(The following is an account of life in the old house at 4030 S. Vassar Rd, Flint, zone 7 (we didn’t have ZIP codes in those day), as I remember it, and other time-frame-related details. In this stroll down memory lane, I have chosen to focus on the time of the fire that destroyed that house and to chase a few proverbial rabbits.)
December 7th, 2020 was the 58th anniversary of the morning when our little house at 4030 S. Vassar Road burned down to the ground. I was only seven years old at the time but remember it very clearly.
The house had only four rooms: two tiny bedrooms at the north end of the house, separated by a narrow hallway, one on the east side and one on the west side; an L-shaped room that took up most of the southeast and south quarters of the house. The east portion of the L, running southward from the bedrooms, served as the living room; the south portion of the L, running westward from the living room portion, served as the dining room. Mama called this tiny, cramped configuration ‘the dining L’. The kitchen was in the west side of the house and lay between the dining room part of the ‘L’ and the west bedroom.
The house had no plumbing apart from a well (the pit being located outside the house on the south side) with an electric pump that supplied water pressure to a cold-water faucet in the kitchen—no toilet, no shower, no bathtub, no water heater.
The house had no cooling for the summer months apart from electric fans and open windows. Of course, the climate in lower Michigan during the first half of the 20th century didn’t warrant the expense of AC or, what we call here in Texas, ‘swamp coolers’. The house was heated by a large oil burning stove in the living room. This oil stove had begun to malfunction occasionally in the few weeks prior to the fire: at random intervals, the carburetor/fuel-injector (or whatever it was) would spray a light mist of fuel onto the wall behind the stove, the fuel would ignite, and mama—or any adult in attendance at the moment—would have to put the fire out, which was easy, as it was always tiny. I witnessed that a few times, myself.
There were two sets of bunk beds in our tiny bedroom, a single bed, and a lidded chamber pot, made of enameled pot metal, which was usually full. Dan, David, Jeff, Eric and I all shared that tiny room, Heidi having died in November of 1961. I seem to remember that I slept in the lower bed of one of the bunks, and Eric slept above me. I don’t remember who slept in the other two or in the single bed.
December of ’62 was a typical cold Michigan winter, below freezing temps, snow up to my waist. In an effort to keep the uninsulated house warm, and the retain the heat from the single oil-burner stove in the living room, our father had covered all of the windows with plastic, and our mother had bought heavy blankets for us.
I remember waking up and feeling an intense heat on my face. ‘Wow! They must have really turned up the stove before we went to bed last night!’ I thought. I had no idea what time it was, but I learned later that it was about 2:00 or 2:30 a.m.
Within seconds, not only did I notice the intense heat on my face, but I also realized that the hallway between the two bedrooms was full of flickering light.
Suddenly, dad burst into the room and started pounding on the window to break it out. The glass gave way easily, but he had considerable difficulty pushing out the plastic that covered it. After the window had been cleared, he ushered us, one by one, out to the waist-deep snow bank outside. Eric was the last one to be located and extracted as he had been crumpled under his covers, probably asleep and unaware of what was happening.
I remember my bare feet sinking down, and the snow pushing up my pajama top and engulfing my naked torso. We were all hollering, ‘Mother! Mother! Mother!’
Our maternal grandmother, whom we affectionately called Grandma Boat (Her third husband’s name was Leo Fred Boat; her maiden name was Orr. Shortly after they decided to live together, daughter Betty Lou in tow, they both laughed, ‘Every boat needs an oar!’ and got married. Leo turned out to be the greatest blessing of their lives, a rare and irreplaceable treasure.) lived just a few yards west of the house in a small trailer house she had bought with money from the sale of Leo’s house and possessions after he died of a heart attack. Dad had set up the trailer house and equipped it with bottled natural gas, and an above-ground tank of heating oil. We all trudged our way through the snow and knocked on her door.
We all crammed ourselves into the tiny trailer and sat down shivering. I felt no warmth at all. Nobody was missing, although we kids thought, for a few minutes, that mama had not escaped. She was there with us, thank God. I remember putting my bare feet on top of one of the forced air heat vents on the floor.
Within a few minutes, the three adults decided that it was too dangerous to stay there on account of the explosion hazard from the bottled gas and the flammable hazard from the heating oil. Everyone evacuated the trailer and plowed our freezing, nearly-naked bodies through the waist-high snow and over to the neighbors’ house that was about half a football field to south of our house, and down a steep bank. Mama, who was rotundly pregnant with Nathan, fell two or three times and got back up with no help from the news reporters who were there filming her.
The family that lived there was named Williams. I don’t remember the father, but I do remember the mother and the two teenage kid, Sheila and Charlie. Mrs. Williams was far older than one would think, given the fact that her two children were younger than 18. Sheila and Charlie were grouchy kids, probably due to their original family having been split up, and being relocated in their current situation. They were very cruel to mama and often lay in wait for her as she walked past their house on Vassar Road on the way to and from Wolcott Elementary and Leo Boat’s house on Vassar Road, south of the Williams’ house. Maybe they didn’t feel like they really belonged. Not an excuse for their cruelty; just a possible explanation for its genesis.
Mrs. Williams, who may or may not have been Sheila’s and Charlie’s mother, did her best to find places for us to lie down. I remember lying on one of their king-sized beds with my eyes gaping wide, adrenalin levels elevated, and hearing her say, ‘If you can’t sleep, just try to close your eyes and rest.’ That was futile!
I don’t know how long we stayed there, but it couldn’t have been for long. I believe we all jumped into our old 1959 Ford station wagon and drove to the Whitehead homestead on Vassar Road, where dad’s parents and three of his younger siblings still lived. That memory isn’t very clear.
At that time, Dan and I were attending Wolcott Elementary School. The other kids were not in school, David being 4 years old, Jeff 3, and Eric 2. I was in the second grade. My second-grade classroom was located in a lower level of the building and was gloomy and crowded—almost 30 students, I think. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Hale, or something like that. After the fire, Dan and I began attending Hill Elementary on Aloha Street, a block or two south of Davison Road, two or three miles east of Wolcott. We dreaded going to that new, unfamiliar school and did not have the vaguest idea that it was, in reality, far superior to Wolcott in many ways. For one thing, it was supported by a much wealthier tax base. Besides that, the student body was largely composed of the near upper crust of the Davison area, whereas Wolcott’s student body was composed largely of budding juvenile delinquents. We had no idea. All we knew was that it was a bitter experience to wake up early in the morning, a dark, cold Michigan winter, and try to get dressed in our charity-donated clothing, we having escaped the fire nearly naked and totally indigent, preparing for we knew not what. We were both very fearful and depressed that first morning.
At Hill Elementary, my second-grade teacher was a Miss Bird, and Dan’s fourth-grade teacher a Mrs. Merritt. I don’t know about Mrs. Merritt’s class, but Miss Bird’s class was filled with some of the most intelligent children in the Davison School district and almost all of them from the most financially prosperous families.
I remember obsessing on the house fire, lamenting, for some reason, that I did not witness the collapsing of the walls. (Isn’t that weird!) When I had the opportunity to go back to the site, I was appalled to see how tiny that house really was. I was incredulous at the short distances between rooms—between those two bedrooms, from the center of the living room to the center of the kitchen. Just a few steps from one area to another. As a child, I had perceived those individual spaces as much larger than they really were. Seeing the house in its entirety, lying almost flat on the ground, compressed everything together. The rubble of ashes and barely-recognizable frame studs, joist and rafters, fascinated me.
Mama picked through the ruins and succeeded at retrieving several things, among them several 33mm Kodak transparencies that dad had shot over the years with their old Kodak Pony, or some other comparable camera of the day. We still have some of those slides here at my house. They have been scanned in full color and high definition and saved to mama’s computer as JPG files.
It was miraculous to see that the superstructure frame of the new house that dad had begun to build contiguous to the north side of the house did not suffer any noticeable damage at all. I cannot understand how that happened without attributing it to the direct intervention of the angel in response to God’s command. We all must thank God and give him credit for that.