Off and running at sound of the fire alarm

Jacques Kelly

September 17, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

One early summer noontime of 35 years ago my mother said she smelled smoke. It was a faint odor, coming from outside the house.

A few minutes later, she and her aunt were hoisting themselves out a precarious third-floor window that was then serving as their fire observation tower. Fire sirens were blasting all over north Baltimore. One held the other as they did their best to defy the law of gravity.

As they clung to the wooden window frame, they determined that the fire -- and a big one at that -- was issuing from Loyola College. Both women made a judgment on the spot, with no help from radio or television. "It's got to be the old faculty house." I was much impressed. They turned out to be correct on all points.

They took off down the steps and rounded up my sister and brother. A prudent decision was made to leave my 5-month-old sister home in the care of my grandmother, who took a dim view of fire chasing but was a great baby-sitter.

The excitement grew. From the porch of the old rowhouse at 29th Street and Guilford Avenue, it sounded as if all Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park were ablaze. You could hear the various companies responding. The scent of burning wood floated over Charles Village.

My mother believed that one of the great pastimes of city life was chasing a fire. The sound of an engine's siren was the call to arms. The sound of multiple red wagons was even better. It meant take off.

There was only one obstacle. She had no car and Loyola College was 18 or more blocks away. There were also three children in tow, ages 5, 4 and 1. So she and my aunt herded the three of us into a Diamond cab.

"Where to?" the driver inquired.

"Follow the engines," my mother replied.

It seems we wisely took the back route through the Guilford neighborhood and approached the fire via Millbrook Lane. Cold Spring Lane was nothing but fire hoses. I recall we had to climb over the spurting tubes.

The fire was a mean one, having the time of its life in the 60-year-old timbers of a Tudor-style mansion built for Horatio Whitridge Garrett. The sloping roof seemed to be of some highly combustible kind of wood shingle that burned and burned. It also was the kind of blaze that was easily watched from a distance and terrified a 5-year-old.

By 12:23 that day, the fire had hit six alarms. I had seen enough by the first half-hour, but my mother liked to stay for all three acts. I seem to recall that the arrival of the Box 414 Association's coffee-and-sandwiches truck. Its arrival was synonymous with a substantial blaze, the kind that draws the confirmed fire buffs.

From this day on, fire attendance was a part of my childhood education. We caught the matinee of the O'Toole General Tire Co. fire (much rubber and very foul-smelling) one afternoon. I think we arrived at St. Paul Street and Mount Royal Avenue via the No. 29 bus.

Mother enlisted my grandfather for this field trip. Extra family personnel was required -- one to keep the children so the other adult could get as close to the flames as the police would permit.

And she firmly believed that every good fire was worth a repeat performance. We were always herded back the next day for wreckage assessment and critiques. I took a burned page from an old Jesuit prayer book from the Loyola pyre.

Previous social engagements were never a hindrance to mother's fire chasing.

One evening mother was seated in the parlor of my father's Aunt Agnes Bosse, a very proper maiden lady who lived alone in South Baltimore. Aunt Agnes was the epitome of the Victorian lady, who, though it was the 1960s, still wore a patch of gathered lace at her neck.

We were seated on her horsehair sofa. Agnes was serving sherry and jelly cookies when all the Inner Harbor seemed to erupt in one concerted fire siren.

My mother got up, unlatched Aunt Agnes' full-length shutters that enclosed the front door and took one look at the street. She could see the reflected orange from the flames of the old Federal Tin Co., a building that stood near what is now the Harbor Court Hotel.

My mother simply told her aunt-in-law the party was over. She said her hurried goodbyes and dashed to take her place behind the police lines. Mother considered it a very successful evening out.

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