize a circle of active human compassion that stretched from our front door to their waiting cars and the trailer. Despite the rain and heavy smoke, they helped us get far more items out of our house than we could have ever gotten out on our own. More importantly, they were present as an immediate example of faith, hope, and charity. They acted without asking. They acted without overweening pity. They acted because they saw that there was a job to be done and they wanted to do it. And so, for the next hour or so, while we were still able to get into particular parts of the house, though the rain never slackened and these friends became increasingly drenched, they continued on in what I would call the most elegant, impromptu dance of friend reaching out to friend in a great circle that seemed to tie our home within a bond of love.
In the global economic world of change or die, cut and run, race and climb, expand or get out, community has become little more than the accumulation of assets that contribute to personal prosperity, convenience and increased consumerism, all at the expense of meaningful relationships. However, in the ancient culture of small farming communities, membership means far more than individual pursuits of happiness. In a genuine community, members still take the time to know and help one another. They preserve the memory of their shared relationships through stories they tell when they gather for church fellowships, when they put up hay, when they break beans together or when they visit on a front porch. From settings like these, new stories sprout and grow.
As a young boy, I never tired of hearing my mom and dad talk with aunts, uncles and neighbors on Sunday evenings, swapping and embellishing familiar stories. In the early years of our married life, Melinda and I enjoyed the immeasurable gift of listening to her parents and farm neighbors speak of family and township memories that reached as far back as the Pigeon Roost massacre of 1812.
To know others well enough to carry these stories in each other’s minds, even when apart, draws connections that are intimate, strong and enduring. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my mind, bent with the appeal of recognition and monetary promises, cast off the old ways in order to pursue a career with a Fortune 50 company.
When I came again to my senses and left the corporate world in 1994, I felt very much like the prodigal of old who wanted to return to a world of fellowship and love rather than wallow in the shallow world of individuality, disconnected from any meaningful roots. It had finally occurred to me that this new profit-centered life that I had chosen knew absolutely nothing of community health or the prosperity of the affections. In the corporate world, deeply personal loyalties and shared joys and griefs were no match for extravagance. One merely gained or lost in personal obscurity.
When Melinda and I moved away from the corporate economy and built a home on her ancestral lands among the Broadys, Comers, Richeys, Miners, Collings, Murphys and other families whose lines went back in this place to the time of the Delaware Indians and the Passenger Pigeon, we knew that old ways and traditions were not the bane that the movers and shakers of the global empire made them out to be. We learned that one could go home again and could find solace there that surpasses all the promises of the global economic empire. We have learned anew that roots, traditions, earth, family and rural community continue to offer a place to dwell and truly be at home.
For the last 23 years, the country hamlet of Leota, its surrounding woodlots, cultivated fields, old farm houses, familiar family names, white-washed clapboard churches and connected people have given to us a place to engage in the fellowship of shared work, gathered rest and unpurchased pleasures.
The fire and its damaging aftermath, Melinda’s recent battle with breast cancer and the death of a dear friend have reminded us that grief and loss are inescapable experiences that shape souls for the eternal. This one, good farming community has done more to restore our faith in mankind and confirm God’s purposes for brotherly love than we could have ever imagined. That we are deeply grateful needs to be said.
The modern, supposedly techno-sufficient world looks at little farming communities, like ours, through the lens of condescension. This critical, demeaning eye says something very disconcerting about the obscured vision of most CEOs, institutionalized organizations, corporate-sponsored politicians and business-modeled schools. With the help of the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, their overarching reach has gained an unparalleled breadth through eminent domain law. Their power to overtake anything or any place in the way of their growth models swells almost completely uninhibited. The level of their efficiencies of expansion through condemnation and consolidation now carries the support of our highest laws.
These so-called innovative institutions, dedicated to the proposition that rewards are utterly dependent on documented measures of predetermined worth, find no fault in dismissing the least of these, our brothers. They have their reward and that reward holds up the competitive edge and economic growth as the ultimate justifier of just about any action that leads to their definition of success in the world. A better innovation would be a revolution of thought and action grounded in the earth and in local, genuine communities that reaffirms the unparalleled significance of cooperation over competition.
In a world like ours, to have family and friends who respond to the needs of their neighbors, regardless of whether it’s merited or not, is a gift that heaven holds dear and earth cultivates into harmonious song.
After the fire, most of our house was still structurally sound. Smoke and water damage required that the entire house be emptied, some rafters and stud walls rebuilt, siding and roofing replaced, all carpeting replaced and much wiring and plumbing redone. For three-and-a-half months we were able to stay on our farm, grateful to a remarkable group of firefighters, grateful for the watchful eye and strong hands of a rural community, grateful for our daughter’s immediate, deeply intense prayers, grateful that our insurance carrier allowed us to live out of a camper rather than stay in a distant hotel and grateful to a local, independent business, King’s Quality Restoration, and their good staff for restoring our home while building with us new friendships. It may take a lifetime, or longer, to return our thanks, but this will be our intention and our pleasure in this place.
Brian Lowry, middle school counselor, naturalist and farmer, writes from Meadow Glen Farm near Leota, Indiana. His wife, daughter and he devote much time to their sustainable farm where they grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennial flowers and native plants, and care for a variety of livestock.