I come from a long line of ambulance chasers.
My paternal grandmother, Norine Walsh, lived most of her adult life at 509 W. 53rd Street behind the Boulevard Theater, and was known to drop everything at the sound of a siren.
“She used to say, ‘If there’s a fire, we should go,’” said my dad, Jerry Walsh. “One day she was sick with a cold, so she begged off going shopping at SuperValu, which was where the O.I. Borton car dealership is now on Lyndale. But when SuperValu went up in flames later that day, she jumped up and shot out the door.”
Norine’s gawker impulse spread to her children. When my dad was 17, he heard the siren call and snuck out his bedroom window to go have a look at a house fire near the Washburn water tower. When he arrived, three bodies were covered on the lawn, and he, the fire crew, and some photographers waited for relatives to return to what he recalls as “an awful scene.” Two years later in 1948, a plane crashed on the Minnehaha Parkway off Dupont Avenue and my dad jumped in his car and helped firefighters dig for bodies.
In 1966, a small plane went down at the intersection of South 35W and West 62, and my dad’s sister Eileen Osterbauer took off with my nine-month pregnant mom, Ann Walsh. When they arrived at the scene, Aunt Eileen got her skirt hung up on the freeway fence, trying as she was to climb it to get a closer look. Unbeknownst to them at the time, my mom’s brother, Joey Holzinger, was driving on the freeway and came upon the plane wreck and the sight of a beheaded pilot.
Call it morbid curiosity. All of which has been passed down to my cousins and sisters and brothers and me, who has spent a lifetime gawking at fires — from the great J.C. Penney blaze on Thanksgiving 1984 in downtown Minneapolis, to a huge barn and brush fire in Southern Minnesota a few Labor Days ago, which I forced everyone in the station wagon to sit and watch with me.
So when I heard about the fire that was engulfing the 50th & Bryant businesses on the afternoon of Feb. 18, it was in my DNA to run down the street and check out the damage. It was a spectacularly sunny day, and once I’d sussed out that there were no injuries, it felt OK to mingle with neighbors and strangers and do whatever I could do console the business owners I ran into.
“Nice day,” I said to one of the firefighters, whose calm smirk suggested he’d seen much worse. “Nice day for a fire,” he cracked.
Crass, perhaps, but true. There was something ancient in that gathering that afternoon, something the technology of the day didn’t capture, because you had to be there: a spontaneous gathering of community, and a primal ritual of watching and wondering about how, in a flash, everything can fall apart. If you squinted, you could see generations of Americans in the faces of the couple hundred rubberneckers who, en masse, resembled daguerreotypes from storied fires in Chicago or New York or beyond.
After an hour, I jumped in the family van to pick up my 11-year-old daughter Helen from school at Burroughs, which sits at the bottom of the hill on 50th Street. When I arrived in the car pool lane, kids and teachers were lolling about and watching the smoke rise in the distance. I hollered at my kid to jump in the car fast and told her she was going to see something she’d never forget.
In no time, she was standing in front of the fire. She saw a couple friends there. She asked questions. She was quiet and, I think, a little reverent. Then she started bugging me. She wanted to skip chorus practice. I said no. She kept bugging me. I said I’d think about it. When I asked why, she said she wanted to watch the fire. I said OK.
First we went home, and when we did our home looked very different to both of us than when we’d left it earlier that day. It was intact. Cozy. Warm. There were no flames licking at the beams, no charred personal effects, no carnage. My daughter got on the phone immediately, called a couple friends, and told them what she’d seen. They weren’t impressed, so she grabbed her coat and bolted out the door, but returned a minute later.
“I forgot my camera and notebook,” she said. “I’m going to write something about this.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.