Back in the '50s, when I was 5 years old, our house burned to the ground. It was an early autumn Saturday morning in Bowling Green, Ky. Angry red and yellow flames and clouds of smoke billowed from the roof and out the windows of 819 Josephine Ave.
My two younger brothers had been playing with matches and caught the kitchen curtains on fire. It spread quickly. My mother was still asleep. I had wet my bed during the night and moved to the living room couch. Dad wasn't around. He and my mother were in another of their many "trial separations."
I woke up breathing in heavy smoke and hearing my brothers' screams. It was just in time to leap from the couch, as the ceiling above me gave in and fell to the floor. Suddenly, everything was ablaze.
Mom was running around. My brothers were in shock. Me too. It was total chaos.
Mom and my brothers ran out into the front yard, while I frantically searched for my dog, Prince. I couldn't find him. The heat was too much. I had to get out.
Mom sent me running to the neighbors' house for help. By the time I got back, our house was completely engulfed in flames.
All of us, screaming at the top of our lungs for Prince. Out of nowhere, like in the movies, he came crashing through the bathroom window and landed a few feet in front of the house. A miracle! I quickly patted him down, and we ran out to the street.
There we all stood. Mom, my brothers, me and Prince. All of us, barefoot, barely dressed and in shock. Watching our world go up in flames. My mother fell to her knees and began to pray. That vision of her, in the middle of the street, crying to God, is forever emblazoned in my mind.
There went my "Lady and the Tramp" nightstand lamps. My thumbtacked-to-the-wall, autographed glossies of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen and Fess Parker. My baseball card collection. My clothes.
By the time the fire trucks arrived, our little white house with the pale-green shutters had burned to the ground. Even the little tree my father had planted next to the front door gave up to the flames and expired. Just a damp smoke and that gut-wrenching feeling of complete loss.
All that was left was a strip of black-and-white checkered linoleum, where the kitchen used to be, and my dead spongy turtle, Tom, that I had stored in a shoe box, under my bed.
When Tom died, probably from starvation, a neighborhood kid told me that if I turned my turtle upside down for several days and then turned him back upright, that he would come back alive for a few days. Still not sure what that was about.
So I thought that if I left him in that posture for several weeks, that he'd live much longer. My mother used to come into my bedroom and tell me to put Prince outside. I felt a little guilty about my best friend taking the rap for the foul odor, but I felt it was for the greater good.
After the fire, my dearly departed Tom finally received his long past due proper burial out in the backyard. Several kids from the neighborhood were in attendance. They each said a little something good about Tom.
On the brighter side, the good Lord had answered my prayers. Prince made it out. Alive and unscathed. God had spared his life. I figured the Almighty had looked down and seen how much my dog meant to me.
My mother said the devil took everything else.
The next day, as we scavenged through the ruins, I found a scorched and blackened piece of Mom's silver set. In my mind, it resembled a lamp, very much like the kind genies lived in.
Every once in a while, when I was down in the dumps, I'd rub on it. No genie. I got to thinking that maybe he had met his demise that day of the fire. Still, I kept rubbing it.
We went to stay with my grandmother, Miz Lena, in Columbia, Tenn.
It's amazing how quickly a kid with a big appetite forgets tragedy when served some of the best soul food this side of the Mississippi — compliments of Grand Mom's maid of many years, Elizabeth. Cornbread and beans, thin-sliced fried potatoes, snap green beans, corn on the cob, fried okra, pork chops and, of course, the staple to any respectful Southern dinner table fried chicken.
Thank You, God.
One day, Elizabeth looked out the kitchen window and saw me sitting on the back porch, rubbing on my magic lamp. She came out with a glass of iced tea for me. She said, "What you doin', sweet child?" I told her I was trying to get the genie to come out and grant my wish for my dad and mother to get back together.
Her eyes watered up. Then she smiled and sat down on the porch step, next to me. She said, "Baby, ain't no genie in there. If you is lookin' for a wish to come true, you needs to pray to the Lord. Genies don't work as good as God. Besides, that what you got in yo' hand is a gravy pitcher."
My parents never did get back together. Probably a good thing.
I'll always love Elizabeth and the things she taught me through the years. Once in a while, she slips into my dreams. I often think of her comparison of genies to the Almighty. She was right, of course.
Still, it sure would be cool to find a real magic lamp.