June 14, 2023

Our writing club met last night at the Sierra Vista Public Library. We are continuing to work on our Potpourri Project which we plan to publish as an anthology. Members read their short stories and poems that they have submitted or will soon submit. I wrote this memoir about an event which occurred when I was teenager and recently edited it for our project.

A Mystical Disaster

Disaster struck a week before summer vacation in 1969. I’m unsure whose bright idea it was to send us home. Maybe the authority figures were afraid we might be in danger. The voice on the PA system had only announced school was closing early. No one told us why. As I got books from my locker at 1:30, nearby students asked if anyone knew what was happening.

Exiting high school, I turned west. When I reached the stoplight at the third block, this street was barricaded. When I tried to walk around it, a patrolman said, “Stop! You can’t go through here.”

“But home is that way.”

He scowled and raised his voice. “I said you cannot go this way.”

“Why not?”

Exasperated, he said, “Because there are houses exploding.”

I turned south and planned to head west a block later. No dice! Another squad car blocked this pathway. I didn’t bother talking to the officer. I went another block south and encountered more police and barricades. Standing at the corner, I contemplated what to do. This was the edge of the city limits. A farm lay on the southwest corner. If I continued south, it’d be a mile before I could go west, and I wouldn’t be able to head back north for more than another mile. Forget that! If I backtracked, there would be an additional two blocks down a steep hill before reaching a street that went west. I bet they have it barricaded too. I can’t get home. Where do I go? Did our house explode? Where’s my family? Is everyone okay?

A clear thought finally crystalized, and I turned east. Mom should be at work. I could walk a mile and a half to reach her at the grocery store.

It was a typical June day in Northwest Indiana, sweltering like the nearby steel mill blast furnaces. The sidewalk I now traveled lacked shade. Thirsty, I thought about getting something to drink at Uncle Jimmy’s and Aunt Mary Neal’s place. Their home was another four blocks east from where I was, then almost two blocks south.

I looked through the screen as I knocked but didn’t see anyone. “Hello, it’s Diane. May I come in?”

In answer, my younger brother Larry raced through the living room and unlatched the screen door. Bawling, he hugged me. “Thank God you’re safe!”

“What are you doing here? Where’s Martha?”

Aunt Mary Neal entered from the kitchen. “I’m so glad to see you! Your mom called and asked me if there was any way I could get the little ones from St. Mark’s school. My neighbor drove me, and I spotted Larry walking home. He told me your sister had gone home with her friend Cathy.”

“Did my mom call from work?”

“I’m not sure. Why not try calling there? Would you like a drink?”

I nodded then used their kitchen wall phone to call the grocery store. “Hello, may I please speak to Mary Lou?”

The woman said, “I’m sorry she’s not here. She was called home.”

“Really? Thank you.” I put my finger on the hook, then dialed our number. No answer.

Aunt Mary Neal handed me a glass of grape Kool-aid. “What did you find out?”

“The woman said she went home, but I just called, and no one answered. I let it ring ten times. If she’s there, why didn’t she pick up the line?” Frustrated, I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. Larry had calmed down and was watching cartoons with our cousins. At least I knew he and my younger sister were safe.

“Wait a bit then try again. Shouldn’t your father be home from work soon?”

I’m shocked when I glance at the clock because it’s 3:30. Normally, I’d already be home.

Seeing my distress, my aunt wrapped her arms around me and held me for a few moments. “If there’s still no answer when Jimmy gets here from the mill, I’ll have him take you both home.”

She didn’t have a driver’s license, so they only had one car. While we waited for my uncle to come, I kept phoning home. Every five minutes, I dialed, let it ring ten times, then hung up. I kept an eye on their television, but the program ran without an interruption for Chicago breaking news.

When he arrived, she explained that my mom had been called home, but no one was answering our phone. Uncle Jimmy said, “The radio reported it was natural gas explosions and that the danger appears to be over.”

As he drove us home, we listened to local radio but nothing new was broadcast. A patrolman waved us away when Jimmy tried to continue going west, so he turned north. He got out of his car when we reached the stoplight. I’m unsure what my uncle said, but this time the policeman moved the barricade and let us through. We didn’t see any damage while driving along the five blocks west before we reached my street.

My parents’ cars were parked at the curb. Everything appeared normal. My youngest brother Russ was across the street playing with the Lara kids. Mom and Dad sat on our front porch talking with a stranger. I later learned this was a newspaper reporter. Larry rushed into Mom’s arms and hugged her. Over his head, she smiled at me.

I bit my lip. “Is everything all right? Why didn’t you answer the phone?”

Because they were outside, my parents hadn’t heard it ring. From them, I learned that nine houses had indeed exploded—one with the same address as ours—but it was one block west. The house on the southwest corner of our block had been blasted apart. Several houses had caught fire. One of those was ours.

Mom said, “Go inside and see for yourself.”

An acrid smell overwhelmed me when I stepped into the foyer. Damage was apparent everywhere I looked. Gray streaks from water and smoke covered the living room walls. In the kitchen, gas flames from our counter-top stove had soared upwards and caused a subsequent minor explosion. The exhaust fan, which had been mounted to an upper kitchen cabinet, lay in the middle of the room. Scorch marks from the blast marred the kitchen and hallway ceilings. The wall phone receiver had melted and doubled in size. Amazingly, it still worked, but the sound was a slight tinkling noise. Of course, no one could answer calls with it. Thankfully, we had another phone in the basement. From our kitchen sink window, I viewed the blasted remnants of a house.

Back outside, Chicago television crews had arrived on the scene. I watched as the newscaster reported that our neighborhood looked like a war zone. A power and gas company employee had flipped a valve the wrong way causing natural gas explosions to occur within a six-block area.

Sitting on our stoop because of the malodorous reek indoors, I learned more about the day. Mom said, “Russ woke up with a sore throat. I called Mrs. Lara to let her know that he wouldn’t be walking to kindergarten with them. Connie reminded me there was a party today. She convinced me to let him go, instead of getting your grandmother to babysit.”

Mom lit a cigarette and took a puff. “Early this afternoon, Connie was outside watching the kids play. She spotted the smoke and was the first one to call the fire station. Then, she phoned me, and I called your father.” She smiled. “By the way, he’s a hero. I’ll let him tell you.”

Dad inhaled a deep puff then said, “While parking my car, I spotted Mr. Peltry walking toward his house. I yelled at him to stop, but the old man is getting so deaf that he didn’t hear me. I ran to catch up and managed to grab him from behind as he opened his door. His house exploded as I pulled him back. Luckily, he only suffered minor injuries.”

I grinned. “Way to go Dad! No wonder they interviewed you.”

“All in all, we were lucky.” He stubbed out his cigarette butt. “I’m thankful that I installed two air vents in the attic in May. Those kept our house from exploding because they allowed the heated air and smoke to escape.”

Mom said, “Vern, your mother would’ve had a heart attack if she’d been here. Thank God no one was home!”

Reflecting upon the chain of events, I found a mystical aspect to this disastrous day. Maybe divine intervention. Miraculously, no one had died. Though our home was damaged, it could have been so much worse for my family, especially if my 83-year-old grandmother had been babysitting.

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