The Observer was sitting at his desk on Monday after a long, long weekend of traveling the roads and back roads of Arkansas in pursuit of a story for you, Beloved Reader, when the fire alarm went off: a shrill, electronic, unmusical blare.
It was a first for us, and those are getting in short supply these days. By our best, spottiest recollection, we've never had a fire alarm here at the Fortress in 11 years, or even a fire drill. That said, as folks made their way to the exits, we found that we were tired enough after our long weekend that we had to consider for a moment whether we'd rather get up and trudge down the stairs to the parking lot or perish in a possible conflagration. Eventually, our sense of self-preservation won out over sloth, though, so we emerged from our burrow and joined the throng.
Outside, on the sidewalk, we all milled around and chatted and stared up at the building, watching for the dragon belch of smoke and fire. The offices of the Arkansas Times nearly burned flat once, back in June of '79 when HQ was a big ol' house down at 1111 W. Second St. Almost snuffed us out, that blaze did, leaving only the company computer, a sodden subscriber list, one charred coffee table, and a chair. Eventually, that particular fire was found to be the result of arson (but don't any of you cranks get ideas). While the grayhairs round here have their suspects, the culprit was never brought to justice. Said grayhairs managed to put it all back together, somehow — one of many brushes with death the Old Girl has had over the years — and here we are, a year from the big 4-0, in a building that actually has sprinklers. We've come a long way, baby.
The Observer, too, is a child of cinders: a blaze in elementary school that reduced our family's tidy house on Crystal Valley Road to a charred hulk and all our treasured belongings — including every family photo not in the hands of others — to ash: clothes, toys, books, bed, cigar box of boy trinkets, everything but our lives (thankfully preserved by an out-of-town trip that night) gone, gone, gone. It was a bit of faulty wiring in that case, not a vindictive firebug who wrote his Letter to the Editor in flames. But you can see why both The Observer and the folks we work with might tend to bite their lips and stare up expectantly at the building when the alarms go off once every 11 years or so. The children of fire are always waiting for that yellow monster to return for a second bite of them.
The Little Rock Fire Department soon came roaring up in their trucks, sirens rolling and lights turning — pumper truck, ladder truck with the tiller-steering cab way at the back, chief's Suburban, another pumper — the brave men piling out in their coats and helmets, making The Observer feel for a second like we had wasted our life in timidity, hard hands gone soft as linen paper. The sight of that red and yellow spectacle couldn't help but remind us of our favorite quote by our favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut: "I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire truck." If The Observer had his way, that quote would be etched in stone over the door of every firehouse in this country, in letters big enough to be seen from the street. We remember our neighbor's story of more brave men, volunteers, who stood in the dark and poured on the water and tried to save The Observer's childhood home.
The Brave Ones trudged up and down through our building in their boots. Soon, the radio of the chief standing outside squawked back that they'd found nothing. The all clear was given, the men loaded up, the trucks groaned away, and we trudged in with the rest, stuffing the elevators and the stairwell, all the wiseasses joking over who wanted a break bad enough to pull the fire alarm. So too came The Observer, child of cinders, back to our unburned office. There, we sat, and smelled the phantom smoke of memories for the rest of the afternoon, marveling over how, once you get a good whiff, that smell never quite leaves your nose.