My Stepfather’s Fire
Fifty years after his childhood home burned down, my stepfather and his brothers came together to remember it — and to dig up a bit of the past
“I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”
My stepfather gathers us inside McLoone’s Asbury Grille, which used to be a Howard Johnsons, back years before Hurricane Sandy lashed the boardwalk, back when Bruce Springsteen was just getting his start at the Stone Pony, back when the Casino was still alive with a carousel and organ music and a skating rink.
Today, the Casino is hollowed out, though roller skaters still pass through. The most pervasive reminder of the Asbury Park of the past is Tillie, the grinning amusement park “fun face,” which is plastered on bar signs, T-shirts, and tourist mugs. The retro structure that once housed Howard Johnsons still stands, but now it’s filled with the smells of delicate seafood dishes instead of fried clams and griddled eggs and hot roast beef. Here, at McLoone’s, my stepfather and his brothers have come together to remember this town the way it used to be, 50 years before.
The brothers are here to remember one day in particular: August 4, 1964, the day their childhood home burnt down. It is August 4, 2014. Or at least they think August 4 was the date their house burnt down. Memory is fallible, and bendable, and all too often, we’re sure that what we remember is exactly how it happened, when it happened, and why it happened, when maybe that wasn’t how it went at all.
Here’s what they do know, and can agree upon:
On a summer August day half a century ago, their family home in Deal, New Jersey, not far from the famed Asbury Park boardwalk, caught fire. It was likely due to an electrical problem, and it happened while most of the family was away at the nearby Deal Casino beach club. Firemen from the town of Deal were called, and came within minutes. But it was an aggressive fire, and the inside of their house was consumed. A lot of what they owned was lost.
My stepfather Chuck, then known as Chucky, was the only one who hadn’t been at the beach club that day. He was 10, and it was the first summer he had learned how to surf, and so he chose to stay back and catch some waves. That afternoon, after he had gotten his fill of the ocean, he walked back home, cutting through the backyards of his neighbors. It was then that he noticed smoke coming out of every window of his house, including his bedroom. Chuck looked around for help. He saw only his neighbor Sandy Drazin’s gardener, who was mowing her lawn. “That house is on fire,” said Chuck. “I know,” said the gardener, unflustered, as he continued to mow the lawn. The fire station had already been called.
Inside McLoone’s, Sandy Drazin, who was invited to this 50-year-remembrance-party, laughs at her gardener’s response. Sandy was not only the family’s neighbor but also their mother’s best friend. She had always been a Jersey shore character of sorts. Still is. With big hair, big ornamental rings and a big voice that echoes through McLoone’s, Sandy is old New Jersey through and through. The boardwalk may have changed, but she hasn’t. “What happened to the grandfather clock?” she asks. No one seems to know. Ricky, the youngest, thinks his mother might have sold it. Or maybe it perished in the fire. “Your mother promised me that grandfather clock,” she says. “It was a nice clock.”
When the fire broke out that day, and Chuck was surfing, the rest of the Rubins were enjoying an ordinary day at the beach club. There were the usual loudspeaker announcements: “Dr. Littvack to the front please! Dr Littvack!” There were the neighborhood kids running wildly, swimming, playing shuffleboard. There was the usual split off of family members: their parents lounged outside their cabana with their friends, while the brothers went off to find buddies their own age.
But when afternoon came, the day became less ordinary. A series of firehouse horns sounded through Deal, followed by sirens. The fire station’s occasional drills happened at noon. It was too late for that. Someone’s house was on fire.
Chuck has the table’s attention at McLoone’s. “So I called the Deal Firehouse to check if there were any records on the fire,” he says. “And you won’t believe it, but Chris Kelly answered the phone. And Chris said: ‘Chuck Rubin, is that you?’” Chris was a classmate of my stepdad’s from childhood. I think that this must be because no one ever leaves the Jersey shore, except my stepfather and his brothers. But a Deal firefighter tells me later: “You know, it’s just Big Dan’s rubber band theory: people that leave here, always come back.” He didn’t say who Big Dan was.
Chris said he didn’t see any records of a house fire on Deal Esplanade on August 4, 1964, or on the day before or after. But Chuck was welcome to come on over to the firehouse and have a look himself.
So he did, and what he found was a fire station that had barely changed over the last half century. On the fire chief’s desk sat a clipboard atop a map of Deal, a 60’s-style plastic red lamp and telephone, and a dusty fax machine. An old firetruck from the 60s was still parked inside the firehouse, sitting behind the newer, squatter, higher-tech ones. Framed photographs of every year’s Deal fire chief hung on the walls, including of Chris Kelly, who looked uncomfortable in a freshly shaven face. A new gas mask requirement at the station meant his bristly beard had to go away. A thick map of Deal hung on the wall, too, with cut out circles where bulbs would light up in case of a fire, though the lights were broken now. Liquor was housed in rows on a wooden bar on the upper floor of the firehouse. These were the spoils of decades of firemen visits to the residents of Deal at Christmastime. The firefighters dressed in Santa suits for the kids, and were gifted liquor in exchange.
And, perhaps most anachronistic of all, on the wall hung an old Gamewell system, which was designed to clang a different number of alarms for each neighborhood in Deal, so the whole town would know which area had caught fire. The brothers’ neighborhood was “3–4.” Clang clang clang. Clang clang clang clang. Everyone hoped they never heard their number.
Peter, the second youngest brother, remembers the way the ocean amplified those alarms, making them seem closer than they were. On the day of the fire, he was sitting in the sand at the beach club, adding the finishing touches of seashell and twigs to his sand house, when his friend Michael Morrissey told him it was his house on fire. The alarms were for him. He was eight years old.
Soon, other friends gathered around to say the same thing. Peter didn’t fully believe them, until his father came over and told him that he was leaving the beach club with his mothers and that Peter needed to stay put. He’d be back later, at some unspecified time.
Meanwhile, my stepfather watched as giant fire engines tore around the corner of Deal Esplanade and drove right up on the lawn, right next to him. After they rushed inside the burning house, one fireman stuck his head out Chuck’s bedroom window and spit onto the ground.
At McLoone’s, we all make a plan to head back to the Deal firehouse a second time. The day Chuck went, he found a record of the fire, kept inside a logbook in a metal safe that holds over 100 years of records of Deal fires. But we think: That record can’t be all there is. For one thing, the record was of a house fire on a different date: August 3rd, not August 4th, and in 1963, not 1964. A day and a year off what they remembered. But it lists the correct address — a house on the southeast corner of Deal Esplanade and Ocean Avenue — and the right time of day. For cause of fire, it read only: “House fire.”
We had to go back. There were so many questions, and so many possibilities. How were these records from a half a century ago kept? Were there more? Maybe some old, crotchety fire chief would appear and somehow remember that day, and that fire. Maybe he’d tell us it wasn’t an electrical fire at all, but had really been started by the gardener. Anything was possible.
“The date’s wrong?” Peter asked, incredulous. He had been so sure, more than any of the others. It had been his idea for them to all come together on the anniversary. And here they were, three of the four brothers, here by flight and train and car, in from three different states, along with their wives and their children, and even their old neighbor and family friend Sandy Drazin, and some of their cousins, all eating in the retro Howard Johnsons, because this was exactly 50 years after the fire, only now it wasn’t even the right date.
“We’re just a year late!” exclaims Chuck, trying to salvage things. “We’ll just have to do this every year,” someone else says.
No one remembers how long it took the firemen to put out the fire that day. The brothers were too young then to have a real sense of time. Their father probably would have known, since he had likely counted down the minutes until he could save a giant wad of cash from inside their kitchen safe. Their mother likely would have known too, having watched as maybe her jewelry or clothing or antiques went up in flames.
Peter says all he knows is it felt like forever. He was used to going here and there at will from the beach club, and so to be confined there that day, all the while knowing his home was on fire, was both disorienting and scary. His thoughts and emotions raced. To pass the time, he and his friends speculated in great detail about what might be happening to his house. They imagined people jumping out of windows onto things that looked like trampolines, while firefighters gripped “hoses that oscillated wildly out of control,” and flames laughed and danced “with evil delight.”
We do go back to the Deal Firehouse a second time, nearly all of us — brothers, wives and children — and there are images hung on the walls of the kinds of things Peter and his friends had imagined. There’s a 1912 line drawing of firemen racing through the streets on a fire engine pulled by three white stallions, smoke billowing behind and a dalmatian at their tail. There are news clippings of the biggest fires the Deal firemen ever extinguished, with images of red and orange flames bowing down to water from a hose. There’s In Memoriam plaques for all the Deal firefighters who perished in the line of duty. We can find no photo of their tiny house fire, no plaque or line drawing. There is only the little report that Chuck had found, the several lines that say “Saturday” “3pm” “8–3–63” “house fire” and “Deal Esplanade,” with a signature by the fire chief, a Mr. Wm. Furlong. We find his photo on the wall. He’s got a bulbous nose and stick-out ears, and he looks happy to have the job. In addition to 1963, he was chief in 1955 and 1966. He might be alive or dead; he might remember the fire or he might not; but he doesn’t work here anymore.
We leave the fire station, and drive to finally see the house on Deal Esplanade, to see what it looks like today. Even with traffic, it couldn’t have taken the firefighters more than five or 10 minutes to respond to the fire. It’s only a dozen or so blocks away.
Despite the closeness to the station, though, their house was wrecked. Ricky recalls that the outside structure remained standing, but the inside after the fire was a total, blackened mess. He remembers a “sickeningly twisted, melted telephone in the kitchen.” Peter remembers it even worse: “broken windows, doorless entries, and sooty streaks everywhere.” A decorative candlestick melted into the shape of a perfect arch. A Waterford crystal chandelier crashed to the ground and into pieces. Two cast metal bookends of Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair magically survived, and Peter took them with him.
There wasn’t much else to take with them on the night of the fire, when they moved to The Surrey Motel on Route 35, a joint owned by Sandy Drazin’s husband. After a week or so, they moved to another motel, The Cavalier, where they stayed for months. Ricky said there was some thrill in staying in motels for awhile. The oldest brother, Mike, who was nearly 12 then, remembers it as a “colorless cinder block.”
Eventually, they moved back into the house on Deal Esplanade. Though the house was fixed up back to new, they could still see charred beams when they climbed up the pull down steps to the attic.
Just a short ride from the firehouse, we are back at the old house again — but this time the brothers are grown men. From the road, it is easy to spot the house, which anchors the corner and sits at the back of a manicured lawn. It’s a pleasing light yellow color against the sky. I’m not sure it’s how any of the second generation had imagined it. We had been talking about a house for weeks whose picture we hadn’t even seen.
The side of the house is obscured by a row of hedges, and the front by a new, add-on porch. The brothers say the structure looks the same. The home they remember, though, is long gone. I think that maybe it’s a little like the old, retro Howard Johnsons, with the shiny new McLoone’s inside. What they remember is bigger, or stronger, than what remains. No one gets out of the car to see it. No one says anything. They don’t have to.