I’ve never been one for superstitions, except when it came to the 5th of July. Two months shy of my eighth birthday, a bank called Penn Square would forever etch its name in the pages of my family’s history. Our lives would never be the same. Maybe you’re not familiar with Penn Square. Feel free to Google it. If you’re from Oklahoma and above a certain age, maybe your family was changed forever, too. We spent our summers on a lake in Northeastern Oklahoma. That July 5th morning, we awoke in a post firework haze, loaded onto the boat to go swim, ski, and play. I’ve never asked my Dad if he knew what was coming. In my memory, a man in a boat pulled up next to us and shared the news. Penn Square Bank had collapsed. The sky was, by all accounts, actually falling. I’ll spare more details for now, except for this. Sometimes the worst happens. And sometimes you’re given the chance to rise from the ashes of what you thought was the most important thing, and find a life that is rich in treasures more beautiful than money can buy. The 5th of July, 1982.
Each Fourth of July weekend at the lake was full of friends, fun, fireworks, and festivities. I was about to turn twelve that year. My brother and I were allowed to each bring two friends to stay at our lake house for the holiday weekend. I brought Holly and Jennifer. My parents invited friends with a young son who also had a friend in tow. For the first time, the big kids were allowed to sleep on the boat down at the dock. We were kind of a big deal. The night of the enormous fireworks display at Duck Creek, my parents had a party beforehand. I don’t remember much about the party, just the usual suspects, family friends and their kids. I was all about my Guess jeans and fancy Walkman CD player, and hoping that Holly and Jennifer would like me. After the party, we all loaded onto a boat to head across the lake and watch the fireworks. Before leaving the house, Mom did a cursory cleaning, throwing trash away, emptying ashtrays, and setting it under the carport to deal with later. The fireworks displays at Duck Creek were (still are) over the top, and among my favorite childhood memories. After arriving home for the night, we sun-kissed kids lit our own fireworks in the yard. I remember the adults sitting near, talking and laughing. The night sky was full of stars, colors, smoke and promise.
While the rest of us were settled in our beds, my mom couldn’t sleep. She sat up in bed reading a People magazine, which she once considered a valid news source for all things. The A-frame house was perched atop a hill overlooking the water, its floor to ceiling windows designed to take advantage of the views. Out of the corner of her eye, Mom glimpsed a swath of orange glow reflecting in the master bedroom window. The house was ablaze, and everyone else was asleep. I doubt I’ll ever forget the events of that night. By some miracle, everyone escaped alive, even the little boys whose room was engulfed in fire. My mom made us stay on the dock for safety, and I sat with my friends crying on the bow of the boat. The flames shot high into the sky as the structure crumbled beneath them. The house was incredibly remote, the roads to reach it were not simple to navigate. There was no GPS. The all-volunteer fire department tried and tried and tried unsuccessfully to find the house- they could see the flames on top of the hill in the sky but kept taking wrong turns. We could hear them yelling trying to get to us, but by the time they made it, the house was gone. At some point, the big kids defied authority and we ascended the hill from the dock to the house. My mom’s dog, Daisy, was sitting on top of the Suburban. She was in shock. My Dad, realizing help was not on its way, kept running back into the house. Among other things, he retrieved a vintage Martin, and his vast collection of vinyl records. I remember hearing my mom yell at him every time he ran back in.
Eventually, around 3:30 am, a family friend arrived by boat to take all the children to their lake house for refuge. We piled in and upon arriving huddled on floors and couches and bunk beds. Sleep was fleeting. My parents never came. The next morning, we went back to the scene of the fire. One wall of the kitchen was still standing, cabinets in tact. If you opened the cabinet doors, the Heller dishes sat unscathed. As if nothing ever happened. My grandma had come. There was a package of Oreos we mistakenly sampled. I think even foodies would agree that smoked Oreos are disgusting. Some speculated that the cause of the fire was the fireworks we set off in the yard. But in the end, the real culprit was the party trash under the carport. A cigarette was still smoldering in the bag, and over those hours, created a formidable blaze. For years after, you could see from the water that the trees all around where the house on the hill once stood were burnt and brown. The 5th of July, 1986.
My Papa came back from the dead once. I was in high school, my junior year. (If I recall correctly), after an extended hospital stay due to complications from pneumonia he stopped breathing. His machines flat-lined. I was home sick from school that day, and my mom had gone to Norman to be with Papa. I called to ask her a question and she said, “He’s gone. Papa died.” I lost it, and told her I was coming down there. She didn’t fight me. On the way down I stopped by school to see my best friend Lauren and tell her my grandfather had died. I got her out of AP History, she held me while I cried. When I arrived, my Grandma was walking down the hospital hall carrying a toothbrush. She said, “Well, he’s alive again. He died, but he came back. I thought I killed him with my morning breath because I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I won’t let that happen again.” After over an hour of not breathing, and no sign of a pulse, the doctor came in to sign the death certificate. Out of nowhere, Papa commenced to breathe, and his heart started beating again.
I’ve never really understood this story. Because, whoa. But I can say there were some very shocked medical personnel at Norman Regional Hospital that day. In the months that followed, Papa rallied, but then began his final decline. We were at the lake over 4th of July weekend, when my mom received a call from her sister Pat that she needed to come back right away. Papa was not doing well. I had a lot of friends with me that trip. I remember sitting in the large, open living room and crying with my friends, talking about mortality and God and family. I thought about my mom racing home to be by her dad’s side. My girlfriends decided we should go out and be social to help get my mind off Papa. We primped up and headed to Spats, a local bar at the lake. You could safely say I was not the rebellious type, and this outing was way out of my comfort zone. I think the girls lured me there by saying we would just hang outside in the parking lot. Upon arrival however, they handed me my first fake ID. Sure, I could pass for my mid-twenties. Somehow, I actually did. My dad told me to call and check in around 11 o’clock. I found my way to a phone booth in the back corner of the smoke-filled bar, and dialed the lake house number. When he answered I could hear a catch in his voice. Oh God, here it comes, I thought. He delivered the news, Papa was gone. This time he wasn’t coming back. I collapsed in tears, the stench of stale cigarettes and cheap beer permeating my senses. The music blared in the background, some terrible hit like “Unbelievable” drowning out my cries.
I could tell you all sorts of details about who Papa was: A WWII veteran hero, an engineer, a distinguished professor, a cigar smoking poker player, a paraplegic, and innovator. He had a wry smile and a wicked sense of humor. When at the age of 50, he was suddenly paralyzed during an operation, he faced his future with strength, courage and determination. He made a way where there wasn’t one before. I never once heard him complain. I could tell you how portions of the city of Norman and the OU campus are handicap accessible because of what a valued member of the community he was. I could tell all sorts of truths, but the most important was how he loved us. There are not many relationships in life where you can say without hesitation, I never once questioned his love for me. He was my hero. A part of my heart died that day. The 5th of July, 1991.
This post was originally published on July 5th, 2016.