Many years ago, in the mountains of the Northwest, I had a catastrophe. I was sitting in the kitchen (the only really warm room in the house) about 8 o’clock in the morning. I saw a very thin wisp of smoke coming from the furnace grate in the living room. I said to myself “That is not supposed to happen”. I went into the basement, where the Beast was located. The Beast was a wood-burning furnace that ate a cord of wood a week. The fire had burned down to just ashes, but it was still hot.
I went up the stairs from the basement and back into the house (basement entrance was outside). I went to check the second floor. I got halfway up the stairs and came back down. I told my wife, who was in her housecoat, “Get your clothes on. The house is burning down.” She got dressed while I moved the car away from the house. The house was more than 80 years old, and it burned like a box of matches. We saved a couple of handfuls of stuff and the rest burned. I saved one book out of about 3,000. Everything I had ever written burned.
We saved one photo album and lost the rest. The kids were in school, and I am thankful for that. If the fire had happened at night, like they usually do, it would have been grim. Both of their bedrooms were upstairs and I think there would have been no way to save them.
We met them when the school bus dropped them off that afternoon and took them to see what had happened. So there we were, four of us standing in the snow, at a temperature of about 10 degrees, with virtually nothing. My job was shut down until the spring so we had no money. We had the clothes we were wearing. I could not write anyone a letter because I had no paper to write on, I had no pen to write with, I had no envelope to put it in, I had no stamps and no money to buy any, and my address book had burned, so I would not have known where to send it, anyway.
We had no kitchen utensils of any kind, no towels, no soap or toothpaste, no toothbrushes or hairbrushes, nothing. The local community really pitched in to help us out. Some very sweet ladies took us to the local second-hand store, opened the door and said “Help yourselves”. We got emergency food stamps (it took about 30 minutes) so we could eat. They said they would find us shelter of some sort for the winter, until I could go to work. I thanked them and told them to hold off on that, because I thought we would try to head south, where I could go to work right away. That is what we did. You do not realize how much stuff you have until it is all gone and you have nothing.
The local people were wonderful. The Red Cross had a different attitude. We called them to see if they could do something for us. They said that since it was just one house and just one family they would do nothing. If it had been a whole town they would have come in to help. In other words, if it had been a big enough disaster to give them some publicity they wanted to be there. Otherwise, for just one family standing in the snow in January with literally nothing, they could not be bothered. I used to make contributions to the Red Cross, but since then I have not given them one dime. Even after 9-11, I checked before I made any contributions to make sure my money would not be funneled to or through the Red Cross. They can vanish from the planet for all I care.