5. The Optimist

5. The Optimist

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


The Optimist

Safety never takes a holiday.

~Author Unknown

Most parents stress safety to their kids, but my dad was a maniac about it. He was convinced disaster had us in its crosshairs. By the time we were six, he’d told us that pinworms, ringworm, and tapeworms devour children who aren’t careful. During a thunderstorm, he’d describe how lightning blasts the roof off houses. At supper, we heard tales of deadly flu, TB, rickets, hemorrhoids, cancer, blindness, and accidents that would leave us amputated, blind, deaf, and drooling.

Dad had been badly wounded as a soldier, his father had died in an accident, and Grandma had cancer, so I understand as an adult today that he was even more terrorized than we were because he loved us. But as a child, I ran out the door to avoid a loose slate falling from the roof that would decapitate me, and I ran past alleys in case a rabid dog lurked there. He lectured us about puncturing our eardrums when cleaning our ears, about becoming “impacted” if we didn’t eat spinach, and about being hit in the head while playing baseball and becoming brain dead.

So by age twelve, I wished he cared a little less. The holidays, especially, seemed to bring him to an even higher state of alert, if that were possible. One Christmas, Dad brought home the usual scrawny New Jersey pine tree. Dad, Mom, Grandma, my little brother Stevie and I decorated it with all blue bulbs, balls and tinsel until the holes were filled in, and it sparkled and filled the house with warmth and joy.

“It looks so pretty!” Mom said.

Dad nodded. “But we have to make sure it’s watered every day and the lights don’t stay on too long.”

“I know,” Mom sighed. “I’m not one of the children.”

“Why can’t we leave it on all day, Dad?” I said. Geez, I thought, we get something beautiful like this, and five minutes later he wants to turn it off.

“You want to know why? I’ll tell you why. Come here.” He pulled me to the tree, and I knew I shouldn’t have asked. “Here. Touch this bulb.” As I reached out my finger, he barked, “Carefully!” I tapped my forefinger on the hot bulb. “Aha!” he crowed. “Think of it! All that heat—a hundred bulbs pressed against ten thousand dry pine needles. One needle’s just a little too dry or one bulb just a tad hotter. The heat builds up. Hour after hour. Hotter and hotter. The needles start to smoke. Then—poof!” He clapped his hands so I jumped out of my skin. Dad’s face shone with horrified exhilaration. “Poof! The whole tree goes up. Tree resin is like gasoline. One giant ball of fire. Flames licking the ceiling. The whole house will be gone in minutes.”

“Shouldn’t we turn it off?” I asked.

“Not yet. I’ll keep an eye on it.” Then he whispered to me, “When I’m not home, you just remind your mother to water it to keep it moist. Can you do that for me?”

“Suppose it catches fire when we’re not looking?”

Dad was pleased that I saw the danger. “You’re right! You’re 100% right! That’s why we’re going to have a family fire drill! Right now. We need an emergency escape plan. We never should have put it off. Our lives are at stake! Stairway here. Hmm. The windows. Porches.” His mind clicked as he surveyed room after room. Finally, he nodded. “Come on, Stevie. Dot, too. We’ll go upstairs to our bedrooms and pretend there’s a big fire down here.”

I was excited. This was interesting stuff. I loved escapes. One thing about Dad’s stories: They were horrible, but there was always a way out.

Mom sighed. “I have supper to start.”

“No, no, come on. We have to think this out before the emergency happens. Suppose the stove catches on fire when you’re cooking dinner?”

“I’d turn it off?” Mom suggested. But he was already shooing us upstairs.

“Now,” Dad said, “when I yell ‘Fire!’ we’ll see if you boys can open your bedroom window and get ready to crawl out on the porch roof, okay?”

I said, “Why don’t we just run downstairs?”

Dad stared at me like I was an idiot. “Because the hallway will be a sheet of flames! The stairs will be crackling like the pit of hell, and when you step on them, they’ll collapse and you’ll fall into the basement. Burning wood will cover you and sizzle you like a pork rind. That’s why!”

When I could breathe again, I gasped, “How will you and Mom get out?”

Dad held up a forefinger. “We go out the window to the porch from our bedroom. See? Then we’ll meet out there and all climb down the wrought iron porch posts.”

Climb down the porch posts? Wow! This was great! Just like commandos or burglars. At the word “Fire,” I’d be out there like a weasel. Mom was not happy. She didn’t figure to be a good climber, but Dad didn’t notice because he was pondering something. “That’s the four of us. Now we have to figure out how to evacuate your grandma.”

As he mulled this over, I could see his problem. Her bedroom was on the other side of the house—no porch roof there. And she had that bad leg. I pictured her trying to stump away from the flames, moaning and throwing up her hands. I could tell everybody else was thinking the same thing. Stevie began to cry. “Gramma’s gonna burn up!” he wailed.

Dad, ever resourceful, said, “Why, there’s only one answer. We’ll carry her out!” He clapped my shoulder. “You and me, son. The men will do it!”

Right, I thought. We’ll dash through the flames of hell in the hallway, lift fat Grandma from bed screaming and fainting, stagger back through the flames to my bedroom, then shove her out the window onto the snowy roof and make her and Mom climb down the ironwork. Whew! This was an unexpected turn for Christmas. I didn’t ever remember Dad doing anything so daring. I was ready to give it a try, though I was pretty certain if Mom didn’t object to the rehearsal, Grandma sure would. She’d whack me with her cane if I ever tried to shove her onto the porch roof.

“Okay,” I said, “let’s go!” I unlatched my window, shoved it up, and started to crawl out.

“What are you doing?” Dad grabbed me by my belt and yanked me back inside.

“Sorry. I forgot to wait for your signal.”

“Are you crazy?” he said. “There’s ice out there. You’ll slip and break your neck!”

~Garrett Bauman

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