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The night the tree caught fire.
This is another tale of my college days,
or rather, one told of Kenyon College in the mid-1960's shortly after I
graduated. So I wasn't there, and don't know how much of the detail is
true. But it sounds like the sort of thing that went on in my student days,
and I think this is how it happened.
There are a few things it will help
you to know. First, if you've read my story about the time the village
constable got deposed, you'll recall a little about a man who will appear
later in the story. Very civic-minded, but not overly in love with student
high jinks and not always the first to grasp what was going on in a situation.
Second, I need to tell a tiny bit more
history of this small campus located in rural Ohio northeast of Columbus.
As I've said before, the campus tended to surround the rather small town,
rather than the other way around, and town services usually developed from
campus services and weren't always clearly separated. During a bad winter
storm, for example, we'd sometimes be cut off from civilization for days
at a time, and local families with children would bring them to eat at
the college dining hall, which reserved the available milk for the village
children if the arrival of milk from the outside world was unpredictable.
Up until the early 1960's, the
town had no fire department. The college had a maintenance truck equipped
with hoses and pumps, and that was expected to be the first line of defense
against fires both on campus and in the village until fire trucks could
arrive from Mount Vernon, eight miles away over a hilly road which was
known locally as "the Bishop's backbone" since Bishop Philander Chase,
who founded the college, said that the students would get to wine, women,
and song, only "over my dead body."
Some of the college
maintenance crew served as firemen, but the college "volunteer fire department"
was presided over by the Dean of Students. This was regarded by the students
not as a natural part of his job as Dean, but as a natural part of his
other job. He was the coach of the swimming team, and the swimming team
were also automatically members of the volunteer fire department -- they
were experts on water, after all, weren't they?
Like so many other customs
of those days before what Garrison Keillor calls "the age of litigation",
this system began to break down in the early 1960's. The insurance
companies became increasingly upset that the nearest public fire department
was so far away, and fire insurance premiums rose accordingly. A
solution had to be found, and was found in the sensible small-college way
that Kenyon was so expert in. The town rented the maintenance truck
from the college for one dollar a year, the township council designated
the swimming coach as Chief of the Gambier Volunteer Fire Department, and
things went on just as they had before for several more years.
But the college was growing,
and the town with it. In the mid 1960's the town built a small garage ‘downtown',
and acquired a real live fire truck with the appropriate paint job and
equipment. And when the term of the village constable expired and
was not renewed, the council felt something needed to be done with and
for this genuinely civic-minded man. So, probably to the relief of the
swimming coach, the ex-constable was designated as the new Chief of the
Gambier Volunteer Fire Department.
Kenyon College gives
one a sense of being out at the far end of the electric lines. Somehow,
if the power is going to fail anywhere, it will fail in Gambier. Electric
blackouts were common in the 1960's and often lasted for a couple of hours.
Of course anything like that is an excuse to stop studying, and a local
custom developed among the students: everyone piled out of the dorms except
for the members of one fraternity, the "Peeps", who lived in one section
of the large dormitory, Old Kenyon. And then everyone else staged
an assault upon the Peeps. The usual assault weapon was water balloons,
but slingshots and even small catapults occasionally appeared to get the
water balloons to the upper stories. The defenders only occasionally resorted
to garden hoses, but never the fire hoses: the college had experienced
a dorm fire with loss of life less than twenty years previously, and the
rules about fire equipment were both very strict and very well observed.
On the night I'm recalling now,
it was a classic "Peep night". A warm enough night to enjoy being outdoors,
a heavy thunderstorm, bright lightning to make Old Kenyon look like Dracula's
castle, and a good long electrical failure to give the students plenty
of time to play in the rain with water balloons. And on this occasion,
someone had brought a supply of firecrackers to add to the sound effects.
I'm sure those fire crackers must have
been against the rules, as well as against the customs of our assaults
on the Peeps, but I suspect they would have been ignored had all gone well.
Unfortunately, one string of small firecrackers lodged in the crotch of
an old tree outside Hanna Hall, another dormitory. It was high enough to
be well out of reach, and in a very old branching with plenty of dead leaves
and other accumulated junk. As the thunderstorm waned, someone aimed
a flashlight at the spot and discovered it was smoking slowly, smouldering
in the old dry wood of the ancient tree.
Well, it had been a long battle
already, but the water balloons were hauled out again. The assault on the
tree was fully worthy of the best student-managed warfare, but at the end
the tree was still smouldering. No real flame, but it could break into
flame if left alone, now that the rain had stopped, and it could endanger
other trees or the nearby dormitory. What should the students do?
Pulling the fire alarm was suggested, but the college had a very strict
and very reasonable rule against pulling the fire alarm if a building wasn't
actually on fire. And it didn't even seem like that kind of an emergency.
Finally, around midnight, someone had
the bright idea of calling the newly appointed Fire Chief at home. He didn't
appreciate being wakened.
"Where's the fire?"
"A tree, near Hanna Hall"
"A tree is on fire?"
"Well, it's smouldering. It is smoking."
"Which fire alarm got pulled?"
"No fire alarm"
"Well, I don't know what is has to do
with me, if there is no fire alarm."
"The tree might catch fire. Hanna Hall
might catch fire. It isn't safe, we have to put it out."
"Well, what do you want me to do?"
"We need the fire truck."
"You kids are always making trouble. No fire
alarm, no fire truck."
The conversation broke down, and the fire chief hung up.
Considerable discussion ensued among
the students. It was obviously unsafe to leave the tree in its present
state. It was equally obviously against the rules to pull the fire alarm,
if no building was on fire. Eventually a decision was reached.
While it goes against the grain of most students to do it, especially at
the end of a very enjoyable party, the Dean of Students would have to be
He examined the situation and agreed
that the equipment on the fire truck was what was needed. But a bit of
delicacy would be needed with the new Fire Chief. So the former town
Volunteer Fire Chief called the new one. "Hi, this is Tom. I need
to let you know what I'm doing. I've got a few kids in the college
who have been talking about fires, and I think they might be good candidates
for the volunteer fire department. Do you mind if I borrow the fire truck
for an hour or two to show them how it works?"
It was an odd hour for such
a request, but since Tom already had the keys no further effort was required
of the fire chief, and the truck got borrowed. With the aid of a
ladder, an axe, and a hose, the smouldering tree was safely extinguished,
and another Peep Night came to a somewhat delayed close.
Edward Ordman ( C) 2001
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