The Fire of the Spirit

1969, South Carolina — I was in freshman orientation along with several hundred other students, sitting in the campus chapel. The chapel also functioned as the largest assembly center on campus, so it made sense to gather us together in a venue in which we would all fit. We were seated on rows of permanently mounted wooden chairs, and each chair’s seat folded up to make passage down the row easier to navigate.

Called to order, it was announced that this particular session was to be a placement test for freshman English. We were tasked to write a composition by hand and on the spot. Upon review, our compositions would be the determining factor in whether or not we ‘placed out’ of freshman English and were advanced to a more desirable Literature and Composition class. I had no knowledge of any of these machinations. So I settled back into my uncomfortable chair, made all the more so by my bony, skinny bottom and lack of fleshy cushioning.

A list of topics were announced, the idea being that we were free to pick any one of the topics as either a theme or a title. We were then given 25 minutes or so to create our spontaneous masterpieces. I do not recall the precise title I selected, nor was my essay ever returned to me, so the story below is a re-creation. But it’s very close.

This was a religious college, so our title choices were undoubtedly meant to inspire us to write of sacred spaces or to share moving and insightful spiritual revelations. My story, however, took a decidedly different turn.

I surprisingly ended up in the Literature and Composition class, along with six or eight other students. It ended up being my favorite class because the teacher, Mrs. Warren, was not even slightly compelled to choke us on religious dogma or to sternly bark obscure spiritual commands.

The Fire of the Spirit

Hans was frightened. But he could see that his dog Cookie was even more troubled. Han’s natural compulsion to comfort Cookie overrode his own fear to the point that all he could think about was calming his trembling dog. They were both shivering because of the noise. Because in a way the noise was more terrifying than the actual destruction.

When the bombs first began to fall, Hans and his family had quickly evacuated their apartments, running, as everyone did, out onto the streets. The broad boulevard was lined with imposing six-story buildings that stretched endlessly toward the center of town. Everyone was gathering in confusion, the wide sidewalks filled with dislodged brick and shattered glass.

As the family had exited, Cookie had bolted. Hans ignored his parents cries to follow them and instead ran after his dog, catching up to him across the street. Fortunately Cookie had paused between the falling bombs, which allowed Hans just enough time to reach him.

Reaching his friend, Hans kneeled on the rough pavement, his bare knee scratching against the coarse texture of the cement. He wrapped one arm over his dog and with the other he embraced the dog’s chest. Cookie’s shivering continued.

“Don’t worry,” Hans said soothingly, “you’ll be fine.” He leaned in and pressed his chest against the dog’s long fur, feeling the familiar warmth. It was at that moment that the bombs changed from destructive explosions to fire.

Dresden had never been bombed. The first assault was intended to destroy factories and buildings. But the second assault was a wave of terrifying firebombs, and the liquid fire that poured down was beyond inhumane.

Hans comfortingly wrapped his body over his huddled dog, completely sheltering him from the downpour of heat that suddenly rained from the sky.

“Don’t worry, I’ll always protect you,” assured Hans, as the walls of flames roared toward them, devouring both living and dead with the speed of hurricane heat.

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Mark Walter

Construction worker and philosopher: “When I forget my ways, I am in The Way”