Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Davidsville Inferno

     So far, all of the stories I've written on this blog were fictitious, or mostly fictitious. This one, however, is 100% true. I wrote it as part of a creative writing class I took a couple years ago and it seemed appropriate for Christmas. Happy Holidays everyone!

     When my oldest brother David was in middle school, he received his first electric train set for Christmas. It was a tiny N-gauge train with tracks less than half an inch wide, and it fit perfectly on a small table in his bedroom.
     David loved that train. He spent several months crafting miniature structures to set up around it. He carefully glued and painted matchboxes, scraps of wood and other miscellaneous debris to build an entire town. The town was complete with quaint houses, a diner, a hardware store and many other clearly labeled buildings. He named it Davidsville, as printed on the Davidsville City Hall.
     Although he loved to show me and our other siblings the train, David was always nervous about people touching his delicate little town. Dad was especially prohibited since he had his own obsession with trains and loved to tinker with them, often beyond repair.
     Years later, the train set and all its decorations, along with most of our childhood memories, ended up in the attic of our suburban Pittsburgh home. When David left for college, Dad jumped at his big chance. He dug out the set, attached the tracks to a large sheet of plywood and brought Davidsville back to life. It became his new hobby, and the tinkering began. Mostly, Dad just played with the layout, but during the holidays he liked to display it on top of our upright piano in the living room, right next to the Christmas tree. He would cover the board with fluffy fake snow and set all the buildings on top of it. He then added a few red candles around the tracks, and they would only be lit the nights we opened presents. I had to admit that he did a good job; it looked just like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
     David liked it when he saw it on his holiday breaks, although he confided to me that he had some reservations. “It bothers me that Dad is playing with my train,” he would say. He was still very protective of fragile Davidsville.
     One Christmas, when I was 13 years old, David studied abroad in England and was unable to be with us. My other older brother Jon and sister Kristin were home, along with Mike and Pia—family friends from Denmark—so we still had a full house. Our family has a tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, so after church we gathered in the living room with plates of cookies and lots of anticipation. Dad fiddled with his camera and Mom ran around taking care of all the details. She dimmed lights, played a Christmas CD and made sure all the decorations were turned on and lit up. Part of her routine included lighting the candles that Dad set up on the train set, which she did casually while asking Pia questions about Christmas in Denmark. As her match approached one of the wicks, a small spark fell off and drifted slowly to the fake snow beneath it.
     It turns out that fluffy white stuff is inflammable. Highly inflammable.
     Within seconds, the entire bed of snow burst into flames. Mom jumped back safely as the blaze soared into the air, licking the ceiling. I anxiously waited for one of the adults to do something, but everyone just froze and stared at the inferno. After a few seconds, Dad darted out of the room.
     Pia finally took action. She fetched a pitcher of water from the kitchen and poured it over the fire. Within seconds, the flames died down and left only a loud sizzling sound and a lot of smoke. The fire was out and everyone let out a sigh of relief.
     An instant later, Dad ran back into the room carrying a fire extinguisher.
     “Stand back!” he shouted, reading the instructions and pulling the pin.
     “But Dad—“ my sister started.
     Dad squeezed the handle and a huge white cloud filled the room.
     Between the smoke of the fire and the even denser fog from the extinguisher, I could barely see the person standing next to me. Breathing wasn’t easy, either. In a mass of confusion and coughing, I followed the crowd out the door and onto our front lawn to escape the toxic air that filled the house. Snow was falling heavily and the wind was freezing, but I was grateful to be outside.
     Dad was the last one out, and he dragged with him the plywood that held Davidsville. As soon as he pulled it down the steps of the front porch, he hurled the whole thing into a pile of snow. I could still hear it sizzling.
     “You know,” my brother Jon said to him as we all stared at the smoldering heap, “Pia put that fire out before you turned on the extinguisher.”
     Dad just shook his head. “Better safe than sorry.”

     We spent the next couple hours airing out the house and cleaning fire extinguisher debris. With all the windows and doors open, everyone had to wear heavy coats. Sticky white paste covered the piano, the TV, the walls, most of the carpet and the good side of the Christmas tree (we left it on the tree because it was too hard to clean and because it resembled snow on an evergreen, despite the noticeable chemical smell). We scrubbed a long time before somebody looked up and realized the ceiling was covered, too.
     Presents still managed to be opened, although it turned into a late night—probably the latest my parents ever let me stay up at that age. The next morning, Christmas Day, there was still a distinct burning smell and a hazy, smoky look in the air.
     Around noon, Jon put on his hat and gloves and dug the wreckage out of the snow. All that remained were some shriveled metal tracks, a lot of ash and one little house. It was a white wooden house—one of the first ones my brother built—and half of it was charred black.

    I don’t remember a single present I received that year, but it’s still the most memorable Christmas of my childhood. David still has that little half-burned house and it sits on his mantle. He did forgive my father for tinkering with his train, and he now owns a new electric train that he shares with his own son.
     Dad is not allowed anywhere near it.

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