I wrote this piece more than twenty years ago when I worked as a reporter at a small newspaper and was sent out to cover a house fire that had come across the police scanner.
The sad thing is that the piece never appeared anywhere – at least in the format that it now exists. Since the fire took place well outside my newspaper’s coverage area and happened so close to deadline, my editor directed me to write a small 250-word news brief for that day’s newspaper and move onto other stories.
The farmer and his message, though, was just too powerful. His message of hope stayed with me. I don’t want to sound too over-dramatic, but in a small way, it haunted me. A few months later, I had moved onto another job, but I went back and wrote what I saw that day.
The story has stayed with me still today. One day, I plan to use the farmer’s story of hope as the background for a novel that I have planned.
So more to come. In the meantime, let me introduce you to “the farmer.”
The weathered farmer kicked a charred piece of wood and looked at all that had been lost.
More than 40 years of hard work had gone up in smoke. The ashes still hot in places, smoldered in the background, crackling and creating small billowy clouds that spread out and covered the area like a deep fog.
Several firemen, helmets in hands, stood dumbfounded, not quite sure what to say to their friend and neighbor.
The elderly man and his wife didn’t have much, but what they did have, a few possessions, a rustic farmhouse and barn, went up in the fire. They built the farm in the Central Pennsylvania mountains soon after they had married in the early 1950s.
The couple farmed the land, milked a few cows, and raised three daughters on the farm. Despite all the hard work that had gone into it, the small farmhouse went up in flames with the snap of your fingers.
The nearby barn, full of dried hay and straw, burned even quicker. Firemen arrived as soon as they could, but the fire had a massive head start and they were left with few options other than making sure that the fire didn’t spread to a thicket of woods. The farmer and his wife returned from dropping a basket of corn off to a neighbor to find the fire trucks leading up to their house and their belongings in ruin.
Everything the husband and wife had ever worked for, everything they had bled and sweat for, with one swipe . . . was gone. Fire officials planned an in-depth investigation into what caused the fire, but suspected that the heat from the hot summer sun on a patch of dry grass near one corner of the house played a key role in setting off the fire.
“I can’t believe it,” the man said, holding his head in his calloused hands. “I just can’t believe it for the life of me.”
The 67-year-old stumbled to a small area off to one side and shook his head at what had been his once-prized rose garden.
He pulled open a drawer to a half-standing, blackened desk. His detailed farm records, some dating back 30 to 40 years.
His wife’s famous recipe box, including her extra special chili recipe which helped her win numerous chili contests over the years.
From out of nowhere in the stack of crusty debris, the old man pulled out a melted picture frame. He stared at the destroyed family picture and one lone tear trickled down the side of his face.
“We got this picture taken soon after we had Melissa, our youngest,” the farmer said, turning the frame over and over in his hands.
“My wife got herself and girls all spritzed up. She even managed to hog-tie me into going to get this taken.”
Pulling out a red handkerchief, the man, wearing a work shirt and stained overalls, quickly swiped the tear away from his face.
“I always liked this picture the most,” he said, flashing an earthy smile that disappeared as quickly as it came.
The farmer stepped away from the gathered firefighters and family members to mull his thoughts over, look at the rubble and collect himself. He was still shaken and even a bit wobbly a few minutes later, but the color in the farmer’s skin slowly started to return. He quietly walked over to his wife’s side.
She wept quietly on a neighbor’s shoulder underneath an old oak tree. The woman, a rock in her own right, kept the family together over the years and the farm running through the good times and the bad.
She suffered from arthritis, but performed the work of three people half her age. She would rise early in the morning and work late in the evening, somehow finding time to volunteer at the hospital, the women’s center and her church. She long ago had started to show signs of ageing — gray hair, wrinkles, etc — but her neighbors still talked of her grace and kindness.
In their time of despair, the farmer held out his hands to his wife and pulled her into his arms.
“We’re still alive,” he said, rubbing her back. “We’ve lost a few possessions. We’ll live. It will be tough for a while, until we get our feet back under us, but we’ll get there, we’ll be happy again. I promise you.”
The farmer looked into his wife’s blue eyes and wiped away a stream of tears with his finger. “We’ll always have our memories and we still have the most important thing in this world — We still have each other.”