Not so distant fires

I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, a few miles from Midway airport. We lived in a blond brick bungalow built for us by my uncle Vyto’s construction outfit in 1957. The entire section of town had been little more than scattered farms and vast tracks of undeveloped prairie land less than twenty-five years prior. Our neck of the woods was part of the post-World War II boom, and grew up around the Government-built housing for thousands of war-plant employees who relocated during the 40s.

There was one major factor which accounted for much of the housing and businesses that pre-existed the war. Since the late 1800s, our area had been part of Chicago’s foundational growth industry–the railroad. In fact, the street I grew up on abutted the huge Grand Trunk Railroad switching yards. Built somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, and sprawling over about a quarter-mile square, the yards were an amazing world of limitless exploration.

The enormous octagonal barn (from which clouds of bats erupted every night), with its huge turntable for redirecting locomotives, sat dark and hulking in the center of the space. It was the absolute height of thrilling adventure to sneak into its labyrinthine gloom to watch that table rotating a multi-ton iron monster onto another track. Outside, the barn was  surrounded by surplus freight cars, mostly empty outbuildings, crumbling sheds, large, mysterious and rusting equipment, and coolest of all, many outdated rail cars abandoned on siding tracks.

We kids of the area lived our summers in the yards, claiming 1920s passenger cars as clubhouses and settings for cowboy scenarios, climbing on monstrous old locomotives, playing out war and frontier fantasies in the shoulder-high prairie grass that grew everywhere.

There was supposed to be great risk in being there, because the yard was purportedly patrolled by railroad detectives with shotguns loaded with black pepper or rock salt. Grizzled, sour men were said to roam those tall weeds, dedicated to flushing out trespassers and supposedly delivering stinging rebuke to the quarry’s hindquarters. No question, though we didn’t truly understand the idea, we were trespassing and our enjoyment of every foray was enhanced by the illicit boldness of the venture itself. Everything was made more savory in the shadow of the danger that lurked nearby waiting for us, armed and ready. That no one had ever actually seen the guards, that no one had ever actually been shot, and that very few had even been run off, didn’t matter–everyone knew somebody who knew somebody who had taken a seat full of hot stinging pepper. That was good enough for us.

Carved out of one corner of the rail yard was a several block stretch of land given over to what we all called a junkyard, a commercial auto salvage yard, where rusting cars were stacked like old newspaper, and a ragged mountain made of thousands of old tires rose precariously at the center. We never went there, because unlike the phantom railroad dicks, there were very real packs of loud German Shepherd dogs that could be seen roving among the refuse.

One summer when I was about nine, the junkyard caught fire. The blaze spread with alarming speed and ferocity, and the neighborhood homes were so close that the fire department had pumper trucks standing by to fight any subsidiary fires that might erupt from the sparks floating on the hot, dry summer air. We were all on alert, many families were even encouraged to move further away to safety until the fire could be contained.

Acrid black smoke from burning tires mingled with the billowing white smoke from the kindled dry grasses, and a red-hot glow pulsed within the near-impenetrable haze.  The smell of scorched and melting rubber and super-hot steel filled the air, and everywhere large particulate chunks of ash blew like negative snow. We were litterally cut off from the rest of the world by the haze and heat; our neighborhood was under seige.

Logically, the instinct would be to move far away from the fire, and, even if you wanted to gawk, the combination of police and fire personnel, the blinding smoke and blistering heat, and basic common sense would limit your exposure. Of course, nine-year old boys are not known for common sense, and we were drawn to this event like seagulls to fast-food scraps.

The area immediately adjacent to the junkyard, and every logical entrance to the place was cordoned off by the vehicles and equipment of the fire and police departments. But, given our ownership of the rail yards, it dawned on us that we could come at the show from the back way, which mayhave been wide open. We went in and discovered that we had free access to the inferno, and–don’t ask me why–decided that this was a good thing. An invitation, even.

If the danger of unseen guards sweetened our every-day adventures into the yards, I guess it must have seemed that really risking our lives to smoke and fire was the sweetest thing of all. I doubt that we even considered the risk, however. We were nine, we were impervious, we were immortal. We were dumber than rocks.

We went wandering into a scene straight out of Dante; a surreal land proscribed by curtains of thick, gray haze. Everything we could see looked unreal through this filter. Even the flames seemed less substantial, less dangerous seen this way; the haze transforming the bright hot blazing red to a pale, translucent orange. The firemen battling the fire were gray wraiths, shadowy, dreamy figures moving in slow-motion through the nightmare landscape.

Sound seemed to not exist in there. Everything that might ground us to reality was gone too. We felt as if we were in the midst, in some bizarre way, of a singularly otherworldly experience, exhilarating in ways we couldn’t understand then. We wandered blithely into hell, casually took in the sights and survived.

We could literally have died in at least a thousand ways, I realize now. But back then we were safe from such logic–protected by our bullet-proof stupidity. We were also very quickly hotter than we’d ever been, coughing from the stench and smoke, and streaked with ash. What we weren’t, at any point though, was worried. We were just uncomfortable and our curiosity had been sated.  As casually as we had entered, we left. No one saw us, no one stopped us. We came, we saw, we moved on.

Now, you’re a nine-year old boy, you come home streaked like a zebra with sooty black stripes, and you smell like Akron, Ohio…how do you explain that to your mother? We had cheated death, literally, but we couldn’t escape the scrutiny of the all-seeing eyes of mom. Beyond the grime, I looked as though I had been seriously sunburned, and I had blisters forming on my cheeks and arms. That’s how close to cooked we had been.

After my mother extracted the tale of our fiery field day (she failed to grasp what I saw was the obvious truth; all kinds of awful could have happened, but it hadn’t, I was fine). Needless to say I was grounded for a long time–and probably thought that it had all been worth it.

The blisters I had on another part of me–blisters not caused by exposure to the heat–definitely took the edge off my satisfaction pretty quickly.

It was a long time before I’d risk everything for adventure again. At least a month.

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