Whether it’s the realization that I’m going to have to get a job in order to pay for heat this winter, or the growing realization that Valier is entering upon a) some nasty political struggles and b) increasing stress from ag chemicals (there are no flies, bees, hornets, or even many skeeters this summer -- but growing rates of diabetes 2 and cancer), or economic news, or just too much coffee, I’ve been alternating between jumpy and sad for a week. So when the fire siren went off -- which it rarely does anymore because the firemen carry pagers -- and just kept wailing, I reacted by going out to the front yard, craning my neck to see which way the fire truck would go.
Instead an intense young man in a private car whirled up and shouted out the window, “Quick, get out of town! A gas tanker has overturned and they expect it to explode! Go to the fire pavilion by the lake!” The tanker had entered town too fast and didn’t make the double kink in front of the library where the highway bends to join main street. There’s already a white cross signifying a death there. I was in the library when a young woman rolled her Tahoe on the same spot. The EMT (the athletic coach from the school) helped her crawl out her upsidedown window and seemed to think something was wrong with her chest.
Visions of the huge crater left by the Roseburg explosion -- a truckload of fertilizer -- entered my head. In Valier? How many articles have I read about dangerous truckloads? But I’d never thought about evacuation. Cats? All I had to do was pull their carry cage out and they’d be gone for hours. If they escaped by the lake, I'd never see them again. l can’t lock the back door right now -- the frame is out of alignment. Why take my wallet when it only contained a few bucks -- might do better to take my jar of laundry quarters. A few moments of dithering and I just left. The pavilion is at the campground between the airport and the lake, with long dirt roads snaking around the airport. Soon lines of cars filled the way.
There wasn’t much of a party feel to the crowd: pets in the cars, little kids fussing, young women looking worried -- they’d just been cooking supper. Had they turned the stove off? Frail old ladies sat primly in front seats and huge teen boys shambled among cars. Some had brought things to eat. The widow of the long-time-ago well-liked sheriff and her daughter, Miss Nancy, who had a military career, were parked away from the crowd. I went over to visit with them.
Blanche was remembering the last explosion in town, also a propane accident in maybe the Fifties when oil field workers were filling their trailer tanks not far from a flaming burn barrel. Half a dozen killed. From there we went to deaths in general. Just down the street from me a grandmother had been knifed to death and her grandchild smothered to death because she tried to protect it with her body. The child’s father, who had been high on drugs for days and could remember nothing, went to the police and said he thought he might have had something to do with it. He was convicted but no one believes he was the killer. He had no blood on him.
Up the street from me a man, angry at his wife, punished her by shooting their toddler and then himself. We’ve just passed Homesteader Days and Blanche remembered how rowdy they used to be, with visiting softball teams leaving windrows of beer cans in the streets. The same with Whoop-Up Days which happened in Conrad but caused wild times when the Heart Butte celebrants returned through Valier, stopping for gas and more beer. The impulse lingered among the young denizens of a few cars who shouted, “Hey, let’s go out to the Lighthouse and get drunk!” They peeled out in a cloud of dust.
The Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department performed smoothly, pulling on day-glo red coveralls and vests. We could see them across the air field, marching from door to door, making sure all was clear. Darrell and Roberta Kipp, driving back from Great Falls, were diverted onto gravel grid roads around the town. A catastrophe in Valier? Impossible!
Small biting flies began to pester. I moved off farther from the others. It had been a cool day with a haze almost like smoke. The Rockies were obscured. Seagulls, realizing there were people with food, came circling barely high enough to clear the ridgepole of the pavilion building, yelping and twisting their heads to see what was in our hands. A cock pheasant on the airfield ratcheted his cry and the meadowlarks resumed their cascades of song. Horses in an adjoining field whipped their own sides with their tails. The lake is as full as it’s been for a decade. Volunteer cottonwoods that had grown out onto the mud flats are submerged except for their very tips and the bones of the old trees killed by drought are now bushy with skirts of new growth. Back awhile someone suggested cutting the dead wood, but a man said carelessly, “Oh, they’ll fall over eventually. Or the campers will pull them down for their fires.” It was left at that.
In a while I could faintly hear the propane truck -- half a mile away -- bouncing and jolting back onto its wheels. It’s a distinctive sound. Then traffic began on the highway. I snuck back towards town and before I was halfway there, the siren sounded again to signal all clear. Somehow my neighbors were home before I was. The house was fine, undisturbed, the cats wanting to know where their cat food was. While waiting I had produced a list of things I should take along for the next evacuation: flashlight, battery radio (I don’t have a radio in my pickiup), bedding, coat, water bottle, wristwatch, book, and -- oh, yes -- wallet because of the ID.
It’s a bit of an irony that my task today is to apply for a half-time job in Shelby as an emergency planning assistant. Now there’s a town BOUND to have emergencies: a transportation hub, an oil field town, a contract prison, a major port of entry. But Valier? Nothing ever happens in Valier.