Further interrogating memories of childhood fires

I plan to complete a first draft of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own later this summer. No, I have not yet identified a publisher or a literary agent, though that is the goal. But as with my Noir of Who essay, I always planned to finish this labor of love before contemplating next steps.

Meanwhile, as much as I have learned about my genetic family, my legal family and my own past, key questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered. For example, while I have definitively identified my genetic mother, she steadfastly refuses to communicate with me beyond one terse text to her younger sister, whom I met in person in August 2019. Furthermore, while I am nearly certain I have identified my genetic father—a man who, unfortunately, died in 2006—I cannot discuss him with my genetic mother.

Similarly, I remain unable to pinpoint the precise date and circumstances of two fires from my early childhood. In fact, I may never obtain this information for the early 1970s fire at the John Rhoads Company. Founded in West Philadelphia in 1886 as a carpet cleaning company, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother first assumed control of it in 1926, with my father assuming control in 1960. Folks who live adjacent to the site—now an empty lot—recall the fire, but not precisely when it happened. My maternal aunt is certain my father hired a convicted arsonist named Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set the fire, presumably to collect insurance money; it is likely my father was already accumulating gambling debts. Advertisements for John Rhoads stopped appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers at the end of March 1972, only to resume for its second, and final, location in September 1974. But within that time frame, there is no public record of a fire at that location.

On a more positive note, though, I may be zeroing in on exact date of the fire at my childhood home, on Sue Ellen Drive in Havertown, Pennsylvania. One breakthrough occurred during the same trip I met my genetic maternal aunt: Assistant Chief Mike Norman of the Manoa Fire Department showed me this photograph. “Sue Ellen Drive” is written on its back, and Chief Norman stated the uniforms were those worn in 1973, meaning it depicts the aftermath of the fire in question—if what I have deduced through an analysis of the events of that night is correct.

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As for the fire, let me once again walk through what I know—or think I know—about that night, with the caveats these events occurred nearly 50 years ago, my mother died in 2004, and my older sister is unable to articulate any memory of that night.

At the time of the fire, I was in first grade.

If this is correct, that limits the fire to sometime between September 1972 and June 1973.

We did not have school the next day, and my father was out particularly late, suggesting it was a Friday or Saturday night; I am almost certain it was a Saturday night.

It being a Saturday night is purely impressionistic—it is what comes to mind when I probe the memory. Either way, though, this further reduces the number of days on which the fire could have occurred.

The first I knew something was wrong was when I awoke in my bedroom—all three bedrooms were on the top floor of the split-level three-story house—to find Mindy standing quietly in my doorway.

Mindy is severely mentally impaired. According to her annual Life Enrichment Plan, which summarizes every aspect of her treatment and history, she lived with on Sue Ellen Drive through June 1973—when I finished first grade—then was in and out of residential facilities until entering her current residence in December 1974.

I then could smell—or feel or sense—the smoke and/or heat rising from the ground floor playroom, situated beneath Mindy’s bedroom. I must have roused our mother from our parents’ bedroom—our father was not home—because the next thing I remember is the three of us standing on our neighbor’s lawn with our Keeshond Luvey, still wearing whatever we had worn to sleep, watching the firefighters.

There are a number of things to unpack here.

First, Luvey—so named by our mother because “he loves everybody!”—was born on December 17, 1972. We acquired him—one night at a pet store in Wilmington, Delaware for…reasons—when he was only a few weeks old, likely in early January 1973. If Luvey was with us, that limits the day of the fire to a Friday or Saturday night between January and June 1973.

Second, I do not recall any of us needing heavy jackets, nor do I think it was raining or especially windy; the photograph, at the very least, does not contradict this. This would eliminate January and February, when average minimum temperatures in Philadelphiawere 15.6 and 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, narrowing the time frame to between March and May 1973.

Thankfully, the firefighters had responded to the alarm—sent by a neighbor perhaps—quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the playroom, though that was destroyed. As Chief Norman remembered it, he and his unit received the call while they were returning to the fire station from another local fire.

If Chief Norman’s memory is correct, there was at least one other fire that night, not just in Havertown, but in the smaller area served by Manoa Fire Company—one of five volunteer fire stations in the town. Hold that thought.

Deeming our house uninhabitable, my mother drove Mindy, Luvey and I to a nearby motel to spend the night. For some reason—my memory says Mindy unnerved the front desk clerks, though they may simply not have allowed dogs and/or had no vacancies—we were unable to rent a room there. We returned to our house—our father had not yet returned—to sleep, despite the lingering smell of the fire. Our mother would later say the fire started because she had not turned off the hair drying unit—one with an apparatus you tilted over your head while sitting—she had been using in the playroom. I do not know if she had simply forgotten to do so, or if it needed to “cool down.” Either way, she thought her husband would turn if off when he came home. He never did, and the unit either overheated or short-circuited, starting the fire.

To be honest, this story has never made a great deal of sense; my wife Nell openly scoffs at it. Moreover, our mother’s older sister more than hints it was set by Klayman because my father had not yet paid him for setting the John Rhoads fire.[1] However, Chief Norman did not find the story unreasonable at all, analogizing it to teenagers leaving hair curlers on in the bathroom.

That there was such a hair drying apparatus can be seen on the right side of this photograph. While I cannot be certain when this photograph was taken, Luvey could easily be a few months old, and I could easily be six years old, putting it in the spring of 1973.

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

A few years later, the “fire marshal” came to Lynnewood Elementary School to speak to us about fire safety; Sitting to my right in the auditorium during the assembly was one of my best friends, a girl who lived just a few houses from me. When one particular house appeared on the screen, she prodded my arm. Pointing to the screen, she excitedly whispered, “Matt…That’s your house!”

It was, in fact, my house. Not only had a photographer been at the fire, but someone had filmed it as well. Theoretically, either could have been the work of a neighbor, though Chief Norman suggested the photograph, at least, was taken by a professional.[2] This would also explain how the film shot that night made its way into the fire safety film watched that day in Lynnewood. Incidentally, Haverford Township did not have a designated fire marshal until the 1980s, so I suspect the speaker was the fire chief of one of Havertown’s five volunteer fire companies.

But that begs this question: if the fire in our house merited photographing and filming, why can I not find a single mention of it in the Delaware County Daily Times (DCDT), which regularly featured stories about local fires? Using the invaluable Newspapers.com, I carefully went through every edition from March 1 through May 31, 1973—page by tedious page—on the off chance either the street name or the town name had been written incorrectly, but there was not a single reference to a house fire anywhere in Havertown. I did find an April 26 story describing three different fires throughout all of Delaware County in the previous 24 hours.[3] Presumably, two fires in the same night in a much smaller geographic area would have been irresistible—assuming, of course, they had been aware of it in time; reader tips apparently drove much of the DCDT’s reporting on events such as fires.

However, in the spring of 1973, the DCDT did not publish a Sunday edition—meaning events which occurred on a Saturday night could easily have been missed; there was more than enough other news to fill Monday editions. If the fire in our house occurred on Saturday night/Sunday morning, this could be the reason—other than simply being deemed insufficiently newsworthy—the fire in our house did not appear in the DCDT.

Meanwhile, what can we learn using the weather conditions I remember from the night of the fire?

Table 1 displays the temperature, precipitation level and wind speed at 12 midnight on every Friday and Saturday night between March 1 and June 2, 1973. Midnight is a reasonable approximation to the time the fire occurred, and weather conditions rarely appreciably varied between 10 pm and 2 am.

Table 1: Midnight Weather Conditions of Friday and Saturday nights, March 1 to June 2, 1973

Date Weekday Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit Precipitation level in inches Wind speed in miles per hour
March 2 Friday 47 0 5, NNE
March 3 Saturday 42 0.08 13, NNE
March 9 Friday 44 0 12, ENE
March 10 Saturday 42 0 9, E
March 16 Friday 57 0.06 10, E
March 17 Saturday 41 0 29, WSW
March 23 Friday 42 0 12, NNW
March 24 Saturday 43 0 6, W
March 30 Friday 47 0 5, WNW
March 31 Saturday 50 0.06 10, E
April 6 Friday 51 0 8, W
April 7 Saturday 50 0.02 2, SSE
April 13 Friday 40 0 8, N
April 14 Saturday 40 0 7, S
April 20 Friday 49 0 12, E
April 21 Saturday 56 0 7, SW
April 26 Friday 52 0 17, ENE
April 27 Saturday 55 0 15, SW
May 4 Friday 47 0 14, W
May 5 Saturday 54 0 9, N
May 11 Friday 56 0 8, WNW
May 12 Saturday 55 0 7, SW
May 18 Friday 46 0 6, W
May 19 Saturday 57 0 7, SSE
May 25 Friday 54 0 12, ENE
May 26 Saturday 51 0.04 7, ESE
June 1 Friday 67 0 6, WSW
June 2 Saturday 64 0.09 11 pm, 0.10 1 am 8, SE

Beginning with the assumption there was zero precipitation at the time of the fire, we can eliminate March 3, March 16, March 31, April 7, May 26 and June 2. Next, using the assumption it was not especially windy, let us additionally eliminate any night wind speed was at least 10 miles per hour (MPH): March 9, March 17, March 23, April 20, April 26, April 27, May 4, May 25. It is not at all clear how to define “not cold enough for anything other than pajamas/nightgown and bathrobes,” but let us use 45 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum temperature. That further eliminates March 10, March 24, April 13 and April 14.

At this point, the only Saturday nights remaining are April 21, May 5 and May 12, forcing me to rethink my memory the fire took place earlier in the year; the conditions were unseasonably mild .

And here things get interesting.

At just after 10 am on the morning of April 21, 1973, 21-year-old Barry Foster was turning the Sun Oil truck he was driving—loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline—from I-95 onto Chester Pike in Eddystone, when “it just toppled over.”[4] Foster managed to escape the truck, which began to leak its contents; he and the owner of a nearby auto repair shop—who happened to be Vauclain Fire Company Chief Donald “Duck” Daliessi—began to warn occupants of nearly buildings. Their quick actions, along with those of another local police lieutenant and fire chief, saved lives: no sooner had 1301-03 Chester Pike been evacuated when gasoline leaking into its basemen was ignited by a heating apparatus. The resulting fire—at one point rising 100 feet into the sky—burned until around noon, destroying five buildings. Other than some cuts from flying debris, though, nobody was seriously injured. Traffic was snarled for five hours, however, and firefighters remained on the scene for nearly 24 hours—or until roughly 10 am on Sunday, April 22, 1973–which was Easter Sunday that year. IF the fire occurred the previous night, this could explain why we could not rent a room at the motel–they were booked for the holiday weekend.

No other fire—not even multiple fires the same night in the same town—could have compete for limited space in a local paper that typically was limited to 22 pages on Monday. And this it is at least consistent with the idea our house fire did not make the DCDT because it occurred on a Saturday night and was deemed insufficiently newsworthy for the following Monday edition.

The same applies to the night of Saturday, May 5. Early the following morning, a fire left five residents of apartments at 17 and 19 Main Street in Darby; just after the alarm was sounded at 3:39 am, a Yeadon police car collided with a Darby Fire Company No. 1 fire truck two block east, with no serious injuries.[5] One week later, the DCDT splashed this headline across the top of the front page of its Monday, May 14 edition: “2 hurt, 13 die in weekend crashes.”

Of course, none of this really proves anything—I cannot be absolutely certain the fire was not on a school night; or on a colder, wetter night; or that Luvey was with us. Indeed, the essence of interrogating memory is not to take any remembered fact or story detail at face value. Moreover, I was no more than six years old when this fire occurred, and that was 47 years ago; memories morph and fade in far shorter time frames.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of rigorous and meticulous validation—using a range of independent, verifiable data—interrogating memory demands. Thus, I tentatively, in the lightest pencil, list April 21, May 5 and May 12, 1973 as the likeliest dates the playroom in my childhood house was destroyed by a fire of questionable origin.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] I should point out that IF this is true—and it is a huge IF—this would confirm what I strongly suspect: the John Rhoads fire occurred no more than a few months after April 1, 1972.

[2] He gave me the name Brian Feeney, of Feeney Fire Films, but his Twitter profile states he did not start taking photographs of fires until around 1996, after serving 23 years as a firefighter.

[3] “Fires hit Yeadon, Radnor, Brookhaven; no one injured,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 26, 1973, pg. 12

[4] “Police, firemen are credited with saving lives in fire, blast,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 23, 1973, pg.1

[5] “5 left homeless in blaze,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), May 7, 1973, pg.1

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