Fireman Phil by
(109 Stories)

Prompted By Fire

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Fireman Phil came to Marble Elementary School.  We first-graders were gathered in the school gym, seated cross-legged on the floor.  What makes a fire?  How do you stop it?  Do you throw water on oil (no!)?  This is a fire extinguisher. If you are on fire, don’t run–drop and roll.  It’s been over 60 years and I still remember.

When I was 13, Hannah came up with the brilliant idea of lighting perfume (okay, probably eau de cologne) because it made such a cool blue flame.  We shared the dorm room where she was conducting her experiment that evening with a couple of other girls.  Ever helpful, and ignoring the prevention part of my first grade fire lesson, I suggested it would be cheaper to light nail polish remover.  Someone came up with a bottle and doled out a few drops, which lit beautifully.  She then decided to add a bit more, carefully dripping liquid over the flame, which promptly jumped back into the hovering bottle.  Aaah!  She flung the bottle out of her hand and across the room.

In an instant, the room was alight with bits of burning polish remover that had scattered onto the floor, the bed, the desk.  Worse, some of the places where it landed were starting to burn underneath.  Dorothy ran to the bathroom sink to get a cup of water. Hannah was useless and agitated. That wasn’t going to help. I grabbed the small area rug and started madly beating out the flames, smothering them.  Every time one spot was extinguished, another behind me flared up, but after a frenzy of rug beating, everything was finally out.

We sat in the aftermath looking at each other, hearts racing, the smell of charred paper and burned acetone in the air, bits of carbon on the surfaces of the room. That was really close.  It was really bad.  Our frightened eyes spoke the truth that we would never do anything like that again, ever.

Top right gable was the room in flames

After a few minutes, we heard footsteps on the stairs leading up to our attic room.  Mademoiselle Schrader, the dorm resident supervisor, with her thick yellow-tinted glasses.  She spent most of her time entertaining M. Borle in the suite two levels below–we had probably interrupted them. She jerked open the door and we all looked at her with surely guilty looks.  She knew something was afoot, but somehow missed the clues.  Hannah bravely spoke up and assured Mlle. that everything was just fine, nothing to see here.  Well then, (after a few stern piercing eye sweeps over the miscreants) everyone go back to your rooms and go to bed, right now!

Who could sleep?  As I lay there, relieved that I had remembered enough to beat out the fire, I whispered to myself, “Thank you, Fireman Phil.”


Postscript:  I see in my yearbook picture that M. Borle is listed as the “General Safety Officer of the Fire Squad”.  Good thing he didn’t follow Mlle. Shrader up the stairs!

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Whew, Khati! Yes, teenage girls love to experiment, with all sort so things -inanimate or otherwise. It is a time for exploration, but the nail polish bit very nearly resulted in disaster! As you state, thank goodness you did remember what Fireman Phil had taught you all those years earlier. He obviously made an impression on you and it perhaps saved you, your friends and your dorm building that day. Truly amazing that Mlle. Schrader didn’t figure out what had happened just by the smell!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It was definitely a teenage girl thing. A disaster ultimately averted. And I have to think Mlle Shrader may have been distracted—of course we had opened the window and tried to tidy up quickly, but she had to know something was up.

  2. Thanx Khati for your wonderful (thankfully not tragic) story. The affair between monsieur and mademoiselle adds to the fun!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It’s a story I didn’t share much, but comes back vividly all these years later. (BTW I posted another fire story but couldn’t figure out how to get it listed under the “fire” prompt—if you can fix that it would be great.)

  3. Yours is a story for a girl scout pack. I am sure many of them have similar stories of a nearly tragic experience. What is great from my point of view is that you were not punished. We should be more lenient for the “crimes” of youth. Like your group, much destruction is done out of emotional mischief and youthful adventure. In my experience there is way too much parental anger and retribution. I never even put my daughter in time-out, nor of course ever was physical with her. She is a fantastic woman today–emotionally mature, intellectually outstanding, and fun. She has, of course, taken a few idiotic escapades but they have been a learning and not painful experience.

  4. pattyv says:

    This bought back so many memories of our own special firefighter guests who visited my classrooms each year. Stop, Drop and Roll echoed through all the primary grades. Amazing how all of us are so mesmerized by fire, how most of us experimented with it sometime in our lives. Khati, you and yours really got too close to this one. Thankful for Fireman Phil and the lessons you never forgot.

  5. Great story, and what a cool revelation that came to you as you searched your photo archives! The details made this narrative truly harrowing–thanks!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Khati. Kids do the darndest things! It’s a good ting you remembered to use that rug. Those “stop, drop, and roll” visits from the fire department used to frighten my kids, but it’s important to know what to do.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      You must certainly know about kids doing those darn things from your years working with the school—and your own kids, and having been one of course. “Stop, drop and roll” has probably saved a lot of lives! At least we all remember the advice.

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