Thursday, February 23, 2017

Notes from Our 3-day Trip to DC

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wanted to be fresh for the day, so instead of waking at 4 AM to run for 2.5 hours, I instead start my run at 11:15 PM, run for 2.5 hours, hit the sack at 2 AM, and wake at 6. Yes, that’s refreshing. Such is the life of a runner. I spend the time listening to Mitch Hedberg. Relevant to this discussion, as you’ll soon see.

We’re all out of the house at 9:09 AM. Fantastic timing.

Fog joins us along the way. Visibility zero.

So foggy, that I notice flocks of birds are flying much lower, staying beneath the clouds as they migrate. These are the things I notice. I know I’ve got your attention so far.

The buses we pass are all headed our way. Silver Spring and DC await!

The kids choose Ghost Dad from the 20+ CDs we freshly bought, and brought with us for the trip. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

I like taking pictures of state “welcome” signs. Beneath the Delaware sign, a cop has pulled over a speeder. Helluva way to be welcomed to a state.

We pull into a 7-11 at the midpoint and switch driving duties. I got the wheel.

The kids are now watching Cop and a Half. Hey, 80s movies is what we’re familiar with.

We pass Blue Ball Road. We’re not even *in* Pennsylvania, state of a million innuendoes.

The Eagle lands in Washington and we get a nice preview of The Mall – post-inauguration and women’s-protest – en route to lunch. We’re famished.

We pass the Washington Monument – I point out the change in color one-third of the way up – and the Watergate Hotel. We try to explain to our kids what exactly “scandal” means.

I notice immediately that traffic patterns are weird here. Hmmm.

Char bar is where we land, one of few kosher options in DC proper. Food is very, very good. Kids enjoy.

We cross the Potomac and head for Arlington National Cemetery. We’re basically following President Trump’s inauguration-weekend footsteps. A hard rain falls.

We observe the changing of the guard. Arresting and deathly serious. My wife opines that it’s emotionally cold.

We pay our respects to JFK. We didn’t know Jackie lost a child months before losing her husband. Gosh.

We drive past The Pentagon, the world’s largest office building. Did you know that because of its shape, no single point is more than seven minutes’ walk from any other point? That’s crazy.

Usually we spend a day or two in a vacation spot before witnessing road rage, but as we exit VA back into DC, we see our first traffic-induced middle finger. Feels like home.

We circle back around The Mall and slingshot all the way back up to Baltimore to have dinner with an old friend of my wife’s. Food and company is excellent.

We head back to DC. I have some monument-gazing in mind. Kids revolt, demand to get back to hotel, as they’re exhausted. Having filed a successful petition and protest, apropos to where we are, my wife and I comply. We arrive at the hotel in MD and collapse.

Now, to quote Mitch Hedberg: “I can't tell you what hotel I'm stayin' in, but there are two trees involved. They said "Let's call this hotel 'Something Tree'". So they had a meeting, it was... It was quite short. "How 'bout 'Tree'?" "No." "'Double Tree'?" "Hell, yeah! Meeting adjourned!" "I had my heart set on 'Quadruple Tree'" "Well, we were almost there!”

You’ll see the relevance shortly.

Monday, January 23, 2017

It’s cold and rainy in the deep, dark night, so I choose paradise by the treadmill light.

In other words, duh, because it’s sloppy outside, I do a 5k in the 24/7 hotel gym to start my day.

We’re out and about pretty quickly, and head to Goldberg’s New York Bagels for a filling breakfast.

Dude behind the counter is wearing the same Alf shirt my wife bought me ( I give him the appropriate compliment.

Food’s good. On to DC!

Kids watch Sgt. Bilko en route.

We try to get a peek at The White House as we head towards The Mall. That’s not so easy. The Treasury and Eisenhower building flank it to the east and west, a park with obscuring trees, statues, scaffolding, and cranes protect it from the north, and clearly, they drive pedestrians batty when attempting access from the south. Directional signs are also confusing. Hmmmmmm.

We’ve taken the car, as you can tell, as opposed to the train. Lots went into the calculus, but we made the right decision, especially because of the cold rain.

We use a two-hour parking option, and alight from there to visit the National Air and Space Museum.

Upon entering, and unzipping from the layers against the cold, I immediately get a compliment for my t-shirt, also a gift from my wife ( I guess it’s give a compliment, get a compliment.

My wife bumps into another old friend, two of ‘em actually (how come I never get to?)! They used the train and are soaked to the bone, validating our decision. Yay!

The place is Valhalla to me, but we can never predict what would interest or disinterest our children. It’s always a crapshoot, and we do our best guesswork. Well, this is what The Mall is for. Everything is free, and if the kids don’t like something, off we go (Philly, we hear, is like that too. We’re making plans).

The biggest mind-blower is the Wright Flyer. Why? Because this ain’t no copy, this thing is no facsimile, it isn’t a mock-up, it is the real deal, and it’s magic. My daughter wrote a book report on it for school and was proud to pose in front of it. The boys? Moving right along.

A rock from the moon does fascinate everyone, but everyone’s raring to go.

So be it, back into the rain. Feed the meter, and we trudge across to the National Gallery of Art, where  - to my wife’s and my utter surprise – we spend more time here than we do than at any other place we’ll visit during our stay.

Why? Simple: they have these audio guides you hang around your neck. They have kiddy versions and adult versions. Punch in the number of the painting and a narrator gives you background information, and details of the artistic elements. Wonderful! The kids soak it up!

Our favorites:

·         Daughter: almost anything by Giovanni Paolo Panini, but most especially “Interior of the Pantheon”:
·         Big boy: “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley:
·         Me:  “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries” (because of the propaganda of all the little details:, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” (just look at the tension in his every muscle):, “The Fall of Man” (NSFW –gosh so many beautiful details):, and “The Veiled Nun” (because look at it and tell me how you can sculpt marble to appear translucent):

Time’s up! Back into the rain. Feed the meter, and we trudge across to the National Museum of American History.

The day is waning, so we don’t get to see the whole place, but we are greeted at the entrance by a ye olde Yiddish ad selling mohel knives ( Now that’s interesting.

The girls are enamored with the First Lady dresses, the boys by recorded JFK speeches, and me by the Presidential Death section of the museum. They have the hat Lincoln wore when he was murdered. It mesmerizes me that it has been preserved.

I ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Back out in the rain and off to the car, where we witness the car in front of us get towed from its spot for overstaying its metered time, presumably. Whoa, they mean business here!

I do a calculation of how far we walked today on the grounds between the three museums: 4.5-5 miles. Yikes.

We head back to Maryland for dinner.

Kids watch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on the way.

We land at Max’s and have a very good, very hardy meal.

Burp; off to our hotel, where we chill for a bit, then it’s time for the pool!

Not so fast, though.

We arrive at the pool, and the lifeguard on duty has an interesting story for us. See, a little girl was here and vomited into the pool. The lifeguard removed the stuff, poured in the chemicals, which need three hours to do their thing before the pool can be considered safe. How long ago was that? One hour. When does the pool close? Two hours. Easy math means we’re out of luck tonight.


This place of two trees is partnered with the place across the street. I can’t tell you what it’s called, but there’s a house and lumber involved. We can just tell them what happened, and they’ll let us use their pool. Okay, cool. Can we take some towels with us so we don’t freeze to death outside? Yes. Well isn’t that nice.

It’s 40 degrees and we’re in our swimmies and meager towels, and if we attempt to go to the corner to cross at the light, we’ll become human icicles, so we make an exception to our traffic-light rule and scurry across mid-street together, and survive.

Upon landing at the hotel across the street, a woman asks me, “Did you just come from an outdoor pool???” I say, “Ma’am, it’s a long story.”

We also survive the trip back across the street, in our wetter conditions.

Well, that was certainly a chavaya!

Showers, and I watch this new show “Hunted” with my big boy (interesting, but it’s rigged for the hunters), and we conk out. Lots of calories burned today.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Still raining, and still cold, so I start my day the same way: with another 5k in the gym.

However, milk’s gotta be gotten because we wanna eat quickly, head immediately for DC, and have a fun, busy day.

I run to a local CVS, which is open 24/7, but is closed, which is interesting. Right across is a Whole Foods, which opens at 7:00 AM. It’s 7:01. Perfect.

We have breakfast in our room. I make me a good, strong coffee, and we’re on our way.

As we roll on into DC, we encounter four posts in the road, in a diamond pattern, with connecting lines drawn on the pavement. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to figure out what to do with the blasted thing when we encounter it. I’m telling you, this district is designed by either willful conspirators, or blithering idiots, or both, directed by either or both. Perhaps vehicular frustration is some sort of terrorist-aversion maneuver. Who knows. The city layout is confusing.

We find some more good two-hour parking and venture off to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to experience the fastest tour on Earth. The orientation film is longer than what the tour guide walks us through. It’s like the place really wants to show off what they do, but they don’t really want to give us too close a look. The place is cool, but a tease. They don’t let you handle the paper, or watch a design crew at work. This place can be organized better, and be a true experience, but I get it. Security concerns. Shoyn.

Interestingly, though, we spend better quality educational time in the gift shop, which houses neat toys and lots of fascinating information.

We then walk past the Washington Monument (closed for repairs until 2019) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (I don’t like the exterior. Rusty like the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Rust is not attractive. Rust reminds me of rusting things), and walk towards The White House, and aim for the top of The Ellipse, which is the best public view.

Not so fast.

A Secret Service guy tells us the area is inaccessible for the next 20 minutes.

We do the only thing we can do: ask him if he can take a picture with the kids. He obliges. Neat!

(At this time, we later learn, someone had put up a sign that said “Resist” on a crane behind The White House, and Secret Service was likely dealing with this at the very moment we arrived)

We then have a quick snack, and walk through a severely squishy Ellipse field to get the second-best view of the White House possible, as we don’t have 20 minutes. Gotta get back to the car.

The pedestrian countdown lights in this city are not uniform. Some are 20 seconds, some 30, some 50, and many other variables. I suppose not knowing when pedestrians cross somehow confuses terrorist activities. Can’t ram that building if you can’t figure out when pedestrians will clear the way for you. Something like that, maybe? Who knows. Getting around this place is frustrating.

We get back to the car before the city has a chance to tow us, and we have some homemade sammitches for lunch.

Off to visit the two men I admire most: MLK, Jr., and Lincoln.

My wife parks ingeniously between a forklift and a smart car. Impressive work.

Now I always say that to truly experience something, you need to see it in person, and set your own eyes upon it.

Prior to arriving here, I didn’t quite get the MLK memorial. Carved out of stone? Half a sculpture? What’s he holding? Why’s he facing that way?

But then, immediately upon setting my eyes on everything at once, the entire grounds, that I understand how gorgeous, and relevant, and beautiful it is.

The thought behind everything, as fashioned, is to represent a salient sentence from his “I Have a Dream” speech. I suddenly realize what the note is that he’s holding, and why he’s facing exactly the direction he gazes upon. Now I understand. The execution is breathtaking (though slightly flawed: the likeness is far from perfect, and other quibbles). I won’t tell you what the sentence is, and how the sculpture represents it. You have to see it for yourself.

Fully inspired, we head back onto the mall, past the DC War Memorial (overly simplistic), the Korean War Veterans Memorial (My children don’t know about this, nor do I think this it’s generally taught in school. It truly is the Forgotten War.), the Reflecting Pool (I tell my daughter to remember this spot, for when she’ll see Forrest Gump), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (I think this is almost too powerful for young children. There are people always present who are in lots of pain - as has been my experience), and finally reach the grand and awesome Lincoln Memorial (At the foot of the memorial is no marker to declare from where MLK made his famous speech. I think this is an oversight).

I take the time to admire the statue, read the speeches again, and truly take in the place. I encourage my kids to read the speeches too – at a bare minimum the last paragraph of the 2nd inaugural speech; a thing of beauty.

While there, my daughter’s Fitbit hits 10,000 steps for the day. She’s delighted, and shows me the little fireworks.

We depart, and bump into another wave of runners, who are all over this city in droves. I love it. It strikes me that this mall from end to end – that is, from the Potomac to the Capitol - is 3 miles wide, with green spaces north and south and over the bridge into Virginia, and all different kinds of distance permutations can be drawn up and enjoyed. Perhaps I’ll take partake one day.

We alight unto the National Building Museum, which is a place completely opposite what we thought it would be.

Thought: a building featuring architectural exhibits and accomplishments within, which sometimes stages grand events, like inaugural balls.

Is: farkert, as they say in Yiddish. It’s an event space, into which was retrofitted a museum.

The architecture: wow. The contents: meh.

We head off from there to the National Portrait Gallery, which we have high hopes for, but the kids are not enticed, and are quite antsy, and they don’t have the good audio thingies. We at least try to get a glimpse at the presidents’ portraits (Obama isn’t in yet! Much less Trump).

The real stunner is The Four Justices ( My daughter, who also wrote a book report on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, poses for a pic in the empty spot on the couch. You never know!

Time for dinner.

All the traffic peculiarities I’ve been warning about? They come to a head. As we slingshot around The Mall and towards MD for dinner, chaos ensues. Two lane highways suddenly become one; exits are suddenly closed; there is no signage explaining any of this, and cars are whipping all around us. If not for my wife’s astute handling of the wheel, we could have gotten in big trouble, but survive.

We pass the Watergate hotel again (Oh look! There’s Forrest Gump’s room!), and we explain to our daughter why everything ends in “-gate” these days.

And now for a little surprise for the kids.

They know we’re headed back to MD for dinner, but we don’t get very far before we pull over. Their Spidey Senses tingle, and they don’t stop asking what’s going on, until we arrive at:

Krispy Kreme.

We deserve it, what with our calorie-burning by walking all over the place (six miles for the day). We dig in and enjoy, and the kids are satisfied.

They watch Honey, I Blew Up the Kids on the ride.

Man this “I Can Make Your Hands Clap Song” is pretty catchy.

Besides for runners and awful traffic layouts, this city is filled with creative license plates. We spot STPTXTN. Heh.

We arrive at Siena’s for dinner, and eat hardily. Food is very good. My wife meets another old friend.

We chill back at the hotel and head to the pool again. Always an adventure.

A cockroach welcomes us upon entry. My wife points it out to the lifeguard.

He says, “Kill it.”

Stay classy, place that involves two trees.

Another roach is waiting for us in the pool.

Lovely. We have our fun anyway.

Back in our hotel room, I watch “Chopped” with my daughter, and we all crash.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The weather has warmed up a bit, so I finally venture out for my 5k. I meet all the nice homeless people and run over the MD/DC border and back (I make sure to take a picture under the sign. Neat).

CVS rejects my bathroom requests, Giant accepts. That’s where I’ll buy my milk, thank you very much.

We bid our hotel farewell. Before we exit, my wife heads to the front desk to complain about our roach companions. They comp our parking. I suppose that settles the roach problem the hotel has.

I’m telling you, the city planners are functionally insane.

Back in DC, we pass through the embassy area. I show off my flag recognition skills to the kids. Yay me.

We arrive at Ford’s Theater.

Now remember when I said that to truly experience something, you need to be there, to feel it with your own eyes?

This place is like that, on a whole ‘nother level.

The museum is on the small side, but filled with excellent information on Lincoln’s presidency, and everything that led up to the fateful day.

They have the actual weapon used, they have a pillow with the president’s bloodstains still visible upon it, they have details of the much larger conspiracy (of which I was ignorant), and they have something truly arresting: two timelines, side by side, of April 14, 1865; One of Abraham Lincoln’s day, and one of John Wilkes Booth’s day.

Then it gets real.

Ford’s still stages productions throughout the year, and the president’s balcony is preserved as it was, with most furnishings intact. That’s where the president got shot. Here is the stage onto which Booth jumped and broke his ankle. This is the place that history took a massive turn.

You’re also allowed access to the balcony. Your viewing point is right where Booth stood as he fired his shot. The president sat. Right. There. The experience is eerie. Do you smile with the scene in the background? Difficult to figure out the mood (which is slightly uplifted by a site employee asking me about my Everett Aquasox cap [I like the froggy] – man they’re friendly and inquisitive here!).

We’re then led across the street to Peterson House, where Lincoln died nine hours after his fatal wounding. The first room is where the First Lady sat, receiving updates of her husband’s condition. The second room is where Secretary Stanton directed the investigation. The third room is where Lincoln died. I gathered all this in, and, staring at the bed, I dare say, I became emotional, and after my family moved on to the next room, I remained for an extra beat, feeling the history as best as I could.

The rest of the museum walks you through the aftermath of the event: how the news was reported (some in big type, some in teeny-tiny), the arrangements of the many funerals (the first of which was on my birthday – that gave me a start), and the manhunt that ensued before Booth’s pathetic death.

Quite the immersive experience.

Stuffed with more knowledge of history, we head to the eastern part of The Mall.

First stop: The Supreme Court, swarming with more exterior cops than any other building we’ve seen so far.

Our arrival is perfectly timed with the next tour available of The Court Chamber. In we go!

For the half-hour talk, our kids are perfectly behaved, taking it all in – because truly, what happens here is fascinating, and important (duh!).

During the Q&A session, my wife asks why cameras are still not allowed in this setting, and why, in today’s day and age, sketches are necessary to convey the proceedings.

The answer is because the justices consider it invasive and distracting.

Mmhm, so why can’t we take pictures now?

Impressed – and impressed upon - by the experience, I tell my wife I just put it on my bucket list to attend a session here, because it would blow my mind. She advised in turn that she just did the same! We’ll be back!

We have sammitches again for lunch, as we ambulate towards The Capitol.

We take a looooooooong walk around the entire building (I notice runners circumventing too. The grounds are that big), snap some pictures of the Inauguration Aftermath (So nationally traumatic, I’m putting it in caps), take our official vacay selfie with the little flags my wife packed, and attempt to land ourselves a tour of The Capitol before leaving.

Not so fast, we need to contact our Senator or something. Okay fine, next time, so we go through security just so we can use the Capitol Bathrooms before leaving (I’m perfectly happy using any of the thousands of porta-potties, but my family is not quite used to the idea), and we head back towards the car, parked in a lot this time.

As we take our leave, I take a quick poll on everyone’s favorite part of the trip:

Wife: Supreme Court.
Daughter: The 1st art museum.
Big boy: Anything to do with MLK/Lincoln.
Little boy: The 1st art museum.
Me: Anything to do with MLK/Lincoln.

Some trends here.

We grab some pizza bagels from Goldberg’s New York Bagels before we go. My wife takes a business call, and with the kids stuffing their faces and watching King Ralph (This is a kids movie? The language!), there’s some peace and quiet. I take the wheel.

In Delaware, we make a rest area pit-stop, and surprise the kids with some Carvel. Wife at the wheel now.

State sweet state.

Home sweet home.

Upon arriving at my front steps, I find a package waiting for me. Nestled within is my medal for the - how fitting! - Virtual MLK, Jr. 5k, which is the first race victory of my career in my 21st year of running.

And that story needs an entirely different writeup to tell.

I write books. These: If I continue vacationing and reporting, I may just have to publish a travel book.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Siyum Speech on Maseches Bava Metziah, Commemorating My Grandfather’s, Z’TL, 3rd Yahrzeit

The following introduction of my siyum on Maseches Bava Metziah was delivered in Tifereth Israel of Passaic during Shalosh Seudos, Parshas Beshalach on 2/11/17 (Items in parentheses are ad-libbed material):

Good Shabbos everyone! Thank you for always inviting me to partake in these wonderful Siyumim, and for asking me to speak and be mesayem today.

It’s always wonderful to reconnect with friends, and to check in with Howie on where we’re each holding with our reading ambitions (We took care of that business immediately, and now we can carry on with the core reason for my visit).

We have completed Maseches Bava Metziah, and I have dedicated the learning to my maternal grandfather on the occasion of his third yahrzeit (I have spoken of him highly here, and often. So for those of you who are unfamiliar, I’m pleased to give you a basic introduction).

It happens to be, at the moment, that I am penning his memoirs, which were borne out of several Thursday night interviews I had with him 14 years ago.

The time finally came to transcribe them and put them all together.

My grandfather led an astonishing Forrest-Gumpian kind of life, especially during the war. He was all over the place, running and hiding, and being captured, and enslaved, and escaping, and taking up arms against the Germans, and hiking back home for thousands of miles (from Deep Russia, back to his home in Marmarosh, Romania – an on-foot journey of at least 1,700 miles).

The story is amazing, and I hope you’ll benefit from it when I publish the book.

One of the things that has struck me while putting the book together and taking a broad view of his life, is that it seems that it was one of Tikkun Olam.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that Gd has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”

Now, besides, Josh, for being a great lesson for a shul President for whom exactly to listen to when they complain to you, it is also – it seems to me - the living, breathing lesson that my grandfather imparted to his family for generations.

He took the various injustices and broken things of his world that he experienced and witnessed, and he set about to repair them. Four distinct examples stand out from his life (I have a page in the book detailing the examples I have. It is 17 bullet-points long, but time is brief today, so I’ll keep it to these four):

  1. When he returned home from war, he found his house in ruins, and he found his father’s Shas had been used as toilet paper by the enemy. He cried, and he despaired. Oy, did he (On the video my mother recorded of the interviews, my grandfather comes to near tears when he describes how terrible it was to see his father’s favorite sefer ripped to shreds: “Oy, my father’s Noam Elimelech! The Noam Elimelech my father loved!” It’s an extremely emotional part of the tape), but he also began a life of learning that included finishing Shas 14 times. How else can you be mesaken something as devastating as seeing your father’s Shas in ruins?
  2. There were children who survived the war, very few, and instead of letting them languish, my father, and his brother – Rav Eliezer Malik – took it upon themselves to be the teachers of the children in the neighborhood while the survivors rebuilt their lives (These Malik brothers then handed these children over to formal institutions once they were formed).
  3. When my grandfather was enslaved by the Russian army, rations were meager, and at one point, the entire group had to resort to cannibalism to survive. My grandfather refused, and would rather die than succumb. The chef was initially angry with my grandfather for refusing, but eventually had rachmanos on my grandfather, who was dying of malnutrition, and gave him an extra portion of daily bread to sustain him. Guess what my grandfather did for a living when he came to the states? He was a chef for 40 years before retiring, specifically for children in yeshivas and camps. It really isn’t that hard to draw a straight line here.
  4. One of the jobs my grandfather had while serving the Hungarian army - Jews were not allowed to be soldiers - was to dig foxholes for the Germans on the front lines against the allies, under pain of death (My grandfather’s friends were shot either by the Germans when they refused to dig, or by American or Soviet bullets when they fired upon the enemy). My grandfather escaped in the night from this travail, when his war wanderings began. As if God himself acknowledged this way of suffering and that He approved of my grandfather’s way of life, it happened many years later that my uncles, living in Israel at the time, and in Yeshiva, were summoned by the army for a day of work. What job were they given? Foxhole diggers for the Israeli Army. Uh, if that’s not a Tikkun Olam, I don’t know what is.

So I feel a responsibility to continue the legacy of my grandfather, to continue repairing the holes in the universe. However, I’m not a rebbe, and I’m not a blue-collar worker, and I’m not a chef. But you know what I am? I’m a poshiter yid, and I learn daf yomi every day, and I have my grandfather in mind every time I open a gemorah, and I love and honor him always, and on the occasion of his yahrzeit, it is a distinct pleasure to be able to be mesayim with a minyan, with friends.

The world is a broken place right now, but the gadol hador, Leonard Cohen, said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets In.” I give everyone here a blessing that we, and everyone around us should be the kind of people who notice broken things, and set about fixing them. We can repair the universe this way, and we can spread a little light.

Let us now complete Maseches Bava Metziah in honor and in memory of R. Benzion Ben R. Aharon, Z’TL…

(The picture attached depicts the moment I finished Shas with Zaidy, on July 12, 2012. It was my first completion, which I considered his 15th, due to how he inspired me down this path.)

Monday, February 06, 2017

How Running on My Treadmill Because it Was Cold 
Likely Saved My Family and House From Devastation
Martin Bodek

Before I tell you our story, let me first assure you that all of us, and everything in my and my wife’s possession, were entirely unharmed, and that the result was, upon reflection, the best case scenario considering the unsettling alternatives.

With deep gratitude for the safety and security of everyone, and everything dear to us, in our home, this is what happened:

A few factors to consider which each contributed, in their own way, to how this story unfolded.
1. We’re having some work done in our basement.
  a.       Out of an overabundance of caution, I wear a facemask for long runs.
2. Sunday mornings are my long runs.
3. It was cold outside.
  a.       I wasn’t in the mood to layer up.
  b.      So I elected to run on the treadmill.
4.  The kids were not home.
5. I switch out all my smoke detector and CO detector batteries every six months.

Now then:

It’s 7:40 AM. I’m two hours into my run, with about an hour to go (I’ve got the Virtual Jerusalem in six weeks), and after audiobooking Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, on our iPad, out of curiosity, I then find a History Channel documentary on how the principles have applied through America’s wars, and how they apply to sports and politics.

I’m up to a part where the narrator is describing why the U.S. was not successful in Vietnam (They knew not their enemy, and played “Chess” instead of “Go”). They dramatize a scene where G.I.s are firing upon the Viet Cong in the jungle. Firepower lights up the screen.

Then my reality shifts.

The next five paragraphs take place within two seconds of time:

I process that there is more fire in my field of vision than there is supposed to be. I have fire inside my little screen, but my brain is registering more outside the margins of what I’m staring at. I become confused, so I look up to see what was going on.

In that instant, a column of fire erupts seven feet in front of me. Our boiler is spitting a giant flame that instantly reached the ceiling.

In the same instant, the smoke detector goes crazy.

Just as fast, the fire is sucked down and appears to vanish out of my line of sight over my treadmill dashboard.

Incredibly, despite the suddenness and shock from what is happening, I manage to not seize up and fly off my treadmill. I quickly hit the stop button, jump off, and find the front of our boiler in flames, but contained within the front panel.

I then run up the basement steps, yelling for my wife to wake up while trying to describe what was going on as I’m making my flight. She immediately yells to flick the emergency boiler shut-off switch if it's safe to do so. I do that. The flames stop. The smoke detector turns off. My wife immediately gets on the phone with PSE&G and 911. I ventilate the basement.

Two minutes after our calls: PD shows up. I show officer Lobos what happened. Everything seems under control. He advises to sit tight for FD.

Four minutes after our calls: two FD trucks show up. I show firefighters Alberti, Ayala, Masnaj, Gonzalez, and the rest of the crew what happened. Everything seems to be under control. They advise to sit tight for PSE&G.

My wife and I spend the intervening waiting time trying to help each other settle our jangled nerves, and mulling what the cause could have been, and how the scenario might have unfolded differently. 

We succeed in settling ourselves, and also conclude that it is better to acknowledge our best case scenario outcome rather than pondering how things could have been different, but we haven’t a clue what happened yet.

Forty-five minutes after our calls: PSE&G shows up. I show Sam what happened. Everything seems to be in order. Our boiler is new. The burners look fine. The chimney is drafting properly. The switches are in order. Our home contractors have not been using gas-powered devices of any sort. Everything seems ship-shape, but he’ll order new burners and arrange install.

A mystery.

My wife and I have a nice breakfast together, and over the course of our day, try to figure out what happened and why.

As if a messenger sent him to remind us about our good fortune, the gabbai of my shul shows up at our house to return some borrowed items. I put in my gomel-bentching request with him.

Later in the day, we buy a gas leak detection kit. We test independently – and also test for false positives – and it comes up clean. Good, but the mystery bothers us.

After pondering, googling, discussing our head off on the issue, the best we can determine is likely one of a few general possibilities involving the science of combustion.

No stone unturned, we make plans to address each possibility to ensure our safety.

Over dinner, we explain to our kids what happened, and we’ll be conducting home fire drills so that we’re maximally prepared for a catastrophic event.

In the final analysis, I return to the beginning: everything and everyone is okay, but it is worth stressing the lessons so others can benefit and be safe as well.
  • 1.       Don’t panic – I don’t really know what kept me from breaking my neck by sailing off the treadmill. When we returned to the basement after everything was presumed safe, I noticed the treadmill key dangling, and my facemask on the tread. I don’t recall disengaging, or taking the mask off. It happened instinctively because I didn’t freak out. I knew what I had to do – see what was going on, and warn my wife – and my muscles did the rest. My wife, in turn, grasped what was happening despite my alarming tone, and calmly instructed me to do the right thing, and do it safely. Had she not given me the instruction that she did, we may have had a house-fire ranging for four minutes, at the very least. We were both under control.
  • 2.       Make sure your smoke/CO detectors are working – need I stress this any harder? Had I not been home, the situation would have unfolded very differently, but my wife would have, presumably, received ample warning to get out of the house. I stick to the battery switch-outs like clockwork.
  • 3.       Don’t trouble yourself with What If? scenarios – we self-learned quickly that this is a form of self-torture. What happened is what happened, not what could have happened.
  • 4.       Have an escape plan – we have ladders in most of the upstairs rooms - shortly they’ll be in all - and general information for the kids on what to do in case of fire, but we’re not going to waste any more time. We’ll give specific instructions to the children, have a thought-out plan, and we’re going to practice it.

Life’s little ironies and messages unfolded in another interesting way: my wife and I went shopping mid-day, and found ourselves in a Judaica store, where an interesting book caught my attention: A Yiddishe Kop: Visual Brainteasers for the Keen Eye and Sharp Mind. We purchased it on the spot. It’s exactly what you think it is. A scene is depicted with cute drawings and questions are asked. The answers are derived from clues in the picture. My kids love it. One of the pictures had a scene in a shul on a weekday morning, and one of the questions was: “Which of the people in the picture have to bentch Gomel?” It was from there, perfectly, that the discussion of fire safety ensued.

Have a wonderful day and keep your family safe with good forethought and appropriate preparedness.