We’ve all heard the expression “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”. Well, if you were ever around the vicinity of Hawkins Street on City Island in The Bronx, particularly 50-something years ago, you’d agree that statement is true.
You see, back then John and Gertrude and their four kids lived on Hawkins Street, #93 to be exact. It was a cute little white saltbox house with blue trim – emphasis on little as are most houses on City Island, many of which were originally built of wood from dismantled ships. The main entrance to the house was a glass enclosed front porch maybe about five feet deep and 20 feet wide. Inside the porch was a door that led to the living room; for some reason no one ever used the front door. Everyone entered through a side door near the back of the house down the driveway – probably because it was easy to just get out of the car and walk a few feet to the side door.
That side door opened onto a long narrow unheated porch where Gertrude would store fruits and vegetables and other sundry food items. The porch ran almost the entire length of the house and opened directly into the kitchen. From there, heading toward the front of the house, you’d find the dining room, a small step up into the living room and the previously mentioned front porch. A staircase leading to the second floor was situated between the living room and dining room. Upstairs were two bedrooms and single bathroom for six people. One bedroom was John and Gertrude’s; the other was shared by their four kids. The three boys had the main area and their sister’s “room” was a small section off the boy’s room that was originally a closet. The only entry into the girl’s bedroom was through her brother’s room – certainly not much privacy. The house had no attic, basement or any other storage area.
To say the house was “cozy” is an understatement but they managed. It was a happy house and it served them well.
John worked for the New Haven Railroad at the Hunts Point Terminal Market, the largest wholesale produce market in the United States. One of the perks of John’s job was he got to bring home leftover fruit, vegetables and other items that got left behind or “fell off the trains” – a real bonus for a family of six living on one income. Whatever John brought home, Gertrude didn’t have to buy at the grocery store and could spend a bit more on meat and other staples. Gertrude knew how to stretch a dollar and once in a while the family would enjoy a nice steak. There was a cute little dog named Fluff who lived across the street. He’d come running whenever John lit the grill and waited patiently till the end of the meal for the steak bones. If there was one thing John really enjoyed it was getting a good fire going in the old grill.
Gertrude had a clothesline that ran from the back of the house across the yard to the opposite side where it was attached to a section of the wooden mast from the America’s Cup contender “Vanitie”. Hauled up at Jacob’s Shipyard on City Island, “Vanitie” had been dismantled and stripped of everything, even her bowsprit. Nothing remained but the hull and mast of the once beautiful sloop; how that section of the mast ended up in the backyard at 93 Hawkins Street was a mystery to the family but it sure was a conversation piece. Surrounding the mast were a number of cherry and fig trees and an assortment of bushes. Off to the side was an old shack which was barely standing.
One day John decided it would be an easy and enjoyable task for a fire-lover such as himself to get rid of the shack by burning it piece by piece on the grill instead of dismantling the whole thing and lugging all the pieces of wood and shingles to the junkyard. After all, he burned all the detritus in the garage – why not the shed?
The smell was terribly acrid and the amount of smoke was enough for neighbors to call the fire department several times until they finally realized it was just John burning pieces of the shack. Some men spent their spare time constructing additions to their houses; John incinerated dilapidated outbuildings of his house. Fire is mesmerizing and he was getting the job done, albeit in an unconventional manner.
Over the course of several months that old shack gradually disappeared. On the last day of the sacrifice by fire, John got a bit carried away and loaded up the grill with the last remaining pieces. Well, I think you can guess what happened next.
The flames grew higher and one spark leapt up and kissed Gertrude’s clothesline, setting it and all the drying laundry ablaze. The fire continued down to the end of the line, igniting the trees and a few surrounding bushes; somehow the old resolute mast miraculously escaped damage. Hearing Fluff barking his head off, Gertrude looked out the window to see John desperately trying to salvage what he could of the backyard. Billowing clouds of dark smoke filled the sky above Hawkins Street and beyond.
Gertrude ran to the phone to call the fire department; so did a dozen other people. Thank goodness they didn’t simply think “Oh, that’s just John at the grill again”. The fire trucks arrived in time to salvage what was left of the yard. The same, however, could not be said for John’s sorely wounded pride.
Fifty-plus years later and we’re still talking and laughing about my father-in-law John’s adventures at the grill.
NAR © 2021
Written in loving memory of my father-in-law and mother-in-law John and Gertrude Richy, both taken from us much too soon. ❤️
The annual Burning Man Festival is traditionally held from the end of August through Labor Day which is why I chose this date to publish my story.