Without a Spark

Last Christmas, my cousin got me the boxed set of DVDs for From the Earth to the Moon. With the volume of shows and movies I normally watch, I've only recently gotten to them. Four episodes in to the 12-part series, and I'm in absolute awe of how each episode is like this sweeping, epic movie with an amazing cast and a powerful score. But the one thought that keeps popping up in my mind is that it's not science fiction; we've DONE THIS. These days, we take footage of ships flying in space for granted, but the show does a great job of reminding us what a task it was, the challenges that were faced, and the sacrifices that were made. It's made all the more powerful by the fact that these events happened. I just finished watching an episode about 1968, a particularly bad year for the world. We lost both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to assassins' bullets. Riots ensued. The Vietnam war was raging. And, in the last days of the year, Apollo 8 carried three astronauts into orbit around the moon on an historic and tense achievement of a major milestone. “You've saved 1968”, wrote one woman to the crew, upon the completion of their mission.

Apollo 8 was an important victory that paved the way for the success of the Apollo 11 mission in landing on the moon for the first time. But, more importantly than taking us one step closer to Armstrong's “One small step for man...”, it was a much needed victory in a program with a tragic beginning. In 1967, Apollo 1 cost the lives of three astronauts without ever leaving the ground. During a routine test, a combination of elements from faulty wiring to a pure oxygen environment to the presence of materials super-flammable under such conditions like velcro led to a lethal fire. The episode of the miniseries dealing with these events pulled no punches in showing the terror of the final moments of those three men, strapped down in closed quarters before asphyxiating and burning. The actors did an excellent job capturing the guilt and remorse of the survivors tasked with determining what went wrong and how to prevent it, while mourning their friends.

I have a lot of admiration for astronauts, putting themselves into such dangerous conditions. Those three burned in a small capsule, but those who launch lie in a capsule above a rocket filled with fuel, are explosively hurled away from the Earth, and spend days in a void with only the air in their suits and capsule, and limited food resources. I couldn't do what they do. It's enough for me to get in a car and drive every morning. And as for fire, well, being a packrat living in a house with a mother who's a packrat and a father who, while not as bad as either of us has his share of possessions, I fear fire. I'm surrounded by stacks of comic books, regular books, and DVDs. My clothes no longer fit in my closet or bureau, and hang from door knobs or sit in stacks in front of my radiator. Our basement is chock full of furniture my mom rescued from her brother's house, as well as his old paintings and all her crafts materials, such as dried flowers. This house is a fire waiting to happen, with old wires, paint, art supplies, mechanic's chemicals, and more. It's a miracle it hasn't happened yet.

Surely I must be mad to tempt fate, to even type such words. My luck is legendary, my knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time epic. And if lightning is going to strike twice, I'm the one that's going to get struck. “Twice?” you might ask, wondering when it struck the first time. An excellent question...

Over the past few weeks, electricians have been installing new light fixtures throughout my office building. Each unit takes up one square section amid a drop ceiling, and the new lights have been particularly bright. For a while after they did my office, I was leaving the overhead lights off and relying on the cozier illumination of a desk lamp, but I've since gotten used to the bright lights. On Wednesday afternoon, they began replacing the fixtures over the cubicles outside my office. The occupants of those cubicles adjourned to the cafeteria while insulation and debris rained down and workmen stood on their desks, while those of us with offices merely shut our doors.

After about an hour, the workmen disappeared, and the lights outside flickered on. My first thought was that they had to be kidding me, since there were two ridiculously bright fixtures directly outside my window, adding to the illumination within my office. My second thought was, “What's that popping sound?” I looked up at my own ceiling, where it seemed to be coming from, then back outside at those light fixtures. Thank God they hadn't replaced a drop ceiling panel alongside the new fixture, so I could see the sparking wire that was causing the popping sound. “Well that's not good...” I said aloud. Then one of those sparks landed on the insulation in the ceiling, and I saw it burst into flames. “That's really not good.”

It was almost mesmerizing, watching it flicker like a fireplace while everything up there took on an orange glow. I stared for a few seconds, either hypnotized or slightly in shock. Was I really seeing that? Just then, two of the workers walked by, snapping me back to reality. I thought they were coming to take care of the problem, but they walked right past it, never noticing the flickering right over their heads! I leapt up, flung open my door, and called after them, “Uh, you got a fire.” They kept walking, so I repeated my message more concise and enunciated: “FIRE?!” They looked at each other, then sauntered back and looked up. “Oh...he's right, you do have a fire up there. I thought he was kidding.” While (at least in my recollection of events) I did a Chandler-esque double-take and wide-armed “WTF?” gesture, the other guy sprang into action, grabbing a ladder and scrambling up. He removed another panel and popped his head in to assess the situation. Then, he yanked this flaming piece of insulation down to the ground and stomped on it.

At this point, the office took on a hearty ski lodge smell, and I wondered what sort of burnt dust and fibers we were now all breathing in. Slowly, passersby stopped to inquire what had happened. Doors opened, and people emerged, wondering what the smell was. I don't know if anyone besides myself and the one worker who scrambled up the ladder ever saw the full extent of the fire. And I can't help wondering what would have happened if they had replaced that one tile before turning the lights back on. I might have heard the popping noise, but I don't know if I would have realized there was a fire up there. It would have spread over other offices, and maybe the ceiling would have collapsed. I could envision flaming debris landing outside, trapping me in my office and fulfilling my fear/certainty that I'm destined to die in front of a computer. So, given that if circumstances were slightly different, if I were in a slightly different spot, had my blinds closed, or my view was obscured in any other way, I think I can count this as one of my many improbably near-death experiences. At the very least it's a near-near-death experience. In my immediate vicinity, office work can be as hazardous as the space program.

I also find it interesting that, while a pizza I accidentally burned at my old job caused the evacuation of two three-story office buildings, an actual fire burning a few feet in front of me didn't even set off an alarm. What are the odds?! Show your math...


Blogger b13 said...

Time to start bagging some old clothes, books and other stuff (keep the comics) and donate o goodwill. We ARE fast approaching Christmas, ya know... and you'll get a nice tax write-off to boot. You also possibly neaten up your room a bit. Oh, and get rid of all that old paint too... you know you will never use it anyway.

11/12/2009 11:39 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

what B13 said; and if you ever come to Ottawa, please send a note ahead of time so I can protect myself against proximity to your nexus of improbability.

11/13/2009 6:23 AM  

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