Soot Life

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

When I was a kid, I suffered from a fear of fire. It all began in the first grade. One of the first lessons we all learned in the first month of school was STOP, DROP AND ROLL. All 25 of us in Ms. Stejskal’s classroom would freeze in mid-motion, drop to the floor and roll around in a way that was more suggestive of an epileptic fit rather than fire extinguishment. Have you ever seen that many plaid-clad children, sporting every shade of orange, brown  and avocado green, flailing about on the ground? It’s a sight to behold, let me tell you. 

The regularity with which we practiced the STOP, DROP AND ROLL method began to stir some mild anxiety in the back of my six-year-old brain. Ms. Stejskal brought up the subject of fire safety often enough that I began to assume house fires were a regular occurrence in every home in the south. 

The second month of school we held a FIRE SAFETY FAIR. While the rest of the class saw this as an exciting break from our normal routine of math and paste eating, I saw it as more confirmation that fire was an ever-present threat. 

At the Fire Safety Fair, we learned the importance of preventative measures, such as smoke detectors and fire alarms. Fire extinguishers and exit points were also stressed. And, above all else, we learned the life-saving value of a family escape plan. 

I went home armed with so much knowledge and a sense of urgency that my mother’s left eye began to twitch. 

“How many smoke detectors do we have? When were the batteries last changed? Are they EPA certified?”

She must have asked herself, “What fresh hell is this?” But she was patient with me and answered all my questions. 

She made sure the batteries in the smoke detectors were brand new. She bought a fire extinguisher and stored it under the kitchen sink. She sat down with me and drew out an escape plan and a meet-up point in the yard, and we stuck it to the refrigerator with my Smokey the Bear magnet that I’d won at the school fair. 

She even unlocked the screens on the windows so that they could be quickly exited in case of an inferno. I learned years later that every night, when I fell asleep, she would lock each window screen because the fear of an intruder was far greater than fear of fire for my ever-cautious mother. In the morning, she unlocked them again because she knew I would check them before leaving for school.  

The woman was a saint with the patience of Job himself. 

Over the next several months, my concern faded into the background, much like a hangnail that only bothers you if you rub it a certain way. 

But then, one winter morning, there was a knock at the door. My mother opened it to find a salesman, hat in hand, standing on the welcome mat. 

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said, smoothing back his Brylcreemed hair. “I’d like to speak to you about the importance of fire insurance. You never know when you could be the victim of a house fire.”

My mother, who would have been polite to a stone-cold serial killer, slammed the door in his face, turned around and threw her arms across the door as if barring us from a zombie attack. 

“Did he say FIRE insurance?” I squeaked. 

“He had the wrong house. He meant to go down the street to Glenn the bully’s house,” she quickly answered and hurried into the kitchen to distract me with cookies. 

But it was too late. Fire, once again, was on my mind. Professionals would probably have called it pyrophobia. My family simply asked, “Why did we ever teach her to speak??”

And then, when the air was at its coldest of the year, a classmate died in a house fire. And fire became an evil thing, a thing I feared and resented.

Even into adulthood, I struggled with anything fire related. I owned homes with fireplaces that I refused to use. Campfires and bonfires always had an edge to them that it took effort to overcome. 

And yet.

Today, at my job with Top Hat Chimney Sweeps, I completed my third certification on my way to becoming a Master Hearth Professional. The only female Master Hearth Professional in the country. Can you believe that?

Thanks to the wonderful team of people I work with, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about fireplaces and chimneys and, yes, even fire itself. Just like with anything, knowledge overcomes fear. 

I still have a healthy respect for the power of fire, and I always will. I will also always remember my classmate who died at the mercy of fire. But I am ever so thankful for the everyone who has been a patient teacher, beginning with Ms. Stejskal and my sweet mother, and continuing today with the most sincere and supportive and just genuinely good people I have ever been blessed to work with. 

I still have my Smokey the Bear magnet, but I’ve traded plaid pants for a “Soot Life” t-shirt, and I wear it with pride. Here’s hoping all of you find joy in your work and stay safe always!

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