Those who know Toronto might be able to picture Victoria Park and Lawrence. For those who can’t, here’s the picture.
In a now-familiar story, the farms near this intersection are sold to developers and cleared to make way for subdivisions. My Grandad buys a 30 x 60′ barn, and he and Dad dismantle it. Many evenings, after the field work is finished, and with the help of family and friends, they haul it by wagon loads up Vic Park to Sheppard, then east to Meadowvale, and north, past what is now the Toronto Zoo, to our farm.
They reassemble the barn about thirty feet from the farmhouse, and it ends up being called “the shop”, but it’s so much more. The tools, workbenches, and welders are there, but so are the family vehicles — a pickup and two cars — and lots of accumulated stuff. The second floor is a chicken pen, holding at least two hundred chickens.
I’m five-and-three-quarters years old, and it’s a beautiful Saturday in June. I recall nothing from that day except that, late in the afternoon, our shop catches fire.
Dad is haying and a hitch between the baler and wagon breaks late in the afternoon. It’s chore time, so he brings tractor, baler, and wagon to the farmyard, removes the piece that needs to be welded, and walks through the open garage door, where Grandad’s pickup would usually be parked, and into the shop. He clamps the piece into a vice on the metal welding table, in a hurry to get the job done so he can get to the barn. He doesn’t notice that someone has set a glass jar holding a paintbrush, and a small amount of gasoline to clean it, on the same table.
His teenage cousin, Nancy, has come to help with the chores, so she lets the cows into the barn and ties them in their stalls. In the shop, Dad picks up the electric welder and runs a quick bead to fix the break. He leaves it to cool and hurries to the barn to begin milking, but he’s only started a couple of cows when he hears a horn blaring. Grandad and Granny are home from a long day at their stand at the St. Lawrence Market, and when they turn into the lane they see fire. Dad glances out of the barn and sees flames coming from the door where he’s just finished welding.
Somewhere in the initial craziness Mom is told to call the “fire reels”, but the phone is dead. The extension in the shop has already burned and the line is useless. Dad’s already backed our car out of the garage and Mom jumps in, speeding off to our nearest neighbours to use their phone.
The fire is too big to contain, and it blocks the stairs up to the chicken pens, so Dad and Grandad hurry to get things out of the rest of the building, through two more open garage doors. Grandad’s car is out of the garage now, and Dad has gone in to get the lawnmower. His hands are tight on its handle when there’s a ka-BOOM. Outside, a ball of fire explodes through the roof. Inside, the entire building fills with dense yellow smoke. The tanks for the acetylene welder have exploded.
Dad is disoriented. His hands grip the mower and he turns his head, not sure which way to go. And then he sees a rectangular glow, a lighter yellow than the smoke. It’s the the late afternoon sun shining straight into one of the door openings. In shock, he goes toward it, and he and the mower are out safely. The poor, poor chickens, and everything else in the shop, is gone. Our doll carriage burns too.
Neighbours arrive first. The fire is so hot that the house wall is starting to blister. Someone leans a ladder against the far side of the house and they grab what buckets they can. There’s a hand pump nearby and they form a bucket brigade, pouring water over the peak of the house with the hope they’ll be able to stave off full-out flames until the trucks get there. The wooden pump handle breaks, but strong arms and adrenaline pump the stubby bit that’s left, and they keep the water flowing. In the midst of the chaos, one of our neighbours sees our little red wagon halfway between the burning shop and the house. “Leave it,” Dad tells him, “it’s too hot to go there.” But the neighbour insists, running lickety-split, and leans down to grab the wagon as he flies by.
I suppose I’ve been told to stay out of the way, but I think I was close to the men doing the pumping because I can see this so clearly.
When the firetrucks finally come, there’s not much to do except keep the house safe and let the shop burn itself out. They stay until well after dark, and I’m pretty sure I get to stay up later than usual. Neighbours bring food, and I watch the firemen eating sandwiches, washed down with coffee from big thermoses, while joking that they should be having fried chicken instead. I remember thinking the joke was funny, but also feeling sorry for the chickens that perished.
A week or so later, on another beautiful summer evening, we’re surprised when cars start pulling into the farmyard. It’s our neighbours — so many of them — and they’ don’t come empty-handed. I wish I had photographs or better memories of the evening, because this surprise is amazing. They bring lots of good food to enjoy, but there’s something else too. It’s a Tool Shower, and they give us new tools for the shop. Dad and Grandad are overwhelmed by gifts of wrenches, and screwdrivers, and man sorts of things, but the most thoughtful gift is left for last. They’ve brought a brand new doll carriage for the little girls who lost theirs in the fire.