By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
Since moving to Danville, Va., a few years ago, I have had the opportunity to observe the efficiency of the Danville City Fire Department at fairly close range (but thankfully, not too close). The two occasions concerned a house and an old apartment building, both about a block from me.
I have often mentioned that as I was growing up, I lived a few miles south of Salisbury on the Old Concord Road. The fire department which served our area was the South Salisbury Township Fire Department. One day back then, I had the opportunity to observe the rapid response, firefighting prowess of the men of South Salisbury Township from a much closer perspective than my recent observation of the Danville firefighters. Thankfully, it wasn’t our house, but it was a sizeable portion of the side woods and woods behind our back yard.
This event happened sometime in the very early 1960s. I had some old firecrackers, Black Cats (not “Poe-esque,” but the little bottle rocket variety) and rolls of cap-gun caps lying around, so I figured I would combine all of these leftover pyrotechnics into a form more impressive. I fashioned something cone-shaped out of paper, bolstered with taped bottle rockets, caps and firecrackers. The bottle rockets were to help it fly, but I can’t quite remember what my logic was for the inclusion of firecrackers, for instead of providing one-directional, upward “lift” for the whole, they would have resulted in many fragments, multi-directional. I convinced my next-door neighbor, Steve Ritchie to help with the launch, but I willingly assume all of the blame for the idea’s genesis, and for what followed.
The Ritchies lived next door to us, separated by a space of woods. At this late date, I can’t remember just why, but we positioned that homemade “firework,” in the month of November, at the edge of that section of woods between my house and Steve’s. I struck the match and ignited the “thing,” standing there with kindling-like twigs and dried leaves on the ground all around my feet (a thought crosses my mind just now as to the Martyrdom of the Saints).
My “amalgamated” rocket burst into flames, fell to the ground, and those very crisp, fallen leaves of fall quickly caught fire. Steve and I tried to stomp out the blaze, but the breeze extended it horizontally along the ground, and vertically up some small trees. When we saw that it was beyond our stomping, I and Steve ran home in fear (I know that it is improper grammar to say: “I and Steve,” instead of “Steve and I,” but the niceties of language do not matter as much to me right now as does the taking advantage of any opportunity, presently presented, to lessen the overall weight of my soul by assigning the proper responsibility for what happened that day).
Someone in the neighborhood evidently saw the smoke and placed a call to the South Salisbury Township Fire Department (at its then location, about a couple of miles north of my home, toward Salisbury). The firemen, properly alarmed, arrived and put out the fire, but not before it had burned about two acres of woods in the area between and behind our house and that of the Ritchies.
My mother was at work at her first shift job at Salisbury’s W.T. Grants, while my father was in bed asleep from his third shift job at Southern Railway. Sometime toward the end of the conflagration’s snuffing, my father awoke and stepped out onto the front porch to survey the situation. He looked around, didn’t seem to be upset, and went back to bed. Perhaps he thought that his sleep had been interrupted by a strange dream.
The person who seemed to be the most upset about that “uncontrolled” burn was Steve’s mother, Mrs. Mary Ruth Ritchie. She was always a somewhat frail, calm, sweet, good, gentle person, but all of these descriptive adjectives regarding her demeanor were temporarily negated by the fire. She came over to our home and angrily said the following to me: “Never play with Steve again or come over to our house!” Upon hearing this, I immediately burst into tears! The next day, those previously listed, descriptive adjectives restored to her demeanor, Mrs. Ritchie came back over and told me that she was sorry that she had hurt my feelings, had made me cry, and that I was welcome at their home anytime (proving that the gentle people of this world are naturally attuned to the feelings of others, similarly gentle).
Several days later, after the Salisbury Post’s evening arrival in our front yard (it was an afternoon paper then), I checked the “fire report” section out of curiosity. Following the listing of that particular fire’s date, were words approximating the following: “South Salisbury Township-Old Concord Road — children playing with matches.”
By Mack Williams