Uncle Jerry was driving an old green coupe, I think it was a Plymouth. We were coming home from catechism at Dockton and Uncle Jerry’s car was full with his three children and us cousins. “Brace yourself,” Uncle Jerry yelled at sister Molly who was sitting in the suicide seat, the most unsafe seat in the car in case of an accident. She was told to push hard against the glove box and to lock her elbows against a collision. We must have been hitting 50 MPH. “Oh my God,” Uncle Jerry said as he put his foot in the hole and sped up. We saw smoke as we came down the straight stretch from the golf course to the KIRO towers and it looked like it was coming from Portage where fifty relatives lived in the 1950’s. We were all related and it was Uncle Jerry’s house that was on fire and our volunteer firemen wouldn’t go near it because of the exploding rifle and shotgun shells coming from the billowing tower of black smoke.
Uncle Jerry was an avid hunter and the feeling of sneaking up on prey without having been seen or waiting for prey when time didn’t count, were upon him. Jerry had an old 12- gauge shotgun that had a bolt on top and was very difficult to unload such as the day in Dockton when he blew up Mrs. Bedisolitch’s pumpkins when a round went off by mistake. Jerry was in the merchant marines during the war and came home with shell shock or what we call PTSD today. If Aunt Verna asked one of us to wake up Uncle Jerry, sleeping on the couch, we had to use a long twig to touch him on the shoulder and then jump back because Jerry would come off the couch, flailing his arms in panic.
Their house was no bigger than a double-wide trailer. Everything the family owned went up in
the fire. All that was left standing in the ashes, was the oil heater, the cause of the fire. Jerry had saved a gallon size jar of pennies which were scattered in the ashes of the house. I remember going thru the ashes with my brother, Mike and the other cousins to find the pennies and then taking them to the Portage store to buy candy from Cliff Lavender.
Oil space heaters were a common form of heat on Vashon in the 1950’s. The stove oil was usually stored in 55 gallon barrels connected to each other alongside the house. The problem with these oil burners was that the needle valve in the carburetor that controlled the oil flow could stick and cause the oil to run freely into the burner creating combustion. At least that is what we thought happened a few years later when our stove blew up at Cove, it wasn’t so much an explosion as a giant “WHUMPH” and the whole house was covered in black soot that wouldn’t be wiped off. Oil soot is much worse than wood soot.