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Wood Working: We didn't start the fire, but we were avid spectators as it kept burning

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opinion River Falls,Wisconsin 54022
River Falls Journal
Wood Working: We didn't start the fire, but we were avid spectators as it kept burning
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A few weeks ago, Ruth and I spent a weekend in Fountain City visiting with probably my oldest friend, Gavin Strand and his wife Connie.


I've known Gavin, a retired educator, since we met in Miss Lentz's third grade classroom at Whitehall Public School. Somehow, we've kept up correspondence even though our paths have diverged.

So on the rare occasions we get together, we reminisce about the good bad old days or the bad good old days or whatever.

Our wives are kind enough not to shoot us or something even worse whenever this happens.

They usually retire to the kitchen to talk about important matters like the world's debt crisis while we made smart remarks about our third grade teacher or the class bully or Mrs. Lily Reich, our favorite teacher, who gave us our love of history.

Inevitably we have to stop, finally, when we're hoarse from talking and laughing. But these conversations awaken in me all sorts of memories that Gavin and I did not share.

See, Gavin lived on the town's east side; I lived on the west side.

Think Civil War.

Think rivalries.

The kids were tougher and more active on the east side. They had a creek and they played Tarzan a lot.

Over on the west side, along Scranton Street, we westsiders were sort of lazy and weak-kneed and effete. We smoked a lot and spent most of our evenings at the Pix theatre.

But we had our moments.

One was the Great Warehouse Fire of 1945, which occurred just across Scranton from my grandparents' house, and which rivals in westsider memories right along with Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Mrs. O'Leary's famous Chicago cow and the Peshtigo Forest Conflagration.

The tobacco warehouse was a magnificent three-story red-frame structure, positioned on the Green Bay & Western's spur line. It had been used before World War II for the storage of leaf tobacco.

But when it burst into flames in '45, we had no idea what it contained, but we were to find out soon enough.

Some said that careless kids had started the blaze, but the facts simply don't support that well-worn thesis.

None of us kids, you see, had been smoking on that Saturday, my grandpa having caught Bergie, Bear-puss Bare and me puffing up a pack of Fatimas in Grandpa's barn the day before.

More than likely the fire was adult in origin. Specifically, fully grown men got into a G.B.&W. steam locomotive, stoked it up and engineered it past Whitehall, sparks flying to its destination in Winona, Minn.

At any rate, as flames licked up the warehouse walls, as fire engines from all over the county arrived, we took seats on Grandpa's lawn, fresh with memories of last Sunday's RKO Pathe newsreel record of the Galveston Bay oil fires one week before.

As the conflagration increased in size and intensity, our attention became riveted to the huge Mobil Oil bulk tank a quarter block away and to the fact that our courageous firemen were pouring more water on it than they were on the blaze itself.

Why? we asked.

"Because if they don't keep the tank cool its contents will explode and waves of burning oil will wash over us all and boil us alive," said Gordon Peterson who was a high school freshman and knew everything.

Grandma Wood wrung her hands and tried to remember the last time she attended church. Oh, yes, the junior choir Christmas concert, but that didn't count, did it?

She wrung her hands some more. We sat glued to our lawn chairs.

Fortunately for all concerned the firemen kept their cool and the tank cool as well. By Sunday morning all that remained of the once proud tobacco warehouse was the stone-and-mortar foundation and the rubble within.

But what rubble!

Rubble more precious than all the gems in King Solomon's Mines starring Stewart Granger. Auto parts of all shapes and sizes. Steelies with which to use as marble shooters. Burnt-out electric motors. Perfect circle piston rings. And an honest-to-god airplane engine.

Thus began the daily war games where we westsiders for three straight years played from morning till night -- One side getting the engine on Monday, the other on Tuesday and so on.

"Let's play 'God Is My Copilot!'"

"I get to play General Claire Chennault."

"Who's she?"

Finally, I would like to reiterate that careless kids had nothing to do with the Great Tobacco Warehouse Fire of 1945.

As for the summer-long Great Smoldering Icehouse Fire of 1947, that's, er, another story.