It was a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in Riley, Kansas. As a 12 year old boy my thoughts were of adventure and having a good time with my friends. It had become such a beautiful day with a deep blue sky and billowy clouds.
I was playing with my friends Bobby and Jimmy in the yard beside the parsonage, when we heard a loud boom. We walked around the church to see what was going on.
A couple minutes later we heard the town siren go off loudly. It was located down by the city building where the fire trucks were kept.
In most small Kansas towns there was a large siren. Many places it was programmed to sound at noon each day, so that folks knew it was time for lunch. During times when we had a storm it would be sounded to alert everyone in town that there was a tornado approaching and to take cover.
The third thing it was used for was to alert the volunteer fire department that there was a fire call for them to respond to.
On this particular occasion it was afternoon and there was no severe weather, so we knew it was probably a fire call.
After a minute or so, we began to hear the individual sirens of the volunteer firefighters driving to the firehouse. We stood on Main Street and watched as the fire trucks went rushing from the station with lights and sirens alerting people to get out of the way.
We lived in the small town of Riley, which is located on the north side of Fort Riley, the home of the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One.
Fort Riley is a major army installation with training activities occurring all the time of day and night. After a while you got used to helicopters flying overhead or hours of artillery guns firing in the area south of town. Many times the artillery was so loud it rattled windows and caused houses to shake.
At the time, many years before 9/11, the post was very open. You could drive on post without a pass and there were no fencing or security measures around the boundaries. It was common for soldiers who were training out in the field to drive a Jeep into town to get food or snacks.
There were always several soldiers living in town with their families. Many of my friends were members of military families who had decided to live off-post.
One of the side effects of this close relationship between the army and the local community was that army equipment and clothing ended up off-post for various reasons. I had several pieces of old army clothing and equipment which I played with.
In fact, sometimes people would go out onto the large training areas and find equipment left after the units went back to their barracks. In other cases the soldiers would bring things home from work. Sometimes they would sell things they’d brought off-post.
Surprisingly, yet common, was bringing home live, unexploded, artillery and mortar shells. When the soldier would move they would give the shells away or sell them in a yard sale.
It was common to see an artillery shell being used as a door stop. I knew one lady who said that she and her sister had a mortar shell that they played with as little girls. They’d wrap it in a blanket like a doll.
As we stood on the street, we could tell the fire trucks were heading to the north side of town. Bobby and I decided to jump on our bikes and check out what was happening. We hadn’t gone more than a couple blocks before we could see a big column of ominous looking smoke.
As we pedaled closer we could tell that the smoke was coming from a gas station on the highway.
It was quite exciting. A gas station burning down was going to be an adventure. I knew from experience just how flammable gasoline could be. My adrenaline was beginning to pump because we seemed to be watching the biggest event in several years.
We decided we could pedal up close and watch the firemen do their heroic job of saving the building and facilities from the fire. At that point it was like television with all the sirens, fire trucks, ambulances, and police responding. I felt so lucky to have a front seat view of such an exciting event.
As the child of a minister, I was very used to the idea of death. Dad was always going to the hospital to visit dying people or terminally ill persons in their homes. It was normal to hear the telephone ring in the middle of the night when someone passed away. Dad would get dressed and go to comfort the family. I couldn’t tell you who the local mayor was, but I always knew who the undertaker was. In fact at time the undertakers daughter was in my school class.
I had a level of acclimation and even comfort with the idea of people dying and the process of wakes, visitations, funerals, and graveside services. Later in life as an adult I would come to notice that most people avoid anything to do with death. For me though, there was a comfort level from all the exposure.
Death, as I had come to know it as a child, was still rather sterile and benign. It was still at a distance. My experience with death was normally after the event or condition which caused it. Not the death itself.
I pedalled my bike up to that scene expecting a big fire and heroic firefighting which I could tell my friends about.
A happy story…..
I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had tried.
Death came that day. Yes it did. It showed its horrendous side normally only known by soldiers in war. It was the farthest thing from a happy story. It was unflinchingly brutal.
As we rode our bikes to the gas station it became obvious that it wasn’t on fire. The gas station was fine.
Next to the gas station was a very small trailer park. It had a rock driveway and 4 or 5 trailer houses parked under large elm trees. These were the type of trailer houses which were cheap to rent. Many of the people who rented them were young soldiers who were lower enlisted ranks and therefore, didn’t make a lot of money.
We could see that the trailer next door was burning furiously. I could see a couple people on and near what had previously been the front porch and doorway.
The odd part about this scene was that the large trailer house was burning, but the walls had collapsed and the roof was not sitting on top of the trailer. We had gotten there pretty quick, even beating some of the firefighters, yet the place was fully burning and in pieces.
For some reason, one of the memories which stuck in my 12 year old mind was how the firefighters were frantically trying to do CPR on an adult female. When they did the chest compressions, her arms would both flip up in the air as though she was waving her arms. They kept it up as they ran with her into the ambulance. She looked like a large doll,…. but it was a real human. She was in the process of dying there under the elm trees. Death had come for her and several members of her family in a sudden and violent flash of fire and explosive force.
I stood there under that deep blue sky mixed with billowing clouds. When you looked up it almost took your breath away because of its beauty.
When I looked down, though, the picture turned to one of fire, angry dark smoke, and total destruction. I watched them trying to give medical aid to other family members on the ground. There were others, though, who were simply covered with sheets. The ones that were in pieces and obviously beyond help. I wasn’t prepared for such a stark and sudden scene of tragedy.
I tried to wrap my 12 year old mind around the ugly scene before me. The firefighters and paramedics tried their level best to save as many people as they could. They were simple volunteers who had, until they heard that fire siren, been at home watching baseball or working in the garden. Now 10 minutes later they were picking up pieces of people, trying to save lives, and put out a huge fire.
I saw heroism that day, but instead of a happy story it was played out across a backdrop of violent death. These were ordinary people doing extraordinary things in a tremendously horrible scene.
As it turned out, a young soldier had brought a howitzer artillery shell to his house from the nearby post. His young wife’s family was there visiting for the day. After lunch, he apparently tried to show them that he knew how to take it apart. He didn’t and it exploded. It blew the trailer house apart along with himself and his family.
Death came that afternoon in such a violent and unexpected way. In the relative safety of my small town I learned that death can have a very ugly side. As a young person we are in a mindset that we are indestructible. That we have a long life ahead of us regardless of what we do.
One of the family members was a young brother, not much older than me. I saw the other side of death that day…..A horrible death……His death…..