Monday, May 3, 2010

Suit No Tie

Minutes before I had been sound asleep, snuggled next to my grandmother while Bopaw snored loudly in the next bed. The piercing sound woke us all, startled us into sitting positions, and my grandfather, his few remaining hairs disheveled, looked around, mumbled something to my grandmother and went right back to sleep. Calmly she reached over, picked up the phone and dialed the front desk. That she understood him was a clear benefit of almost fifty years of marriage, not a full set of teeth between them, garbled noise was the chosen form of communication when awakened by a screeching horn in the middle of the night.

Patiently she waited while the phone rang, although to be clear, not a chance anyone could have understood a word she had to say had someone stayed behind to answer the phone in the middle of what I was certain was a raging fire. In my yellow and brown Pebbles Flintstone pajamas I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway finding a full floor of guests as without teeth and hair as we were, all in various stages of pajama clad confusion. "It's a fire! Get up! Bopaw get up NOW!", my eight year old self near hysteria, jumping like mad at the foot of his bed. He rolled over, raised his eyebrows and thought about throwing me out the window, to facilitate my escape from the burning building.

Preparing me for this dramatic event in my young life, third grade Anxiety Training. In Mrs. Coit's room, where we were subjected to 30 minutes of intimidation and manipulative terror masquerading as education, it was fire safety week. Fire fighters visited our school, pamphlets were distributed and the responsibility to get the family out of the burning building now assigned solely to the eight year old family member. We were to map our exit routes, draw up a plan and run family fire drills weekly. My father had no interest in this, not once did we practice our escape, no emergency fire ladders were purchased. The Fire Film Scare Series culminated in a horror film staring the family who had no plan, the final shot of the dog, the only survivor, on the front lawn, an errant tear in his eye, as his entire family perished in the blazing inferno behind him. I had trouble sleeping.

"Get up now, please!", and shocking, still no answer at the front desk. Bopaw got up, put on his robe and slippers, and stepped into the bathroom to run a comb through his hairs. He then checked the hallway, muttered something and went in to put in his teeth, "well Mother, she's right, everyone does appear to be leaving. Maybe we should head downstairs". At this point I had gathered Theodore and Baby Kelly, my two always travel companions, and was standing, jumping, at the front door, waving my goodbyes to all the survivors en route to a lower floor. Mimi was up, and working furiously to ready herself, while doing her best to calm the now panicked eight year old, still in the Pebbles pajamas.

My dear grandfather went to the closet and selected a suit, a full on gray wool suit to slip into for his descent into the blazing inferno that I knew would find us on the way down. This he wore over his blue, with navy piping, pajamas, monogrammed on the pocket. Once assembled he realized that slippers would never do and so, while Mimi and I stood waiting, he put on socks and shoes before announcing that yes, now he was ready. We stepped into the hallway, the only ones left, and Bopaw walked to the elevator. "Oh no, no no no, we have to walk down, we have to take the stairs in a fire!", their combined 115 year old bodies not at all pleased with this announcement, they followed me to the exit door. In what was surely the longest time ever spent in a stairwell, we descended 10 stories to the street outside the Kahler Hotel, pausing at every landing for air. At these breaks I would run ahead, and then back, utilizing all my fire preparedness training: checking doors for heat, staying low and breathing into the damp washcloth I had somehow found time to prepare. They begged me to go on, to save myself and I cried out, "NO! Never, I'll never leave without you", or maybe they were discussing last week's golf game, Mimi having left her teeth to broil in our upstairs room.

A short hour or so later we reached the ground floor. Throwing open the door, having saved my grandparents, Theodore and Baby Kelly from certain death, I stepped confidently into the lobby, knowing that my well developed fire safety skills were the real heroes. There was not a firefighter to be seen, only far in the distance could we see the front desk clerk, shouting "hello" impatiently into the phone. "Mother, did you leave the phone off the hook?".

We took the elevator back up to the tenth floor, false alarm.

1 comment:

Candace said...

Definitely captures the surreal dreaminess of childhood brushes with catastrophe...


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