Some people read the title of this blog and instantly formed an opinion, had an immediate reaction, knew they disagreed and never got this far. Others may still be reading but believe the title is hyperbole and wish to challenge me on my rhetoric. Still there are those who are curious, have no preconceived notions about what the contents of this blog will be, accept me at my word and are looking forward to the information I will offer as explanation.
Forty years ago things were both different in this country and much the same. 1976 was a leap year with a summer Olympiad. We were celebrating our nations bicentennial, patriotism abounded but both major political parties were divided. Our Commander-in-Chief was a politician who nobody had elected to the office, an affable man whose frequent clumsy missteps were immortalized by a single-season cast member on a new show called Saturday Night Live. I imagine Chevy Chase (as family patriarch Clark Griswold from the Vacation movie franchise) is more recognizable to the Millennials than President Gerald Ford.
The summer of ’76 was a hot one! I finished seventh grade that June. I became a teenager that July. I don’t recall every birthday gift I ever received but that year I know I got a metallic blue Raleigh Grand Prix, 10-speed bike. A new bicycle was the equivalent of a car in junior high. In an era before cell phones, laptops, gaming systems and the like, a bike was by far the most valuable thing a child owned. A bike was freedom, transportation and recreation all rolled into one.
The day after I turned 13 began the first of the two political conventions to nominate the candidates for the presidential election that November. The Democrats held their convention first that year and day two of it coincided with what would be the hottest day of the year in Minneapolis. I lived in the Linden Hills neighborhood in a house that was built at the turn of that century. We had lived in the house for twelve years and during that miserably hot summer had hired a painter to repaint every room on the second floor and hang a delicate floral wallpaper in the hallway and down the stairs. This update made the old house look fresh and lovely. The home had rich dark woodwork, beautiful stained glass windows, leaded glass built-in cabinetry, high ceilings and hardwood floors. It also had just one bathroom and during that sultry summer of ’76 there was only one air conditioner, a window unit that was in my parent’s bedroom. My father’s allergies coupled with his occasional need to work nights were the reasons behind this extravagance. My brothers had a box fan in their room and I had an Emerson brand oscillating fan that was more hazardous than it was cooling. Staying up late and watching TV in the living room was an option on only the hottest nights. That is how I ended up watching the first convention ever presided over by a woman and the eventual nomination of a former Georgia Governor and peanut farmer, who added a senator from my state to his ticket.
A week after my birthday, and days after the DNC, the Olympics began in Montreal. The ’76 summer games are likely best remembered for a petite Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci who won numerous gold medals (with seven perfect tens) and Bruce Jenner who earned the gold in the decathlon for the United States.
Two weeks after the Olympic torch was extinguished it was time for the RNC. It was a contentious year, the last time that the delegate count did not determine the candidate prior to the convention. It was the first time I heard Ronald Reagan give a speech and though his was a concession speech, he was a much better orator than President Ford who won the nomination.
Thursday August 19th was the final day of the convention. My father was at work when mid-morning my mother noticed that there was a strong odor like “airplane glue” in my parent’s bedroom. She unplugged the air conditioner that was in the window above the cedar chest my father had given her while they were dating. Even after dinner the acrid aroma lingered. My parents opted to sleep downstairs on the “hide-a-bed” to avoid the heat of the top floor and the lingering scent. I brought my sleeping bag downstairs to watch the final night of the RNC. I stayed up through the speeches, the cheering, the adults in the funny hats and the grand finale, the balloon drop. Freshly 13, I am not certain how much I grasped of the political proposals but I loved the spectacle! I dozed off in contentment knowing I had exciting plans for the following day.*
I’m unclear how much time had passed when I awoke, sweaty and a bit disoriented on the living room floor. I heard my mother’s shouts from the second floor and knew if she kept yelling she would wake my father who had to get up in just a few hours. Once I cleared my sleepy head I heard that what she was yelling was “fire” and then I instructed my mom to come downstairs. I woke my dad and calmly asked “should I call the fire department?” Our phone had glow in the dark stickers on them with the seven digit number for both police and fire. 911 was years away from being the norm. My father called and then calmly went to the basement to retrieve some clothing from the dirty laundry and then grabbed the car keys to pull his car from the lawn alongside the house onto the street. He then unreeled the garden hose and shot a stream of water at the small flames licking out of his bedroom window. My mother and I stood on the sidewalk in front of our home, I could see my shiny new bike in silhouette through the open front door and instantly regretted not having wheeled it out with me. Minutes ticked by, which was super annoying because the fire house was on the next block. By the time the trucks rolled up the flames were leaping out the window and licking toward the roofline. More time passed and the firefighters grew frustrated as they could not get water pressure in the hoses. Once they got water flowing they dragged a hose into the house and I watched them run up the steps bracing themselves with their sooty gear against the newly wallpapered staircase. My brother’s room faced the street and we could see nothing through the windows, my parents room was next on the hallway and when the firefighters got into the room they shoved the burning AC unit out the window directly onto the ground where my father’s car had been parked. Next, the cedar chest with all of the sweaters my grandmother had knit for us splintered explosively as it was jettisoned but we were relieved to see the handmade treasures strewn on the lawn, seemingly unharmed. That relief was brief as flaming molten pieces of my parent’s life were tossed out on top of the woolen goods. Further down the hallway and on the opposite side of the house an ax was taken to my window, a questionable choice from my perspective, as the window was already wide open.
Despite it being 2 am I had not seen so many neighbors gathered in front of our home since my parents coordinated a block party. Apparently sirens are as good as a free keg of beer for bringing people together. It was hot, humid, smokey and smelly and over pretty quickly, despite it feeling like slow motion. The fire itself had been extinguished, having only gutted my parents room. I remember walking up the stairs that night to see the damage. My bike was pristine and unharmed in the front hall, the new wallpaper smudged with glove-prints and there to the left of the top of the stairs a lamp was on in my parents room, only the wire framing of the shade remained, tall thin lotion bottles were short and wide now. Upon further inspection in the daylight we noted the phone handpiece was melted into the cradle, my father’s polyester leisure suit had dripped off the hanger and was a plastic chip on the floor.
A tiny ember in the air conditioner had glowed enough throughout the day that it ignited something else in the unit and smoldered for hours before bursting into flames and destroying and damaging memories and artifacts, treasures and the mundane.
The chief is the one that told my parents that were I to have been sleeping upstairs it is likely that I would have succumb to the smoke while I slept. That is how the RNC saved my life.
*Because I survived that night I was able to go to Valley Fair the next day with my aunt and cousin, an amusement park that opened that summer and remains a big family attraction in Shakopee Minnesota to this very day.