A Blaze for Glazed Eyes

7 04 2010

It’s a memory burned into my mind.  I was a little kid, watching television with my older brother and sister, when I noticed that I was the only one laughing at the punchlines.  I could imagine that the humor may not have been their style, but it begs the question as to why they were even watching it if they were not being entertained by it.  I glanced back at them and did a double-take.  They stared at the television in a hypnotic state.  Their eyes were glazed over, and they did not respond when I tried to talk to them.  This was a very creepy moment in my life.  I don’t know what it is about television that shuts people’s minds off, but I’ve heard it said that brain activity is actually greater in people who stare at a blank wall.  I have no trouble believing that.  People who watch comedies rarely laugh.  Even the laugh track is fake.  What impact does this have on us?

Every now and then we hear about how someone was brutalized in public, and no one even called the police, or how a beaten individual was left lying in the street, only to have people veer around the victim without stopping to help.  Life is just one big television to us.  No response is required.  At least, that’s a habit that we have developed.

So much so, when it comes to helping others.  More dangerously so, when it comes to helping ourselves.  I remember the first time I saw smoke in the distance, rising in the east.  There was nothing between our home and that smoke but an endless expanse of dry brush.  I wondered what could possibly stop its advance.  We made no preparations for escape.  Had it reached us, we could have lost everything.  Fortunately, it never got close.  But, we did not learn, and we were not ready the next time, either.

My next memory of that ominous cloud was to the north.  We speculated that it was a controlled burn.  We thought nothing of it.  The cloud got a little bigger, at first, but looked like it might stop altogether.  Near midnight, my mother woke me from bed, panicked.  She was telling me that we needed to evacuate.  I got up and wandered to the living room, lit eerily by the light of a fire, creeping over the nearest hill line like a blanket of lava, creeping toward our home.  Nothing lay between us but the only road out of there.  What did we do about it?  We sat there and watched it, of course.  We watched it come down to the road and stop.  Then we got in the car and drove around the perimeter of the fire, watching its advance.  At the time, the blaze was considered huge.  A mile west, it crossed the road that served as our fire break and started toward us.  For some reason, it just stopped.  Maybe it was the work of the fire crew, though they were almost entirely tied up with protecting some mansions directly in the path of the blaze.  We did not evacuate.  We were not even packed.  We had no plan at all.

The next major fire struck after I was married and moved away.  It passed my parents’ home narrowly on the south, way down at the bottom of a valley, with nothing to guard them but a two-lane highway.  The fire crew were absent.  They only stopped to warn my parents that they would not be able to do anything about it if it should come up the hill.  This was the scariest fire by far.  If the tiniest spark had crossed that road, it would have raced up the steep hillside and devoured my parents home in a moment.  And they were entirely unprepared.

All it would take is one careless driver, flicking a cigarette out the window, and there would be nothing to stop the blaze.

They were the hobby ranchers.  When disaster struck, they were left to beg friends to cross fire lines with horse trailers to save their horses.  They were left to pace and wring their hands and scramble to load their chickens, pig, rabbits, goats, sheep, dogs, parakeets, etc. into one minivan, plus whatever they could borrow.  It must have been like loading Noah’s Ark without the benefit of God’s guidance, or, for that matter, an ark.  The fire roared toward them, and it raced by them, and they watched it pass while talking on the telephone.  Nothing was ready to be saved, not even the humans.  In that same fire event, a similar woman died while waiting for someone to help her rescue her horses.  That could have been my parents’ fate, but for the mercy of God.  For that matter, it could have been my fate at one time.

The next fire that visited them was the one that got them. For the first time in their lives, they were finally prepared…mostly.  Their fire insurance company dropped them like a viper, and the next insurance agency was diligent enough to make them clear a wide swath around their home.  My father complained at the huge loss of plant life on their property, that such a large clearing would be required.  For the first time, ever, they had enough clearing to save their home and their barn.  They purchased a horse trailer.  They loaded the animals at the first sign of trouble.  They sorted and packed their most precious memorabilia.  They were ready, for once.  The only thing they had not accounted for was the fact that one horse was not accustomed to being in a trailer.  They still had to recruit the help of friends to force the horse into the conveyance.

They survived.  They got out before the blaze ripped through their property, burning everything flat for miles in all directions.  The most important structures survived.  My father laughed when he saw it, remembering his chagrin at having to clear so much brush, before.  It was all cleared, now, for miles.

The next blaze….

The next blaze will be an even bigger blaze.  No fire line will stop it.  No water will quench it.  It will burn forever, and hardly anyone will be prepared for it.  The preparation is simple.  The safety is reachable.  Yet, I somehow think that we will still all find ourselves staring at the approaching disaster, like we stared at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the earthquake at Haiti, or the tsunami at Sri Lanka.  We watch the world go by like we watch television.  We have become accustomed to the idea that no response is required.  The next blaze comes for everyone, urban and rural, in all manner of terrain, in any season.  The next blaze is Hell, and it will catch, is catching, the entire world unprepared.  A physical fire can destroy an entire town, yet people do not think that the spiritual one is any threat to them.  At least, they do not think it a threat to them, in particular.  So scary is the fire that destroys the body, and so fictional seems the fire that destroys souls.  When it comes, there will be no time to prepare.

I know people who get an external hard drive with automatic backup, and they think themselves prepared.  I ask them if they know how to use it, and they say they use it regularly.  I tell them that it’s fine that they know how to use it when nothing is going wrong, but do they know how to use it when their computer crashes?  Then, when the computer actually crashes, they have no idea how to recover their data, even with it all stored right there on the backup drive.  The disk is boot-able, but they don’t know how to boot from it.  In the end, surprisingly, they seem to “lose” their data just as though they had not safeguarded it.

Get ready.  No, seriously, get ready.  The barn will burn and the animals will roast.  Are you going to be ready for that disaster?  Are you really going to be ready, or are you relying on a false sense of security?  Every land has its natural disasters.  Every person gets to stare into the pit of Hell.  So few are ever ready for it when it comes.

Life is a hobby ranch and we are the ranchers.  Life is a television and we are the viewers.  We do not take it seriously enough to be truly prepared.  We hardly take it seriously enough to be truly entertained.  God, help us, for we gaze upon the blaze with glazed eyes.


The Last Train out of Hinckley

4 11 2009

Sometimes the church is like a burning train, running full speed in reverse.

The last train to arrive in Hinckley found it already veiled in smoke.  The previous train was boarded by the most nervous of the town’s residents.  That train, the second to last, escaped by tooth and nail, racing in and out of forest fires all the way to Duluth.  In that stretch, it had to cross six burning bridges.  The engineers examined the first five of them to make sure they could still hold the train.  When they reached the sixth, they knew that it was too far gone to hold them, but there was no turning back by this point.  Instead of stopping, they increased the speed and raced across it at full speed, arriving at the other side just in time to see it crumble.

That was the second to last train.  The last train was at least twenty minutes after that one.  The engineer of that train had heard by telegraph that the fire lines had been broken.  The firefighters were in full retreat.  As it chugged to a stop, masses of people swarmed it to board.  Over three hundred people got on, and more were coming, but the engineer could not wait for the entire town.  The fire was bearing down fast.  He pulled the bell rope to signal the train’s departure, and on the third pull, the rope came free in his hand, severed by fire.  He ran down the line and pulled another bell, and the train began to move.  The very last passengers to board were a mother and a couple of kids.

The train could not advance forward because of the fire, so it rumbled back the way it came.  People from the town began running after it for their lives.  The full force of the inferno hit as the train left the town.  Fireballs blasted through buildings, knocking down walls, exposing their interiors like doll houses.  Over the line, a final telegraph was received by the train, sent by the poor telegraph operator who remained at the station.  “I have stayed too long,” it said, and he stumbled out to the tracks toward the departing train and fell flat on his face, dead.

The engineer watched as people ran after him.  Two men managed to jump onto the cow catch.  A couple of boys ran until they passed out.  He watched the two men eagerly, hoping for their survival, but one of them was overcome and died, falling onto the tracks.  He left the engine to walk through the passenger car.  On both sides, the hellish blaze roared by.  Even inside the car the heat was unbearable.  When he saw flames licking in through the windows he realized that the train, itself, had caught on fire.  The terror among the passengers rose to a fevered pitch.  A woman’s dress caught on fire, and he quickly grabbed it and smothered it out.  This continued to happen throughout the train, with clothing igniting from the intense ambient heat.  One man, in a complete state of panic, ran to the door and threw it open, shouting that he could not take it anymore.  The engineer yelled at him to stop, but the man jumped out, bursting into flames before he hit the ground.

As the tracks heated, they expanded and buckled.  The train began to zigzag, a little at first, but worse with time.  Back at the engine, he found that his hands had swelled badly from handling the hot controls, puffing up like roasted marshmallows.  With help from his assistant, they took turns dunking themselves in the water tank and handling the controls.  But, the damage to the rails had gone too far.  The train had to be slowed to a crawl, and even then it was moving too fast to be safe.  Rails were splayed out in all directions, and the train could go no further.  Just as it stopped, two lakes came into view on either side of the tracks.  One was large and shallow, barely more than a giant mud puddle.  The other was smaller but deeper.  They had come to their place of safety at the last possible moment.

The engineer grabbed a bucket of water from the tank and put out the flames on the running board, enabling the passengers to exit the train.  Then he directed them to the small lake, and all but a couple of people followed him.  The few who didn’t tried to find their own way up a nearby creek, where they perished in the fire.  In the lake, the people lay flat on their backs, and even then the water was not deep enough to cover them completely.  They made up the difference by splashing themselves with the water constantly.  All around them, the fire blazed like the very pit of Hell.  Every breath was pure torture.

After what seemed like forever, the worst of the fire eventually passed, and they stood to view the ruination around them.  Everyone who took refuge in the lake was saved.  That meant that everyone on board the train, who actually stayed on the train, and who followed the engineer to the lake, was saved.  Before them stood the smoking remains of the train, burned down to the chassis.  The engine, even, had just begun to melt, sagging like softened butter on the tracks, glistening in its partial liquefaction.

They were saved.  Their clothing was singed and smoking, but they were saved, nonetheless.


I write this from memory, having read it a rather long time ago.  I apologize for any inaccuracy.


2 09 2008

Less than a month old, and already doomed.  I’m not talking about a baby.  I’m talking about this blog.  I’ve been thinking about my abilities to maintain a one-way conversation with anyone.  I just don’t do it.  People…very kind people have tried determinedly to draw me out of myself and failed.  I don’t make eye contact.  I don’t do anything to encourage the continuance of discussion.  I don’t hate these people; in fact, I like them very much, but I have little desire to interact with them.  One might imagine, then, how impossible it would be for me to draw out myself for others to see.  It simply wouldn’t happen.

There was a time in my life when I would habitually spend two hours each night praying to God.  My parents lived on some rural rugged property with a little chapel on a hill.  Each night, I would climb that slope in the dark, chasing away who knows what wildlife that rustled in the blackness, and there, between an old wooden cross and that weathered little building, I would stare up at the sky and beg God to talk to me.  I had recently graduated from high school, and college had proven to be a cold and impersonal place.  I had no one to call a friend.  I knew that God could hear me.  He was someone that I could always talk to.  However, talking to someone who never talked back proved to be an unnatural and difficult task for me.  I told him so, too.  Eventually, I gave up and never returned to routine prayer.  I told God that I would be waiting for him to speak; I figured I had done enough talking and it was his turn.

Last year, in October, the Harris fire raged over that area for miles in every direction.  Several homes were lost around there, and it left my parents’ property a scorched and barren moonscape.  All of their smaller buildings were lost.  All that was left of them were the nails, fallen straight down from where they had been nailed, and the metal framing around the windows ran in rivulets down the hillside.  Three of their buildings survived.  The barn and the house had extensive clearing around them, so it’s easy to imagine how they survived, but no one knows why the little chapel remained, as it had no clearing, and it was as vulnerable to fire as any building could possibly be.  Yet, that patch of grass where I had been on my back every night remained untouched, from the cross to the chapel, though the bush that was growing against the chapel had since burned away.

One might think that I would have turned back to regular prayer.  The fact is, I’m just not a very good conversationalist.  Even more so, if I can not maintain such a relationship with God, then how can I do so with complete strangers?  Therefore, I say that this blog is doomed.

I can only hope that my faith is not.