Count The Children By The Big Tree

We tried. We really did. Every October when we were kids, my brothers and sisters and I would come home from school with coloring books, plastic fire helmets and those safety stickers you put on bedroom windows to let the fire department know where people are sleeping.

We always had to ask for extra stickers because there were 12 children sleeping under one roof in a lot of different rooms in the house.

October has always been Fire Prevention Month. Fire departments will do anything to get the attention of kids and their parents when it comes to safety around the house. I’m sure my parents groaned every time they saw one of us coming with handfuls of fire prevention materials including something they were asked to read and then sign to return to the school.

I can remember being told that every family should have a plan for a safe evacuation of the home in the event of a fire. This could be a daunting task for large families like ours because sometimes we would exchange bedrooms or roommates without telling our parents.

After firefighters would visit our school and distribute all that information to us, my brother Jon usually took the lead in promoting fire drills. It wasn’t always successful but he got an “A” for his efforts.

I think we decided that in case of a fire we would all rush out of the house and meet at the big tree in the front yard where someone was in charge of counting heads.

We even had one of those throw-out-the-window ladders on the third floor where several of us slept at one time or another. Thankfully we never had to test it out. Anyway, most of us knew how to sneak in or out of the house via the smaller tree on the side of the front porch. You just had to make sure you left a window open on the second floor to crawl in or out of when necessary.

The Wheeling Fire Department was well acquainted with my parents’ homestead. We had a few mishaps over the years – a serious car crash in front of the house, a fire in the laundry room, and the most famous event – six kids accidentally locked inside the upstairs bathroom. My sister and I were bathing the younger kids when one of them locked the bathroom door. It was an older tumbler style lock that somehow got stuck in the door jamb.

A full contingent of firemen showed up in bunker gear armed with axes, ready to free us from the large bathroom. When they finally got the door open, they shook their heads at the number of kids who filed out to freedom. It was a funny story for us and made the rounds at the Poplar Avenue firehouse for years.

Fire prevention and safety is a serious topic everyone should discuss in their own homes. As the furnace kicks on it’s time to make all those safety checks your kids have been talking about. And for heaven sakes, put the batteries back in the smoke alarms.

Heather Ziegler can be reached at