If you take to yourself a woman, and with her, raise up a home and family, you have given hostages to fate, and the day will come when you must put your hand in the fire to ransom them.
It was the summer of 63 and my best buddy and I were parked in front of the family television for the Saturday Morning Monster Theater. My grandpa, W.K. Holt, was helping my father with a project in the back yard, and my mother was fixing lunch; fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.
The movie that morning was ‘The Giant Mantis’, a 50s potboiler about a hundred foot long praying mantis. My friend and I were fairly jaded monster movie fans; it took a lot more than closeups of a mantis overlaid onto stock footage of New York City to impress us; we were having a riot. When the giant mandibles of the monster crushed a car, an airplane, or an unlucky extra, we would hoot ,whistle, blow raspberries at the TV and roll in the floor.
My mother grew up on a sharecroppers farm in East Texas; her movie going experience as a child was limited to an occasional ‘Abbott & Costello’ flick shown by a traveling movie man who came to town every other month or so, set up a tent, borrowed the pews from the church, and projected the two – reelers onto the inside of the tent. She had rarely ever seen a monster film, and they had the power to entrance her. Whenever she heard us rioting,she would come thru the dining room, ask ‘what happened?’, watch for a moment , then return to her work in the kitchen.
It was getting close to noon, and the end of the show. The giant mantis had been lured into an automobile tunnel and killed, or so the heroes thought. My mother had put the grease on to heat for the chicken. The heroes approached the beast and his eye opened. The music swelled, we hooted, mother came running, ‘what happened’, we explained, she watched for a moment or two, then went back to the kitchen, she screamed.
When she was about six years old my mother had tipped a pot off a stove and been painfully burned. She was deathly afraid of fire. As I ran into the kitchen she was backed up against the sink; the skillet was about two inches deep and half full of grease, it was afire; the flames were licking the bottom of the ventahood two feet up; the wall behind the stove was filmed with grease and steaming; the handle had burned off the skillet.
I frantically looked around the kitchen for something to cover the fire; a lid, a cookie sheet, anything. There was nothing. I turned my back to the stove and was searching the phone desk in the corner of the kitchen when I felt the heat intensify on my neck; ‘its flared to the ceiling’ I thought.
Before I could turn to see, my grandfathers voice came from behind me; ‘ Excuse me’, as though he was trying to pass by on his way to the bathroom. I felt his hand on my shoulder and turned.
With his thumb hooked over the edge, he was holding the flaming skillet in his bare right hand.
I dropped to the floor, he stepped over me, strode three steps to the back door, opened the screen and tossed the skillet out into the yard. When he turned around his thumb was on fire. Snuffing out the flame with his left hand he turned to my mother and said ‘ Neecie, do you have any butter?’, in the same quiet tone of voice. Taking a stick from the freezer she placed it in his palm and closed his fingers around it, then wrapped his hand in a clean dish towel. He opened the cabinet, took out a bowl, and holding his hand over it said ‘ There’s no need to waste good butter’, as it started to drip into the bowl.
I don’t think I have ever seen any physical act by a man, before or since, that impressed me as much as my grandfather saving our house from burning down that Saturday morning fifty years ago.
That afternoon, when everyone had gone and it was quite, I retrieved the pan from the backyard and put it on the stove. I recalled the sight of the flames licking the bottom of the ventahood. Picking up the pan in my right hand I retraced his steps; pausing where I had been standing by the phone table; trying to imagine what it must have felt like to have your thumb in the burning grease and the bottom of that hot skillet resting on your fingers. I realized then that from the stove to the back door, he had not spilled a drop of grease.
Standing there in the middle of the kitchen I could not believe what I had seen a few hours before. To pick up a hot skillet of burning grease in your bare hand; walk fifteen feet , step over someone, then open a screen door and throw the whole flaming mess into the yard without spilling a drop. The self-control needed to do that was beyond me. I admired it. I ADMIRED it. Down to the bottom most rung of my soul I wanted to be like that.
After the butter had all melted down my mother held his hand over the sink and gently washed the burned skin. She covered his hand with Aloe vera leaves; slit apart and the pulp side to the burn; from a big plant she kept by the back porch. And that was that. He never mentioned the incident as far as I have been able to tell. Years after we buried grandpa I would tell the story to my aunts and uncles; they would all say that they had never heard of it then they would shake their head and say ‘That’s daddy alright.’
In my reflecting on the fire over the years, I have extracted these lessons;
His family was in danger
He saw what had to be done
He made the decision and did it
He accepted the cost
There was no one to blame, it was nobodies fault, it was his choice
He felt it was worth the price he paid
At my grandfathers funeral, after the grave side service, and as everyone was drifting away, my father and I and a cousin were standing nearby. Dad started talking about grandpa; he told story after story about the things he had lived thru, the people he had helped, the hard life he had borne with unfailing good spirit.Then Dad paused a moment and said;
‘You ought to know what kind of blood flows in your veins.’