Larry Penkava Column: Flaming tacos and chilled appetites

Published 9:18 am Thursday, November 29, 2018

I have the utmost respect for firefighters.

They’re the ones who push forward into buildings that are on fire while everybody else is rushing to get out. And you have to admire all the responders fighting those never-ending California wildfires.

Larry Penkava

Those guys and gals deserve our esteem and respect for all they do, putting their lives on the line for us. They’re prepared for anything when they go out on a call.

I know that because I experienced their diligence about 30 years ago.

Ginny and I, along with our three girls, went to visit Ginny’s sister, Jeanette, and her husband, Bill. At that time they were living in a second-floor apartment in Brandon, Mississippi, a small town just east of the capital of Jackson.

Brandon may have been a small bedroom community but it had a professional fire department. We were to find that out during our visit with Jeanette.

One day while Bill was at work, Jeanette and Ginny were fixing lunch. Tacos were on the menu and we were to fix our own with all the ingredients set up buffet style.

But first, Jeanette had to heat up the taco shells in the oven. I assume they were of the frozen variety and needed to be thawed.

She put the shells in a flat pan and deposited them in the heated oven. I’m not sure what happened next since I was focused on guy things rather than preparing lunch.

Then I was interrupted from my reverie by excited talk emanating from the kitchen. Immediately, I heard my name called.

“Larry, there’s a fire in the oven.”

I went to look and saw taco shells through the glass in the oven door. Nothing unusual, it appeared.

But when Jeanette opened the door, flames shot up from the taco shells. She quickly closed the door to shut off the oxygen.

After leaving the oven closed for a time to allow the heat to dissipate, Jeanette opened the door again. Once more, fire burst forth and she slammed the door shut. Apparently, the heat had nowhere to go in an airtight oven.

Not knowing what else to do and having a brother-in-law who was clueless, Jeanette called 911 to report an oven fire.

Within a minute or two, we heard a distant siren that was getting louder and louder. Soon, a bright red fire truck was parked outside the apartment building.

Jeanette opened the front door to let in two firefighters dressed in turnout gear. The first one was the leader and he did all the talking.

The second guy would have been hard-pressed to carry on a conversation, seeing as how he had his shield pulled down over his face and he was breathing through his airpack.

I stood beside the second responder, listening to him breathe through his hoses: inhale-hiss … exhale-hiss … inhale-hiss … exhale-hiss …

As I took in the situation, I realized I was barefooted and wearing just a T-shirt and jeans.

I suddenly had the discomforting feeling that I was severely under-dressed for the occasion.

Meanwhile, the head guy was surveying the oven predicament. He opened the door and fire blazed up from the taco shells.

Quickly closing the door, he assessed his response and timing before making his move.

With his left hand he opened the oven door. With his right hand, protected by a thick fireproof glove, he grabbed the pan of burning tacos and dumped it into the kitchen sink just to his right.

Then he turned on the tap full blast, converting the flaming tacos into limp corn mush.

Another crisis averted.

Another gold star for the department.

Another grateful citizen.

We all thanked our heroes for their prompt solution to our near-disaster. They left to return back to the station, probably with their noon meal waiting.

Meanwhile, Jeanette and Ginny were scrambling to find something for our lunch.

I’m not sure what the lesson was for us. But I’m guessing it’s this: When you need to thaw your frozen taco shells, use the microwave.

Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, still loves tacos.