It is what it is


When the fire call comes over the scanner, they call it a shed.

Two minutes later, though, and they’re calling it an Amish school. Fully engulfed. I grab coat and notebook and keys and walk fast for the door.

And the road winds out of town and there’s a slow-moving car ahead of me and it irks me. I’m missing the story. A coal truck lumbers up a hill, a power truck pulls onto the shoulder and we all accelerate down the other side.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going. Out of town on Sixth Street, passed the state game lands with the ‘hunt safely’ sign on the left and Christmas tree farms rising up the skirts of ridges, green bright against snow below and gray skies above. It finally dead-ends into the highway, and I go left, watching my rear view mirror for flashing lights and peering at the gray sky for any darker smudges of smoke.

I start to suspect that what came over the scanner was over blowing the situation a little. A school would mean more trucks, coming in behind me from Indiana. I’d see the smoke from a school from miles away, gray sky or no.

And then I round the corner and firemen have closed a lane of the road and I park half way down the hill and walk up, through slush and mud and the shuddering burst of air when a coal truck rattles by just a couple feet away.

By school they meant beside the school; by Amish they meant the Mennonites who bought the old school years ago; and shed was by far the closest description of all.

A fireman in regular clothes met me in the muddy lumber yard. He’d just been sitting down to lunch at Ponderosa when he heard the call; his company hadn’t been called out yet, but like me he’d heard “school” and dropped everything. Better get moving, not wait for them to decide to call in more help. Lunch could wait.

Like me, he knew it wasn’t the school when he didn’t see the smoke high in the sky.

We splashed through a mix of red earth, melting snow and fine rain, passed wooden swings and lawn chairs and picnic tables and piles of planed lumber half-covered in old tarps. The shed – the furniture-maker’s workshop – was in the far back corner. Thin smoke was hanging heavy over it, held down by the mist. Only charred beams remained inside, twisted and discolored sheet metal enclosed a hollow shell. Firemen jabbed sharp hooks into walls, tore down whatever wasn’t burned to find the hot spots inside the walls. Occasional jets of water shot through empty windows, sending drops scattering at my feet.

The owner, a thick man with big hands and wearing a faded blue shirt, stood with his arms crossed, watching. He came over to shake my hand.

The wood burner just took off while they were at lunch, he guessed. He’s a fireman himself; he heard the call while he was eating, recognized the address and rushed back to watch the flames take the shed, the tools and equipment, and the furniture parts inside.

He’s out about $15,000, he figures. Probably not covered by his insurance policy.

But he grins at me, and shrugs. Guesses he’ll just have to build it again. And unlike others I’ve watched, he seems already to have accepted it. It’s a loss, and it will put him back a bit. But he minimizes it.

Today he watches his friends and neighbors tear down what’s left of his shed. Tomorrow he’ll build another one; scrounge up the money to replace the tools he’s collected over the years.

It is what it is, his handshake says when I turn to walk back down the hill.

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