Fire in the Night

Chap. 1, “Bill’s Story”                                                                                       8/4/04

                                                              Fire in the Night


                                                                 Al Murdach


     The mills of Hobart, Washington were always burning.  At night, while riding the last downtown streetcar home from the movies at the Palace Theater, Bill Moran could see all the lumber mills glowing along the rim of Glenn Harbor.  Sparks shot into the black night sky from the giant incinerators behind each mill, and the glow of flames lit up the fumes pouring from their tall smokestacks.  In the flickering light Bill could also see acres of freshly cut logs bobbing in the harbor waiting to be sawed and trimmed, as well the dim shapes of hulking freighters loading pile after pile of cut lumber for shipment to Japan or south to San Francisco.  Someday, Bill thought, I’d like to work in one of those mills.

     As he descended from the streetcar at its last stop, Bill stood deep in thought momentarily under the streetlight, the shadow from his tall, angular body stretching out on the pavement in front of him.  I’m sixteen years old now, he reflected, and a sophomore in high school.  It’s 1918 and the world is in an upheaval.  Things are changing fast and I feel ready for some adventure.  I’m tired of carrying newspapers and mowing lawns.  I think a job in the mill would be a good start plus make some good money.  All I have to do now is to convince my parents I need to make the change.   And that, Bill realized with a twinge of anxiety, might be difficult—especially when it came to dealing with his father

     He stretched his arms and shoulders to relieve the stiffness he always felt after the long streetcar ride.  Walking up the hill, watching his tall, angular shadow follow him as he moved from streetlight to streetlight, he looked over at the mills and felt a sense of excitement.  Now he could hear them as well as see them.  They roared and hissed in the night, sounding alive like some huge struggling animal.  Bill felt the sound was beckoning him to come closer.

     When he turned the corner at Canal and Halstead Streets Bill could see his family home shining at the end of the street in the dim light cast by the mills.  It had been painted white about two weeks before and now, amidst a row of smaller dingy gray and brown houses, it seemed to glow like a beacon.  This year, his father said, was his best year in the furniture business and, not only that, his boss had given him a bonus for being the year’s top salesman.  Now besides improving the house his father was even considering buying a new automobile, possibly a Ford touring car.  Since his father was in such a good mood these days, Bill realized that now would actually be the best time to talk to him about a job in the mills.  He decided he would do it the next evening, when he knew his father would be home.

     As he entered the front door, Bill saw his younger brother Gilson seated at the dining room table leaning over his drawing board.  Gilson was a high school freshman this year, and always seemed to be struggling to improve in his studies.  He especially liked art and  spent hours alone sketching and painting, even when he should have been doing his homework.  Now around him on the table colored pencils and scrap paper lay in wild array as he worked busily on his project.  The house was completely quiet.  Bill knew his mother and his little sister, Alica, had long since gone to bed.  He stopped for a moment and spoke to Gilson before going upstairs to his room.

     “Hi, Gil.  What’cha workin’ on?”

     Gilson, completely absorbed in his work, startled and looked up.  In the glare of the overhead light, his unsmiling face looked sallow and worn.  He looks older than me, Bill suddenly thought, even though he’s a year younger.

     Gilson swallowed and brushed back his rumpled brown hair. “Flowers,” he said.  “I’m trying to draw these.”  He jerked his pencil toward a bowl of drooping roses near him on the wide oak table.

     “Great!” Bill said.  “Is that something for an art class?”

     Gilson bent back down over his drawing board.  “No, not for any class.  I just like drawing flowers.”

     “Good for you,” Bill chuckled.  “Well, I better get to bed.  Got a test tomorrow.  G’night!”

     As Bill quickly climbed the stairs to his room, he thought Gil now seemed hard to talk to and Bill didn’t know what to say.  Gil seemed moody and often wanted to be by himself.  Bill wondered why he was staying up alone so late now and realized, with a sense of regret, that now they did little together though before high school started they had done many things with each other.  As he undressed to go to bed, Bill swore to himself he would make a greater effort from now on to try to do more with Gil again so he would not lose touch with him.    

     After dinner the next evening, Bill helped his mother clean up the kitchen while his father retired to the parlor to read the evening paper.  When the chores were done, Bill went up to his room to collect his thoughts and mentally rehearse his “speech” to his father about deciding to apply for a job at the mill.  He nervously descended the stairs, stopping three or four times on the way down to reconsider what he was going to say.  Bill knew in advance that his father wouldn’t approve of his decision and that his mother would be afraid for his safety.

     As he entered the parlor, Bill saw his father seated as usual in his over-stuffed chair reading the evening paper.  Clearing his throat to get his father’s attention, Bill motioned to his mother to come in from the kitchen.  His father dropped his paper into his lap, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, and stared inquisitively at Bill, who was now fidgeting awkwardly in the middle of the room.  His mother, alternately brushing back her graying brown hair and wiping her hands with a dishcloth, entered the room and sat in a large armchair across the room from his father.

     “Well?” his father asked quietly.

     “I-I’ve decided to apply for a job at the Hadley mill, father.  I’m going to speak to them after school tomorrow.”  Bill gulped as he saw the muscles in his father’s square face stiffen.

     His father leaned forward as his paper slid off his lap and dropped to the floor.  “Bill,” he began slowly, “ the Hadley Brothers mill is hardly the place to….”  He was cut off by his mother,  who was now wringing her damp hands.

     “It’s too dangerous, William!  People get killed over there.  Can’t you consider a safer place to work?  I know you’re tired of doing your paper route, but why not try Mr. Olson’s hardware store?  I know he’s looking for clerks.”

     “Or my furniture store,” muttered his father, sinking back in his chair and glaring at Bill over his glasses.  “We provide good training and experience,” he said.  “As you know, I am hoping someday you might even want to be a salesman there.”

      Bill gulped but rushed on, his words pouring out before he really knew what to say.  “You don’t understand, father.  I need a change now.  I can’t keep doing the same old thing. I’ve got to try something new and on my own.”  He knew he should stop speaking since his voice was beginning to quiver.  “It’s as simple as that,” he squeaked.

       He could see his mother’s back stiffening. “William!” she asked excitedly, “ Don’t you hear what your father is saying? I think you should reconsider your plans.”  She quickly rose from her chair and stood at Bill’s side, one thin hand resting gently on his shoulder, the other still holding the dishcloth she had carried in from the kitchen.  Bill knew she dreaded any kind of family scene since it disrupted the calm routine of her house.  He could physically sense her increasing agitation by the trembling of her hand on his shoulder.

     “Effie,” his father said softly to his mother, “calm yourself.  William is just a little confused now and doesn’t know what he is doing.”

    “I’m not confused, and I know what I’m doing!” Bill blurted out.  “I know what I want and I’m going to the mill tomorrow.”

     He turned abruptly and strode away from his mother, bounding up the stairs and slamming the door as he entered his room.  His brother, working on his art as usual at the dinner table, barely glanced up as Bill hurried by.

     His mother and father stared at each other without saying a word.  She still stood in the middle of the room clutching her dishcloth while he remained seated in his chair, choking back his irritation.  After a few moments, he cleared his throat and looked up.

     “ Effie, I don’t know what’s come over the boy,” he sighed.  “He was always so cautious before.  I agree that working in the mill is a terrible idea.  There’s no future in it.  The men who work there are coarse and vicious, and Bill isn’t physically very strong.  I think he’s just being pigheaded about this whole thing.” 

     “He wants to be more on his own, I’m afraid, even though he’s so young,” his mother mumbled.  “He’s so different from Gilson.  Gilson would never talk like this.”  She gestured with the dishcloth toward the dining room where Gilson remained silently bent over his drawing board, carefully painting flowers.

     His father stood up slowly. “I’ll go to see Mr.Hadley first thing in the morning,” he said.  “I know him pretty well.  I’ll tell him to hear William out but, for God’s sake, not to hire him.  That boy just doesn’t know what he is doing, Effie.”  He stood for a moment and patted her shoulder, his large frame looming over her much smaller body.  Finally he picked up his newspaper and silently walked into the hallway towards their bedroom at the rear of the house.

     His mother smiled weakly.  “I hope we can save my William,” she said to herself as she left the parlor.  She was sure he was too young to be more independent now.  He needed to grow up and be a helper to his father, and then maybe help their family someday. Leaning against the kitchen wall, she absent-mindedly continued to wipe her hands with the dishcloth as she gazed at the dishes in the sink.  The first hint of a rift in her carefully constructed home life began to loom before her and she suddenly felt sad and alone.

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  • allisonmurdach  On June 24, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    This is the first of a series of fictionalized stories about my father’s life. Hope you enjoy these stories.

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