The Big Fire.

July 30, 2013

From Racquet Club: A Youthful Hundred: “The Big Fire, or: Who’s That in the Negligee?”

The busy, hot St. Louis summer of 1957 reached its peak in early August. The Racquet Club slowed down with the rest of the city, as members vacationed in cooler climes, and the squash players, who typically liked cold courts to keep the ball from getting too lively, suffered with summer’s usual stifling conditions. Saturday, August 3, had been a typical, lazy, midsummer weekend day of no particular note. That evening, out at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals, led as always by Stan Musial, had vanquished the Phillies 3-1. Around 3:30 a.m., Larry Callan, a cabbie driving by the Club on North Kingshighway, noticed flames coming from the windows of the second floor above the Card Room, in the area of one of the squash courts. He immediately pulled over to the corner of North Kingshighway and Westminster and pulled the alarm on box 1725.

Three other alarms were called in by fire personnel as they arrived over the next thirty minutes.

At 3:30 a.m., the Club had, of course, long been closed for the evening, its only inhabitants being a few boarders and one or two employees asleep upstairs. One of these folks became aware of flames tearing through the second-floor squash area, roused the others, and led a contingent of a half-dozen sleep-addled Racquet Clubbers, in various states of nighttime dishabille, from the upper floors, down three flights, through the Library and foyer, and to the sidewalk outside. By the time they had assembled in the front of the building, sirens were filling the warm night air, and hook-and-ladders were pulling up to the curb.

Suddenly one member — it is unknown who — roused the cobwebs sufficiently enough to gain his bearings and with them, his sense of decorum.

Looking at the flames jumping out of the second-floor windows, it was obvious the fire would prove to be costly and damaging. On the other hand, it was a big building, the fire was at the moment isolated in one area, and the fire trucks were already on-site. The danger would obviously be fully contained in short order. Given all this, he stepped in front of the helmeted firemen in their heavy gear, axes in hand, jumping off the trucks and preparing to storm in though the front door. The service entrance, he informed them, was down the alley, and the Club would appreciate it they would kindly redirect their efforts by using that door.

The somewhat surprised firefighters stopped dead in their tracks, looked at one another, shrugged, and ran down the alley for the service entrance.

In a few hours the fire was out, although, unfortunately, two firemen were hospitalized. Almost certainly the bar had been temporarily relocated to the sidewalk out front. (It is hard to imagine the members fighting fire without firewater.) But most importantly, decorum had been maintained, protocol followed, even in the midst of the conflagration. The front door had remained a members-only passage throughout the crisis.

Lest some feel this too rigid an adherence to regulations, it must be remembered that the rules were in fact relaxed: the firemen were not required to wear ties as they went about their duties, even though the dress code required it of everyone in the public areas of the Club.

The cause of the blaze, which appeared to originate in a storeroom, was never identified. In terms of damage, the squash court was fully charred and burned, the Card Room was gutted and damaged by water, and the Oak Bar incurred smoke damage. Final costs for replastering the walls and ceiling downstairs, repanelling the walls, sanding and refinishing the floors, and tending to wiring and ductwork issues exceeded $20,000. Fortunately the painting of Judge Taylor at the east end of the room and the mural over the fireplace were undamaged. No efforts were made to repair the squash court, however, and it would remain a sealed-off ruin for more than twenty years.

There was, as it turned out, fallout beyond the physical damage. Apparently, one of those so rudely rousted by the flames from the fourth floor, and left standing on the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., turned out to be a woman — and not an employee. No acceptable explanation for her presence was ever offered. Women, of course, were not allowed on the premises, day or night. In addition, business was frowned upon, so even were she a consultant of some variety, as is likely, she would still have been outside the protocols established for Club activities. There is no record of a sanction of any individual who may have been serving as her host for the evening. Larry Callan received 125 from the Board for his Club-saving effort, and the Fire Chief received a letter “to show our gratitude for the efficient way his fireman put out the fire.”

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One Observation.

July 20, 2013

In the wake of the conclusion of the George Zimmerman trial, in which Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, a number of pundits and personalities of all types have decried the racial element of the process. Because Mr. Zimmerman is white, they allege, he was set free after killing a young black man. Never mind that Mr. Zimmerman is actually Hispanic; they believe his ethnicity was a decisive factor in his vindication.

Those same voices appear now raised in opposition to the acquitting jury’s verdict – that is, in de facto accusations of racism against a majority of those jurors. No such voice has produced a viable scrap of evidence Mr. Zimmerman acted in any way other than that necessary to defend himself when confronted with deadly force. Despite that absence of evidence, they appear dead-set on believing that Mr. Zimmerman was set free because of his race, not because of the lack of any evidence contrary to his explanation. The logical corollary of the fact these commentators believe Mr. Zimmerman was wrongfully set free is that they also believe he should not have been set free, which in turn correlates with the fact they believe he was guilty of killing Mr. Martin without justification. They have yet to identify proof in support of that position, which leads to the conclusion that those same people who believe Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted because of his race now appear intent on assuming his guilt based on nothing more than that same race. The absurdity of the double standard is palpable.

Editor’s note: The post above reflects no opinion regarding the facts of the case; rather, it is simply critical of those who assume a defendant’s guilt (or innocence) on the basis of nothing more than race, regardless of the assumption or the race. It is as wrong to assume a man is guilty (or innocent) of a crime because he is white as it is to assume the same thing because he is black. The post above is critical of knee-jerk racial assumptions.


A World Unto Itself.

July 2, 2013

I spend an inordinate amount of time decorating. An inordinate amount of money, too – especially in comparison to purchases which could have some more readily identifiable bearing on my quality of life. For instance: food. Or: internet service. Or even: gasoline. The net dividend of most paychecks (what isn’t vacuumed up by the student loan shylocks) is most often left in the polished brass coffers of little antique shops. Why there? Because that’s where they sell walnut writing desks and little crystal inkwells. Antique shops offer the worst sort of potential for impulse buying: a beat-to-hell Persian rug? An etching of Napoleon on the march? Ring ’em up.

The efficiency with which I finance the college careers of antique merchants’ children recently led a friend to ask: why? Why spend so much time and treasure making a place that – since I live alone – few people ever see look like an English country house? Wouldn’t the money be better penned up in a savings account or invested somehow?

The answer is two-fold: first, my apartment is well-insured and in a very old building. When and if it ever goes up in flames or (more likely) simply subsides into the earth, I’ll make a bundle. Second, no. The money would decidedly not be better saved than spent. Here is why:

The world is, even at best, disquieting. Buses are loud. People are discourteous and care about ridiculous things called Kardashians. Buildings are ugly and everything is beginning to look prefabricated and shoddy. English is butchered daily by almost everybody – and not in small, forgivable ways, but on a tremendous and violent scale: most Americans treat their country’s national language like Hitler treated Poland. The political left and right have gone insane in equal measure. Fashion is garish. In general, the lowest common denominator prevails.

Step into my home. Things are quiet and gentle. There are old rugs on the floors, which are wood and polished. Sit in any cozy chair and there is a table within arm’s reach where you can set a drink. There are brass and glass ashtrays, but only for cigars. Or, if you want, a rack of pipes is in the library – next to the old Vanity Fair caricatures and some engravings of sailboats. The light is natural, from big windows, or else soft and dusky, from thickly shaded lamps. Look anywhere and you will see neatly stacked books about nearly anything. Hunting scenes are on the walls and blankets are across the backs of chairs. A number of small bars (in the kitchen, the dining room and the library) are convenient and well-provisioned. There is ice in the freezer and tumblers in the cabinet.

No matter what the world demands in the way of tolerating vulgarity, your home – house, apartment, condominium, cabin – is your own. In it, you can create a world to your own specifications, the world you would prefer. My own tastes are clubby and subdued. Yours might be modern and sleek. In either case, the pleasure and reassurance of being able, at the end of any day, to slip into a world of your own taste is priceless.

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