It was a lovely fall morning, crisp under blue skies, with just a touch of frost until the breeze when I got down to the big garden to finish putting it to bed for the year. There were a few more peppers to pick, and old iron tiller to haul up to the barn, and a lot of weeds to mow down and tomato cages to stack and store. It took about an hour to hack down the tough weeds around the last of the potato patch, and I was thinking of one more cup of coffee up at the house when I took a look around.
And my blood froze. There on the northeast side of the hill, was a perfect column of white smoke over the tree line, the smoke drifting a bit on an unfelt puff. I jumped into the RTV, threw it it into gear and gritted my teeth as we crawled up the hill towing trailer and mower. At the foot of the driveway, where Fran and Hal Strickland began building the family cabin in 1965, more smoke was moving through the trees. I dashed across the road and into our driveway, blowing the lame little horn, grabbed my cell phone at the house and went back. Renters that morning had left the cabin and locked the gate, and it took a moment to get it open and up the hill.
At first glance, it looked like a woods fire, burning in patches around the house, but not yet on it. But not far from it either, and the first flames were just about to lick up the deck posts of one of the finest views of Piedmont Virginia that can be had from about 3,200 feet of elevation. By the time I had run back downhill and called in the alarm to the Patrick County dispatcher, smoke was heavier — and just like that I could see the first flames on the deck.
By the time I got the garage open to see if there was a rake or something to pull some of the fire apart, I heard glass bursting, as if someone were throwing brickbats at the big windows that gave the house such a grand view. I knew what that meant. Because even if the volunteer fire departments serving this part of southwest Virginia got up to us in record time, the house would still be gone.
It was, as houses go, a modest place — a modified A-frame with a four-bed loft and a spiral staircase that my father-in-law had designed in his 50s, and that he and Fran had made their summertime home for roughly a half-century. Martha and I were courting when the house was going up, and over the years we put a lot of sweat equity into running wiring, hanging wallpaper, cutting firewood and enjoying the incomparable paradise that Patrick County can be. There were innumerable family gatherings — birthdays, Easter egg hunts when the young-uns were little, anniversaries, memories of Fran and Hal dancing to Lawrence Welk on Saturday evenings, gatherings of the aging folk group The Villagers back in their heyday, memories of Fred Birdsong and Jim Garrison, both of them lost far too young to accident and disease.
In this place my children grew up, hanging onto the rear hitch and later the rollbars of Hal's succession of farm tractors — the Econo 14, then his first Diesel, then a 21 horse New Holland. In these fields our children first learned to drive a stick-shift transmission. And every Thanksgiving that they could find a ticket, they have come back east to the hills for the best family reunions you can imagine.
They'll be here next week, too, staying with us in the house we rebuilt in 2011 after another house fire, evidently started by a severe electrical storm in 2010 while we were in Raleigh packing for the beach. It ill be sad for them to see the pitiful remains of a little cabin so loved by a far-flung family living in California and Hawaii and Mexico and Idaho and Utah and Texas and Georgia. We'll still have wonderful Thanksgiving celebrations and carry on as families always do.
But we will miss that A-frame cabin, and the magnificent views, and soapstone wood stove that kept us warm in cool weather, and the bonds that Fran and Hal Strickland forged in their children's and grandchildren's lives. It was just a house, you know, but a palace could not have been a better place to raise kids, eat like kings and look out over one of the most astonishing views on earth.