The Day Our School Burned Down


We were lined up along the edge of the sidewalk next to the curb as straight as a flock of crows on a barbed wire fence.

We had been told by reliable sources that a more boisterous bunch had never graced the halls of our elementary school. Today, however, we were on our best behavior as a requirement for witnessing a great display of skill. Even the mayor was there wearing his dark suit and white shirt, his collar button straining to hold everything together. Somehow, Mayor Smith still looked like a mechanic even when he left his garage and shed his coveralls.

But our attention was not on the mayor. It was focused on our school principal, Mr. Redding, and the event that was about to take place. Mr. Redding was standing next to some of the teachers at the street corner, his right hand held aloft, firmly grasping a stopwatch which was held for all to see.

This was a great day! Not only were we released from our classroom prisons, but we were to witness the unparalleled skills of the volunteer fire department!

Already we could hear the siren wailing and bells clanging. We strained on tiptoe to be the first to see the fire truck coming. A cheer erupted from 100 boys and girls as the bright red truck came into sight.

It rounded the corner on squealing tires with dust flying and dogs barking. Three brightly clad firemen jumped from the moving truck and braced their feet against the ground, holding firmly to the long, limp canvas hose. The spool whirled as the hose unwound and the moving truck pulled over to stop near the closest fire hydrant.

I yelled “Hi” to Bill Jenkins, but he had no time to talk to kids. He was a member of the volunteers, drilled and trained to a fine edge of efficiency. There was an economy in every movement.

Precious seconds were ticking off the stopwatch, but already the hose was trained on the imaginary flames licking at the walls of our house of learning.

The hose was quickly coupled to the hydrant and the nozzle trained upon our hypothetical blaze. A volunteer ran to the hydrant with a special wrench to turn it on. A look of alarm came upon his face—the wrench didn’t fit.

There was a scurry of movement as each area of the truck was ransacked to find the crucial missing wrench. The search continued, and the watch kept ticking.

Buzzy Harris was getting nervous. He stood first on one foot and then another. The length of time a boy can stand in line on the edge of a sidewalk has some definite limitations. Buzzy bent over and picked up a small stick and with a practiced swing scribed a perfect circle in the soft dirt beside the walk. Into this circle he threw down his best cat’s-eye marble. It was an unspoken challenge for anyone willing to take him on in a game of “migs.” I was out of the running because Buzz had already taught me how to play. All of my hard-earned marbles were resting securely in his swollen marble bag.

Three boys soon joined him kneeling in the dirt, doing their best to win that cat’s-eye and teach Buzz a lesson he’d never forget. Walter was chasing Suzie Adams, trying to pull her hair. She was screaming at the top of her lungs but not really running as fast as she might.

Mr. Redding was becoming visibly agitated. He glanced at the stopwatch still held partially aloft in his tiring right arm. He lowered his arm to rewind the watch.

Meanwhile, our volunteer fire department was searching for the right wrench. A pickup truck had taken off in a wild dash, its tires throwing gravel. It was headed back toward the fire station on a search mission.

Walter had caught Suzie, but what do you do with a cornered wildcat? Three of Suzie’s girl friends had come to her rescue, and there was some question as to whether he would escape alive.

Buzzy was looking for more takers as he poked newly acquired marbles into his bag. Mr. Redding wound his stopwatch. Three boys had come to Walter’s rescue, but Suzie was now receiving reinforcements.

There was no longer a straight line. The crows had hopped off the fence.

I glanced at the schoolhouse and our hypothetical fire. I decided by now the fire would have consumed the bottom floor, engulfed the second floor, and spread to the principal’s office on the third.

Meanwhile, our volunteer fire department was still looking for the right wrench. The watch kept ticking.

No one really noticed when the pickup truck came screeching back on the scene. Mr. Redding and the other teachers were busy picking boys and girls off a “dog pile.” Walter and Suzie were on the bottom and getting squashed. Buzzy was being threatened by a larger opponent who said he was only playing “funs,” not “keeps,” and wanted his marbles back. Mayor Smith had quietly gone back to his garage.

Suddenly the long white hose that had lain limp and useless began to take on life. The swelling motion began moving along its length toward the nozzle. Our volunteer firemen were sitting in the shade of the tree with the nozzle lying inertly in their laps. Suddenly the hose came to life. Like an angry cobra, it raised itself poised to strike, lashing out in every direction. Our volunteers bravely tried to control the maverick stream, but it kept dodging from their grasp. Dirt and grass were being washed down to native gravel, and mud was flying everywhere.

Our firemen didn’t catch the runaway hose. It caught them. But they grabbed it and held on. It took three of them to control it, and, in the process, Mr. Redding was drenched along with the rest of the faculty. The few crows that were still on the fence were unceremoniously washed off. Eventually, the stream was pointed in the right direction toward the imagined embers that had once been our schoolhouse. Mr. Redding promptly said, “All right, that’s it! Let’s go back inside!” It was Johnny Trump who asked the obvious question, “How long did it take, Mr. Redding? How long did it take?” There was no response.

The question was now chorused by a multitude, “How long did it take, Mr. Redding?” With some difficulty, Mr. Redding extracted his run-down stopwatch from a wet pocket. With a sigh of resignation he said, “Twenty-nine minutes, fourteen and five-tenths seconds.”

I glanced over at our hypothetical fire. Our schoolhouse had just burned down.

Through the years I have observed again and again that bright uniforms and shiny engines are useless if we don’t have the right wrench. Success comes to those who plan ahead and pay attention to details. Since that day on the school ground I have never accepted a responsibility without asking myself, “Am I really prepared? Do I have the right wrench?”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull