A Fast Break To Fire Scenes

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

April 14, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

Attendance at major fires was a part of my childhood education. If it burned big, chances are we chased and watched it.

I got an early lesson on the morning of June 25, 1955. My mother smelled smoke, a faint odor, coming from outside the house.

A few minutes later, she and her aunt were upstairs, craning their necks out a third-floor bedroom window. This high and precarious spot served as their fire-observation tower. The one woman hoisted the other so both could have a look.

As they clung to the wooden window frame, they made a snap judgment that the fire -- and it was a big one -- was issuing from Loyola College, at Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane.

"It's got to be the faculty house," my mother said. I was much impressed. She turned out to be correct on both points. The fire was at Loyola and it was indeed the faculty house that was burning.

Right after the two women came to their conclusions, fire sirens started blasting all over North Baltimore. My mother and her aunt took off down the steps and rounded up my sister Ellen, my brother Eddie and me. My 5-month-old sister, Mimi, was left home in the care of my grandmother, who took a dim view of fire-chasing but was a very competent baby sitter.

From the siren sounds we heard on the porch of our rowhouse at 29th Street and Guilford Avenue, it seemed as if all Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park were ablaze. You could hear the various fire companies responding. The pungent and scary scent of burning wood floated over the neighborhood.

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

There were a few obstacles. My mother had no car and Loyola College was 18 or more blocks away. And there were those three children in tow, ages 5, 4 and 1. What to do? She and my aunt herded the three of us into a Diamond Cab.

"Where to?" the driver inquired.

"Follow the engines," my mother replied.

He wisely took the back route through the Guilford neighborhood and approached the fire via Millbrook Road. Cold Spring Lane was choked with fire hoses, but we jumped over them.

The fire was a mean one; it was having the time of its life in the 60-year-old timbers of a Tudor Revival-style mansion built in the 1890s for Horatio Whitridge Garrett. The sloping roof was constructed of a highly combustible wood shingle that burned and burned.

This was the kind of blaze that was easily watched from a distance but nonetheless frightened a 5-year-old -- me.

By 12: 23 p.m., the fire had hit six alarms. I had seen enough by the first half hour of our gawking, but my mother always insisted on remaining at fire scenes for what seemed like three long acts of a play.

As if this were not enough, she also liked to return a day or so later to inspect the damage more closely, believing that every worthy fire demanded a second look. So we went back for wreckage assessment. I picked up a burned page from a prayer book from that Loyola pyre. To this day, it's lodged somewhere within the pages of the family Bible.

(There was a personal twist to the Loyola blaze. The building was immediately repaired and put back into use, but early in this decade it needed another renovation. It was remade as a campus humanities center and named in honor of Father Francis X. Knott, a Jesuit priest and old family friend. When my mother died in 1994, it was this same Father Knott who gave her eulogy.)

As much as Mom loved a full calendar of social engagements, she never allowed other activities to be a hindrance to her fire chasing.

One evening the family was visiting my father's Aunt Agnes Bosse, a very proper woman who lived alone on Folsom Street in South Baltimore. Aunt Agnes was the epitome of the Victorian maiden. Although it was now the 1960s, she still wore a patch of gathered lace and a cameo at her neck.

We were seated on the horsehair sofa in her parlor. She was in the act of serving sherry and jelly cookies when all the Inner Harbor seemed to erupt in one tremendously loud fire siren.

My mother, who had been chatting, shot up, unlatched the full-length privacy shutters that enclosed Aunt Agnes' 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 offered a hurried goodbye and dashed to take her place at the police lines. Mom considered this a very successful evening out.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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