Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
John Castillo Kennedy writes a riveting account of the fire that swept through San Francisco in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake that struck on April 18, 1906. The earthquake and resulting fires, which killed 3000 people, destroyed 80% of the city. Among the dead was the city fire chief. Firefighters, unaccustomed to using dynamite to create firebreaks, caused several of the fires.
At one point early in the fires, according to Castillo, the spread of the flames surprised people living along Pine, Bush, and Sutter Streets, forcing them to flee immediately. They had been confident that the flames would not reach them there. The author says,
“Quickly filled trunks grated up the hills. Wagons, mostly pulled by men, rattled over the rough cobblestones. Baby carriages and toy express wagons rolled along packed full with the ‘things’ people had snatched up in the flight. Pianos were bumped along the sidewalks–some went to pieces in the process. Sewing machines slipped along on their rollers with stacks of bedding and the like lashed to them. Women had their valuables on their person, or carried trinkets Gypsywise in handkerchiefs. Men wore columns of hats five-high. Some carried only a book. Parrots jabbered and scolded from many cages. Some people had blankets. Girls usually had bandboxes. Boys stretched poles between them and carried, suspended there, bundles of clothing and provisions. Once it was only a ham” (83).
These panic-stricken people, with no time to prepare, reached for the thing that had the most practical or sentimental value to them. Something made people faced with total loss and threat of life to lug heavy items or pets or food. Many of the choices seem irrational. Perhaps they were in shock or acting in impulse. In essays and contests asking people what they would grab if their house was on fire and they could only grab one thing, they have cited passports, wills, legal documents, insurance policies, personal papers, portable hard drives, phones, etc.
I’m trying to put myself in their shoes. If I was in one of the many neighborhoods forced to flee my home with no time to spare, what would I have been sure to grab? How long would it take my mind to settle on sentimental family items like old photos, my wedding video, or the boys’ baby books? Would I be relieved if I could make it out with my Bible, though I saved nothing else?
I do not judge those folks with their bizarre, split-second decisions. For some reason, it just made me do some introspection. What does my priority list look like? What do I value most in my life and in my home? What would I try to be sure to preserve?
Perhaps the answers to those questions is best provided by my choices in ordinary, every-day actions. I want my wife, children, fellow-Christians, and, most of all, my God to see from my life that they come before the things of this world. The things will all ultimately burn (2 Pet. 3:10). It is the relationships that will outlast the final, global conflagration. I pray that my influence and example will save them from the fire (Jude 23).
Reference: Kennedy, John Castillo. The Great Earthquake And Fire: San Francisco, 1906 (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1963).