Slice of Life 4:
They spoke to us about fire safety in school. Surely we watched a film I cannot recall. I do remember the cautionary instructions, Devise a plan. Know your escape route.
Slowly my brothers and sisters and I trudged into the house with our weighted book bags, tossed appreciatively onto the blue carpeted front landing with sweet abandon. We would find our way to the refrigerator, loitering in its open door, as we indecisively gazed over the options of Velveeta cheese, celery, left overs. Most often we opted for cereal. The shirts of our uniforms hung out in disheveled abandon upon our waists. Our socks slumped around our ankles.
Mom drove off down 114th Campbell Avenue. As the blue battle wagon vanished onto 115th, one of us voiced our concern. What is our escape route? Yeah… Our bedrooms are upstairs. What if? With the exception of the youngest, the baby Ryan, whom involuntarily accompanied Mom, the rest of us were all there. All five of us. At 13, Brenda was the oldest, followed by Peggy, 12, Fran at 9. I was seven and Ray was three. While Brenda and Peggy were surely the masterminds, Fran and I were equally invested and shared the newfound concern for our safety in the event of a house fire. We needed to figure it out. Having fear impressed upon us at school was nothing new; having the daily threat of eternal damnation in the fiery depths of hell …but this was serious. This was imminent. It also provided us a mission.
Bren and Peg sent Fran and I down to the laundry room to gather the sheets. We were thoughtful enough not to grab Mom and Dad’s good ones. No, we pulled out the aqua print floral sheets, the older white ones retired unto the back shelves where Kitty most often made her bed. Racing back upstairs in leaps and bounds, we reached Bren and Peg at the top step. Gasping for air, our chests raised in rhythmic harmony as we smiled, satisfied with ourselves. The leaders went to work. Bren said we should twist the sheets first. It seemed like a great idea. It looked professional. Bren and Peg tied the sheets together at their corners. We all should go. Who should go first? Little Ray sat in the doorway of the boys bedroom. Well, it seemed common sense. Let’s test it with the lightest one.
We opened the window of the second story of our brown brick Georgian. Bren went outside to receive the sheet as Peg cascaded the knotted rope of sheets out the window.
The pictures your mind takes are funny. I was such in awe of our mastery and skill, my mind must have summoned the record button. I can remember those sheets dangling out in the wind, scraping against the scruff of the brick house with utter precision. I was in awe.
Ray was on board. At first. We lifted him up through the window. He had such a look of cooperative submission and delight as we hoisted his little body out the window. Now hold on tight ok? He responded with a nasally, Ok. He clung to the sheets like a wet cat. Suddenly his eyes grew wide and his tiny playful grin shifted into a skeptical scowl. We all seemed to mirror his reaction, whether it was guilt, fear, or genuine concern. It seems at the exact same moment, we all suddenly realized our three year old brother was dangling out the window, fifteen feet above the concrete of the side patio. And we put him there.
Abort mission Abort mission. In a panic, Peggy assertively instructed Fran to help pull him inside. Hold my hand. You pull on the rope. Shut up! What are you doing?! The commands whirled as Bren attempted to comfort Ray who had begun to whimper and cry. Clumsily, we pulled Ray’s tense little body back in through the window. He continued to cling onto the sheets. In that celebratory moment of relief, we left the sheets dangling out the window.
Mom pulled back up in the battle wagon minutes later. Somebody better get down here right now and explain why my sheets are hanging out the window! We all took the blame. Every one of us. All for one and one for all. Most likely we were grounded or assigned extra chores. We took them graciously. We all knew the life threatening reality of what had occurred. Had mom come home five minutes earlier she would have witnessed her three year old dangling and holding on for dear life. We spared her that worry and took our punishments like soldiers. With this unspoken secret, brush with death, we all looked at each other with just a little more respect, in just a little higher regard. We also hugged Ray, just a little tighter that night.
Thankfully, we never had to implement our strategic escape route on 11419 Campbell Avenue. If we had, God knows we had a plan.