Phil Gulley: The Things She'll Carry

In the event of a house fire, some of my possessions must be saved—and my wife stands ready to haul them.
Ever since we started heating our house with wood 20 years ago, I’ve worried the place will go up in flames while we’re asleep. I’m not anxious enough to stop heating with wood, but I do think about the possibility more than I did when we heated with gas. You might think woodstoves and fireplaces would be the leading causes of house fires, but you would be mistaken. More than 40 percent of house fires are caused by cooking, mostly when people forget the stove is on. Now that I know cooking is so dangerous, I’m going to eat out more.
I phoned our insurance agent when we installed a woodstove, and I could tell he was less than enthusiastic about the idea because he said if our house exploded, it might not be covered by our homeowner’s policy. Apparently I’m not the only one lying awake at night worrying about fires. We put a woodstove in our farmhouse this past winter, and I haven’t told my insurance agent about that one. If the farmhouse catches on fire, we’re goners. It’s 100 years old, the wood is bone dry, and the thing would go up like a Roman candle.
When we can’t sleep, my wife and I talk about the things we’d grab if our house were on fire. Our children are grown and gone, so we don’t have to worry about them. We have two dogs, but they sleep in the garage, which isn’t attached to our house, so they could fend for themselves. I’m not counting on them calling the fire department in the event of a fire. I once saw an episode of Lassie where she ran to the fire department and, through a series of barks and gestures, communicated to the firemen the presence and location of a house fire. Our dogs would run to the police department to accuse us of arson.
I keep a ladder under our bed in the event of a fire, so whatever I grab would have to be carried down the ladder. That rules out most of the things in our house, like my grandmother’s rocking chair, which I’ve never cared for anyway and wouldn’t mind losing in a blaze. There is a walnut cupboard in our front parlor, made in Pennsylvania in the 1820s. It’s a good thing my wife is strong, because I’d hate to have anything happen to that. The ladder only holds one person at a time, so she’d be running right past the cupboard on her way out the front door. It would be a fairly simple matter for her to take it with her.
Most of our pictures already have been transferred to digital images and are stored in the cloud, so I wouldn’t have to run from room to room gathering up photographs of dead relatives. Except I can never remember the password to our cloud account, so I would have to grab the notebook in my desk drawer where I’ve written that down. As long as I was in my office, I might take the honorary degrees I’ve been given, just as proof, since no one ever believes me when I mention I’ve been awarded honorary degrees. It’s surprising how often I can work my honorary degrees into a conversation.
I built the writing table in my office. It’s my favorite piece of furniture, but it’s six inches wider than my office window, so it would likely burn in a fire, unless I could talk my wife into going back into the house after she carried out the cupboard. There’s a tiger-maple, handmade pendulum clock at the top of our stairs, too, and I hope she would have the presence of mind to grab it on her way past with the table.
A few years ago, we got rid of our inexpensive cookware and replaced it with cast iron. It wasn’t cheap, let me tell you. Fortunately, the average house fire only reaches a temperature of 1,100 degrees, and cast iron doesn’t melt until about 2,100 degrees, so I wouldn’t have to send my wife back in for that. Of course, she’d have to give them a good scrubbing after the fire, but that’s no big deal.
I live in a nosy town, and there would be people poking around the ashes afterward, so I’d have to be sure to carry out certain things I wouldn’t want people to know I owned, my being a Quaker pastor and all. I own a book about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for instance. I wouldn’t want word to get back to the Quakers that I’ve been considering other options. Plus, we have a certain little book a minister gave us 33 years ago when we got married, about how to enjoy sex without going to hell. It’s mostly prayers you can say so God will forgive you. I’d die of embarrassment if anyone found that. It’s under our bed right next to the ladder, and you better believe it’s coming down with me.
When my wife goes back inside for my writing table and the pendulum clock, I might have her grab my grandpa Hank’s fly fishing rod that hangs on my office wall. Plus, there’s my pocketknife collection. I sure would hate to lose those—13 Case knives made by hand in Bradford, Pennsylvania. I used to have 30 Case knives, but I’ve lost some over the years. I’m worse than any house fire when it comes to pocketknives.
A new family moved in next door to us last year. The father is a police officer, so I hope he would run into our house if it were on fire to bring out a few things, since it’s kind of his job. Our mattress is brand new, and I’d hate to see it get ruined. I spent a lot of time finding that mattress, visiting one store after another, taking naps on different mattresses, before settling on that one. It’s very heavy, but he’s a strapping young man, so saving it shouldn’t be a problem.
My other neighbor, Brian, would be no help whatsoever. He’s been eyeing my pressure washer, and in the confusion of a house fire, it would be just like him to make off with it when I was distracted. I should have my police-officer neighbor keep an eye on him after he saves the mattress.
House fires were a lot less work back in the old days, when there was just the family Bible to save. Being a minister, I’m overrun with Bibles, all the far-flung members of our family having willed theirs to me when they died. It’s almost impossible to get rid of them. You can’t throw them away without going to hell. You can’t sell them on eBay. Everyone has their own family Bible they’re trying to get rid of, and they don’t want yours. About the only way to get rid of one is to have a house fire. Then you can stand wistfully outside your house saying, “I sure wish I could have saved my family Bible.” Which makes you sound virtuous and pure, even though inside, you’re secretly relieved.