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Paper and Fire

Paper and Fire


When it comes to family, old embers still burn.

We called it the Lydall and Foulds Paper Mill and back in 1960, the mill stood right on the edge of Parker Street in Manchester, Connecticut. Years later, the town relocated Parker Street and this industrial area and the street by the mill became Colonial Drive in honor of the parent company, Colonial Board. Across the street from the mill stood several other structures, one was a covered warehouse used by the company to store large bales of bulk paper for processing into cardboard.

My friend, Ray, lived directly behind the mill on Eastfield Street. A brook tumbled down a rocky watercourse between Ray’s house and the mill, and this brook supplied water to the paper processes within. The water in the brook came from Salter’s Pond, just east of the mill. The area around the brook was wild and overgrown, and we would hunt frogs and salamanders along its banks, and enjoy other childhood adventures in the wet world around the small stream. Farther down, we found areas holding a mix of discarded equipment and industrial ponds that we explored in detail.

Across the street from the mill, where the warehouse sat, we discovered several holes in a fence and these holes allowed us entrance to the building where the bales of paper were stored. The bales were large, four feet by four feet by six feet. Large trucks brought the bales up to the side of the warehouse and a crane dumped them into the warehouse through a high-access opening on the side of the building. Exploring the pile of surplus paper, we discovered many tunnels and rooms formed by spaces between the jumbled bales that lay scattered about in the giant pile. These tunnels and rooms formed when the bales were unloaded from the trucks and dumped haphazardly into the warehouse.

One Saturday morning, just before school let out for the summer, three of us arranged to meet at the paper mill to explore the pile of bales in the warehouse. There was Ray, Kevin and myself. We were all in the 4th grade at the Bowers Elementary school. We had one flashlight along with some candles and matches for illumination in the dark rooms. We met by the brook behind Ray’s house and, after crouching down together furtively, the three of us smoked a cigarette. Then we walked across the street to the warehouse looking as innocent as possible. We made our way around to the back of the building and slipped inside through one of the small holes.

We followed one of the main tunnels, one we had explored earlier, down into the pile where the tunnel ended at a large room. We turned off the flashlight and the darkness was total. We lit a couple of candles and set them out using jar lids as candleholders. It was thrilling to explore this maze of rooms and tunnels together.

We retreated up the tunnel to where an unexplored passageway branched off from the main shaft. The three of us started crawling up the passageway with the beam of the flashlight leading the way. We found a small room and sat down for a minute to gather ourselves, and to ease the beating of our hearts. Then we heard a small moan. We froze still and turned out the light. The moan came again, soft but louder, and we shuddered in the dark room, not knowing what to do. Now the moan was getting more intense and a wind was ripping through the darkened tunnel.

“Let’s get outta here!” someone yelled, and we turned on the light and fought each other for space as we scrambled back down the narrow passageway to the main tunnel and turned uphill to get out of the pile. The wind was stiff and in our face and a banshee was yelling behind us.

We climbed out of the tunnel to stand in the light of the warehouse; we turned and looked at a wall of flame coming towards us from the other side of the pile, the high flames already licking at the roof. A candle must have fallen over in the room far down in the pile! We ran for the exit holes and made our way outside.

Workers from the paper mill came running across the street to see what was happening. We made our way across the road and back to the brook, sick with fear. We could hear sirens approaching us in the distance. At the brook, we split up, each of us going our own way and promising to tell no one.

Eventually, I found my way home. My mother was busy with her tasks around the house and I stayed out of sight. I trembled with fright every time the phone rang. The day finally ended and I spent a fitful night in my bed.

On Sunday, a police car arrived and parked in front of our house. An officer emerged and knocked at our front door. My mother let him in and called me into the kitchen. Someone had informed him I had been in the area of the mill and he asked if I was involved with the fire. I said I was near the area, but my friends and I were only playing in the brook that flowed from Salters Pond and then down the hill behind the mill. He wrote some notes in a small book and then he left.

Later that afternoon the phone rang and I went to the police station with my father and mother. We were ushered into an interrogation room and I sat on a big wooden chair next to Ray and Kevin. The three of us sat in a line in front of the desk where an imposing sergeant sat at a typewriter, our parents standing behind us. This was the moment when I learned the sad truth. Kevin, as we used to say, had spilled the beans. He sat on his chair crying, and Ray and I soon joined him.

The Sergeant asked Kevin to tell everyone in the room what had transpired. Kevin began by saying it was my idea to explore the warehouse and that we had smoked a cigarette by the side of the brook earlier in the day. As Kevin related the story, my father made audible sounds of anger and disdain behind us. In time, Ray and I told the story in our own words, each of us choosing to omit the cigarette smoking details from our versions. The police went over every detail repeatedly, looking for some inconsistency that might indicate we had set the fire on purpose. Not understanding such things as liability, we told the story of the fire again and again through our tears. My father was huffing with anger and disgust behind me.

Eventually, the interrogation was over and the families went home. I did not know what to do when we arrived at our house and I was sick with fear, so I started practicing my clarinet as I sat on the edge of my bed. I heard my father and mother yelling at each other in the kitchen and I heard words about the paper mill owners suing the family, and about us losing the house. In today’s world, parents would sue the mill for maintaining an unsafe structure that allowed children to sneak inside so easily, enticing them in to explore a place and putting their life in danger. However, it was a different world in 1960.

My parents subjected me to various punishments and I accepted my fate stoically. The two things I needed more than anything that night I did not receive: a hug from my father and secondly, to hear him tell me that everything would be all right. My father loved us and worked hard for us, but our family never communicated well when it came to the deeper issues of love and personal feelings. My father showed his love sparingly; as my older brother once said, it was love at arm's length. I went to sleep that night wondering if we would lose the house, if I would be the cause of my family losing their home. I sobbed pitifully.

The authorities and the paper company finally came to believe that the three of us had no criminal objective and the fire was not set intentionally. The company did not sue us in court and we did not lose our house. As a family, we never talked about the fire, either. My Dad’s folks came by one weekend soon after and as we sat in the backyard having a picnic, asked me about the fire, about what happened and how I was doing. My father abruptly put an end to this and told everyone we did not want to talk about the incident. Little did he know.

There was one long lasting relic from the fire; my father never allowed me to burn the paper trash. In those days before air quality concerns and burning permits, people burned the leaves that fell in their yards in autumn and every family had a small barrel in the back of the yard where they burned their paper trash. Our barrel sat by an old stone fireplace near the end of our property. The seasons went by and every winter I remember seeing the image of my father down in the distance, standing in a foot of snow in the cold and wet, burning the trash. I guess my father considered me the Manchester equivalent of O’Leary’s cow; one trip to the paper burn barrel, even in the middle of a winter blizzard, would result in a conflagration that would engulf the entire town.

The years went by and I grew to manhood, left home for the Army and a life of my own. In all my years at home, my father never did allow me to burn the paper trash in the small barrel down at the end of the yard, not in the rain or in the winter, never. I remember how I felt that night after the fire when we came home from the police station, how that ten year old boy cried and worried about losing the family home, putting his parents and brothers out on the street. I remember how angry, how cold and distant my father was.

Writing this today, I realize the fire haunts me still.