I’ll pass on the breakfast sizzle

Last month I had a couple of firefighters over to my house. It was a pretty spontaneous affair. Casual. As a matter of fact, I was in my pajamas when they arrived. And it was actually my 14-year-old daughter who picked up the phone and invited the guys over. I would have done it myself, but I was busy emptying a fire extinguisher into an electrical wall socket.
Note: It was not a chimney fire. I have a reputation for those bad boys, and this was not one of them. I am perfectly comfortable acknowledging my impressive ineptitude in print, but this is not one of those instances.
The fire occurred a little before 7 a.m. on a school day. I was proofreading a manuscript in a quiet, isolated room in the back of the second floor, when I heard an odd and unfamiliar sizzle coming from the sporty new bathroom we added to the house a few years ago. Our daughter picked out the colors when she was in elementary school, and so the room looks suspiciously like the inside of a Barbie dream house.
I went to investigate, more curious than alarmed. When I opened the bathroom door, I saw flames shooting out from the wall socket. They were parallel to the floor and sending out sparks like it was the Fourth of July — rather than the middle of December.
My first thought? “Wow! Those scorch marks are going to be a real project to paint over.” My second? “Uh-oh! Your house is about to go up in flames like a tiki torch.”
It didn’t. While my wife rounded up the cats and our daughter dialed 911, I emptied not one but two fire extinguishers into the outlet. (Yes, it took two to smother it completely.) Our cats, I should note, were uncharacteristically helpful, which means they neither hid under couches where we couldn’t find them nor decided that now would be the perfect moment to start vomiting up Christmas tree needles.
In some ways, it was all stunningly anticlimactic. One minute I was pretending I was Denis Leary on that TV show about firefighters, “Rescue Me,” and the next I was standing around my driveway in my pj’s with real firefighters, chatting about what a close call this had been. The firefighters, of course, were decked out in their full bunker gear. Did this mean I was embarrassed? Nah. It takes more than inconveniencing half the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Department and then standing around in my pj’s while everyone else is dressed to embarrass me. It’s only a matter of time before I’m recruited to eat bugs on “Fear Factor.”
But my neighbor Dan was there, and so were Matt and Alan and Steve and Jeff and a host of others. It was good to see them!
Now, some of you might remember that a mere three months ago, at the start of National Fire Safety Week, I chronicled in this very space my paranoia about fire. I noted how when I was a little boy my bed had started to smolder while I was sleeping, and burst into flames moments after I went to ask my parents for a drink of water. (The culprit then had been a nightlight pressed against the bedding.) As my wife observed once the firefighters had left our house the other day, “This probably hit all your hot button fears.”
Well, not all. I mean, it wasn’t like the walls had started to bleed. I have always considered bleeding walls much scarier than ones that are merely on fire.
But she was on to something. I really hate fire. I am, in fact, a bit like Frankenstein: Friends, good. Fire bad.
I think that’s why I have such enormous respect for the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Department — why I have such admiration for firefighters across the state. They know as well as anyone that friendship is good. And house fires? Worse than bad.
Thanks, guys. I really appreciate your dropping by.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 6, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

4 thoughts on “I’ll pass on the breakfast sizzle

  1. Neil says:

    Timing was good huh? If the smoldering electric outlet had started when all the Bohjalians went to bed, it would have been a different story. It might be worth determining the cause. If it’s critters in the walls knawing at the electric insulation, replacing the outlet won’t fix the problem. Also, why did the circuit breaker/fuse NOT break/shut down the flow of juice? That’s the safety mechanism. I’m glad everyone’s ok. Especially you who still wears the scar of a youthful trauma.

  2. Fire Is Scary says:

    I admire the fact that you know how to use one of those extinguishers. I don’t think I would, having never done so before. And I really think that in the nervousness of trying to put out a fire (however small, they are still very frightening), I might very well make things worse. I must say, when I first saw the title of this blog, I immediately thought of the (to me) positively *delectable* aroma of bacon cooking. However, since I know you are vegetarian, I it struck me that your column would probably *not* be about that. (Insightful. That’s just how I am). Anyway, I’m so glad that you and your family (and your home) are safe!

  3. Andrée says:

    OK I guess I should get some fire extinguishers. At least put some batteries in those fire detectors that I took out because I’m quite the cook. I have mice in my walls in the winter (cats are way too busy hibernating) and I have a fear of electricity leaking out of the walls (ever since I read Thurber as a kid). This is one scary story. I’m so glad you are all safe.

  4. Nichole says:

    My in-laws had a similar adventure a few months ago. My mother-in-law heard a strange thud upstairs. She assumed it was a flying squirrel, but she decided to investigate anyway. Lo and behold, the upstairs bathroom was in flames.
    She dashed downstairs and hauled a bucket of water back up to put out the fire. To the best of my knowledge, no flying squirrels were injured in the blaze.

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