What Sparks Fear

by Kari Redmond, SUNY Cortland, December 5, 2008

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Fear is a funny thing for a little kid to carry around, like a school backpack heavy and full of textbooks, little children shouldn’t have to shoulder such a burden. Looking at little Kari Redmond, you would have seen the freckled chubby cheeks, bright toothy smile, and deep brown-black eyes of a happy kindergartener. But I can remember fear always being a part of me, even as a small child. While my playmates thought they were invincible, I knew better.

Maybe it started with the passing of my father. I was only three when he was violently taken from me by a drunk driver. But I think fear really became a part of my life at the age of five. Five is plenty old enough to remember vividly the afternoon when my mother and stepfather hurriedly dropped me off at my grandmother’s apartment and kissed me goodbye on their way to the airport. They told me I was keeping grandma company, but I knew they were going to the Bahamas to collect pure white seashells and swim in the warm ocean- I had seen the picture album from the previous year’s trip. I wanted to go with them.

That night Grandma reassured me that we were going to have much more fun than my parents, and she read Dr. Seuss books to me until I fell asleep in her enormous queen sized bed. With a jolt of instant panic and confusion, I awoke in the middle of the night to the loud metallic clanging of an alarm within the apartment building. Despite the late hour, all the lights were on in the apartment. Already awake and on the phone, Grandma was uneasy, and she rushed to my side to explain what was happening. Then she anxiously repeated to the emergency operator on the other end of the phone: “There is a fire in my apartment building.”

I had never seen my Grandmother upset or shaken, and it worried me to watch her pace the carpeted floor in her satin pajamas and matching slippers. The retched smell of burning wires, smoldering wood, and melting plastic enveloped the small apartment. I felt tears roll down my face. I didn’t know what to expect or even understand the situation. Almost instantly sirens ripped through the parking lot and blinding floodlights were placed on the building. Already suited up firefighters jumped out of the moving trucks and unraveled miles of hose. A sense of urgency and terror caused me to unwind myself from my grandmother’s comforting embrace and run towards the living room before the searing heat took me off my feet. My elderly, but still nimble, grandmother grabbed me and dragged me back into the front bedroom, back to the fresher air by the window, explaining that the fire was downstairs and was making the heavy metal apartment door too hot to touch. It was too dangerous to escape. We were trapped on the fifth floor.

Grandma was holding me close to the floor length window, when a firefighter appeared below us, standing in her beloved rose garden. “Remove the screen and throw her down,” he yelled up to us. “We can catch her.” But under no circumstances was I about to leave Gram’s side, and I screamed and kicked until she agreed not to take the screen off the window. Neighbors were now packed onto the sidewalk and the front lawn. Awakened rudely from their slumber by the alarms, some were still in slippers and bathrobes. Fire trucks now crowded the small parking lot and stretched out to line the adjacent streets as far as I could see through the hazy smoke-polluted air.

Suddenly, the heat grew closer and I became fearful that the hungry fire would have a midnight snack of us. A tall superhero appeared in the hallway outside of the bedroom and beckoned for us to follow him, but it took me a minute to recognize he was the firefighter from the rose garden. He was decked out from head to toe in bright yellow, with white reflective tape. I had always thought fireman wore red! He didn’t speak, perhaps because he had the use of an oxygen tank or because we wouldn’t be able to understand him through his thick protective mask. We followed him to the foggy living room.

He led us to the door and with one swift movement swung me over his shoulder and grabbed my grandmother’s hand. I was terrified as he opened the smoldering door and the unbearable heat attacked me like a swarm of stinging bees from every direction. I closed my eyes as we descended the stairway, partially out of fear, partially because of the blaring light emitted from the fire itself. Clamped shut and burning from the putrid smoke, my eyes opened only when I was lowered into a seat on the back of an ambulance. Panic seized me again when I did not see my grandmother, and I instantly called out for her.

In the mass chaos, she had been led to her own ambulance and was being more thoroughly checked over because of her age and history of heart disease. My paramedic led me to my grandmother and we were permitted to travel to the hospital together, with little injuries at all. She continued to gently hold my hand while I wailed for my mother, my fragile mental state shattered by the gravity of what had happened. I could not be consoled by strangers, and barely stopped sobbing even while enveloped in the warm embrace of my grandmother.

My parents had been notified of the incident by the state police at their connecting airport, and were instantly routed on a flight back to Syracuse. I cannot imagine the sense of fear that my mother felt upon hearing news of the fire, every parent’s worst nightmare. But we were safe, we were lucky, we were rescued. As soon as I lay eyes on my mother’s face I experienced an overwhelming wave of relief and was able to finally relax and feel safe. My stepfather carried me to the car, my heavy-lidded eyes closing, and sleep came before we even pulled out of the parking lot.

After the fire, Grandma had to live with us for a while while her apartment was cleaned up and finally was deemed safe to move back into. It was a long time before I could get the smoke-smell from my nostrils, and even to this day I can smell a dangerous house fire even if it is miles away. There are not many children whose parents must test smoke detectors and unplug appliances before putting them to bed. Fire was the boogey man in my closet. To be five and trapped in a burning building gives a person a certain sense of mortality that most children do not possess. Fear has been sewn into the makeup of my being, and I have worn it throughout my childhood, adolescence, and even now as an adult.

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