The Fire Next Time

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Woody Guthrie lost his older sister when he was not yet seven years old.  Clara should have been at school taking final exams, but her mother insisted she stay home to do the ironing.  Mid-morning, Clara burst out of the house, screaming.  Her dress had caught fire, no one knows how.  In the days before “stop, drop, and roll,” Clara ran around the house two times, fanning the flames all the while.  At last, a neighbor was able to catch her and wrap her in a blanket.  But the damage was done.  She died the next day.

This wasn’t the first time fire had brought tragedy to his family.  Before Woody was even born, the Guthrie home burned to the ground.  Mother, Nora; father, Charley; four-year-old Clara, and three-year-old Roy lost everything.

Nor would it be the last.  In 1927, when Woody was almost fifteen, Nora poured kerosene on her sleeping husband, setting him and the house on fire.  Charley survived a protracted and painful recovery, but Woody’s mother was lost forever.  She was sent to an asylum for the insane.  Rumors of her role in the earlier fires buzzed around town like flies in a summer kitchen.  She was diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea (now simply Huntington’s), a hereditary degenerative disease.  Did Woody carry the gene?  Would he be afflicted, as his mother had, later in life?  Woody faced many more pressing questions than these: Where to live?  How to get his next meal?  And he had too many ideas bouncing around in his head to write down into songs.

One would think Woody Guthrie’s fire-borne tragedies would have burned themselves out by this time, but, no, they just went on hiatus for a couple of decades.

Then, when Woody was a father for the fourth time over (but only the first as a truly engaged parent), he lost his precious daughter, Cathy.  Marjorie, his second wife, had left her unattended for a few minutes while she crossed the street and purchased an orange for her four-year-old.  By the time she returned black smoke was billowing from the windows of the apartment building.  A teenage boy rescued Cathy, but he was too late.  Her body was charred.  Woody and Marjorie lost their only child.

The bitter memories came roaring back: his mother’s disease, his sister’s death.  Was he jinxed?  In the depths of his grief he wrote in his notebook, “And the things you fear shall truly come upon you.”  Woody might have given up the ghost, but he hung on.  And the wheel of fortune spun back: he and Marjorie had three more children in quick succession.

Fire stopped haunting him, but the ravages of the Huntington’s gene were just beginning.  Woody’s behavior became erratic, then dangerous, as Nora’s had been.  For the sake of the kids, he moved out.  He went back on the road, where he was always most comfortable, anyway.  He found a new love in L.A. and a new lease on life.  He bought a strip of land north of Santa Monica, pitched a tent, and cooked his meals over an open fire.  Irony caught up with him when a fire marshal followed his smoke and told him to put out the fire–and keep it out.  It was too dangerous.  As if Woody Guthrie needed be reminded about the dangers of fire.

It turns out he did, for in Florida the next year, he made a careless–and costly–mistake.  Trying to get a campfire started, he poured gasoline over an unlit fire pit.  The still-hot coals hidden underneath erupted into flames.  They leapt up the stream of gasoline and, after he fell back, onto his hands and arms.  Blackened and blistered, they took weeks to heal, never fully.  His right arm stiffened, making it hard to play the guitar ever after.

Woody was in the middle of a long Huntington’s-induced decline.  In an act eerily reminiscent of his mother just before her institutionalization, Woody set a friend’s couch on fire (thankfully with no casualties or major damage).  Woody, who had been in and out of an unsatisfactory institution, would soon be hospitalized for good.  Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, met his needs and served as his home for the last dozen years of his life.  It kept him safe from the worst ravages of his disease and any last encounters with the scourge of fire.


Source: Partridge, ElizabethThis Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie.  New York, Viking: 2002.

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