A group of thirty to forty of us had gathered in and around the prayer chapel after making our way from the barn, across the pasture, and down into the ravine. Listening to the prayers of thanksgiving and dedication, my mind was drawn back to that fateful day the previous fall.
Derrick and I had headed down Anderson on our way home from Kansas State University. The four mile trip home past farms and fields was always refreshing and restorative. Oblivious of the drama going on at the farm, we were enjoying the spectacular fall colors. I had never appreciated the grassy fields and roadsides in the fall before we moved to Kansas.
My first fall here, on an inspired whim I had stopped one late afternoon and picked the tall prairie grasses that were growing along the road. Bundling them up, I had taken them home, trying to preserve the beauty as long as I could in a large vase on the table.
Today, as in every fall, the leaves were changing again into yellows, reds, and gold, and the prairie grass to shades of purple, red, and orange. Beautiful! A steady wind was blowing from the south across the fields, and the grasses and leaves danced to its rhythm.
Rounding the corner into the little village of Keats, we were sobered to see a fire truck coming down Kitten Creek Road and pulling to a stop as it waited to enter Anderson. “Oh, no! There must have been a fire on our road! I wonder who? Where?” We were both speaking at the same time.
I couldn’t help but press my foot to the gas a little harder as we entered the gravel road and sped toward home. As we passed the Peterson’s we could not see any signs of more fire trucks or activity. But by the time we got to the Hageman’s, we could tell the activity was in our own front yard. “Oh, please, no, God!” I prayed softly.
Pulling into the driveway, we took a quick inventory. Thank God, the house was still standing, the barn was still there. As another fire truck rolled down out of the pasture, past the barn, and into the driveway, it was clear that the fire had been up in the pasture.
It is true, we Kansans do burn our pastures in the spring, but never, never in the fall. With the dry grasses and the wind, fall fires can quickly grow out of control, so this was a fire that MUST be stopped.
We saw one remaining truck in the pasture as we ventured up the hill and waded out to the truck across the black ashes and soot, all that remained of the grass. The volunteer fire men were still dousing the fire on the hillside above the prayer chapel. We did not realize the extent of God’s grace that day until we scrambled down the hillside and into the chapel. The trucks had managed to get to the top of the hill just as the flames were licking at the corner of the chapel. The only damage to the structure was where the fire had settled into a corner of the railroad ties out of the reach of the hoses and had smoldered there until the firemen reached it with containers of water.
Later that evening we were able to put together the pieces of the story as Sara and Kay recounted their harrowing day to the rest of the family.
The schools had been closed that afternoon for a half-day teacher in-service, and Sara, a Jr. High student at the time, had been the only one at home. The rest of us were either at the university or at work.
Arriving home on the bus after a morning of classes, Sara was relishing her freedom from classes and was looking forward to a peaceful afternoon. She had settled into a comfortable chair, ready to pick up the book she had been reading the evening before when the phone rang.
Kay Bascom, our dear “over-the-hill” neighbor was calling. “Sara . . .” (pause). Not wanting to alarm Sara, but very concerned, Kay chose her words carefully. “I think . . . that maybe I am smelling smoke. Do you know if anyone is burning something?”
Sara, quick to hear the concern in Kay’s voice, looked out the window. “No, I don’t see anything,” she said cautiously, “but let me go up in the pasture and check. I’ll call you back if I see anything.”
Now it has never been a secret that Kay does not appreciate the controlled spring “pasture burning” process. In fact, there usually is a plan to have Kay busy in town when we plan a burn. But today, Kay and Sara were the lone occupants of their respective homes. After this fateful day, Sara joined the ranks of pasture burning naysayers.
Sara did, indeed, begin to smell smoke as she climbed the hill, and then see smoke, billows of smoke. Coming from the south the fire was raging toward the barn. Or so, at least, it appeared to her.
Since this episode was taking place long before cell phones were part of the normal communication process, Sara raced down the hill and into the house. Grabbing the phone, she dialed Kay’s number. “Yes!” she reported, out of breath and gasping for air. “There is a fire, and it is headed our way!”
They quickly confirmed that Kay would call the fire company and Sara would call her dad. When Judd’s secretary answered the phone and told Sara that Judd was in a session, Sara left a desperate message: “The pasture is on fire and is headed toward the barn.”
Meanwhile Kay had dialed 911 and the fire trucks were on their way. Volunteers arrived first and determined that the fire was actually in the fields, and the structures around the house and barn were not in danger. However, in the fields above the barn the fire was barreling its way across the pasture. That wind that had seemed so playful on our trip home was creating chaos in our pasture.
Thinking it was a simple pasture fire, the firemen were quickly corrected by Kay. “You must stop it before it goes down into the woods.” Kay’s love for the chapel made it especially difficult for her to remain calm. “There is a structure in its path down in the ravine: a prayer chapel. Please stop that fire,” she begged.
I am sure those firemen had never considered a structure would have been erected in that ravine, let alone a prayer chapel; but rising to the occasion through Kay’s desperate pleas, and guided by her directions, those volunteers were able to get to the woods above the chapel, just as the structure received its first licks from the flames.
By the time Derrick and I had arrived, the remaining fire truck’s crew along with Kay were making sure that they had extinguished every last ember.
We never did determine how the fire had started, just that it had begun in our neighbor’s pasture, and with the wind coming from the south it had raced hungrily toward ours.
My reverie of remembrance was abruptly interrupted by a song. The chapel and the wooded hillside reverberated with the voices of our thankful group as Charles led us in singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” The prayers had been offered and the scripture read and a little bronze plaque had been nailed to the wood beside the charred hole. “Thou dost encompass me with deliverance.” Psalm 32:7, the plaque reads. Yes, even when we are unaware of the dangers that may threaten us, He does prepare a way of deliverance: someone who smells smoke, someone to put out the fire, a community of deliverers.
Leaving the chapel that day with this thankful group of friends, I turned to read the words inscribed above the chapel door, “Let him who is thirsty come; and whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Revelation 22:17. We were finding the sacred in the midst of the mundane once again.