A Fire That Burned It All Away

James Anthony Ellis
Editor, Legacy Magazine

My beeper started going off around 7 a.m.

Yes, a beeper. Remember beepers? They were the latest “communication tool” that went on your belt and beeped, basically only transmitting a phone number.

Well, the number that came through was “911.”

And it came through over and over again.

It was December 20, 1998. I was participating in a “Point Program” meeting, with this being my first experience as a “point man.” I took the position to heart as this was the first experience new men would have as a man on a men’s team in the San Diego Men’s Division.

Working alongside division veteran Jon Fleming, I was so engaged with this intense 7-week program that I would come face to face with many barriers. Like any other point program, we’d all be put to the test to be at our best, breaking through mental, emotional and sometimes physical barriers we had created for ourselves in this lifetime.

And barriers I would definitely meet. For on that December 20 day, I would get up in the wee hours of the morning in order to prepare myself for the intense meeting coming up at 6 a.m. I had been up most of the night, with the jitters, but also with an excitement of anticipation for what would come that next day. That evening, I had meditated, prayed, lit candles and sung along to rock anthems getting myself hyped up.

Like a kid before Christmas morning, I didn’t want to go to sleep. But I forced myself to get some rest because I knew I’d need it.

After waking up, I swiftly made sure that the candle left burning next to my bed was blown out. I distinctly recall looking at that candle, and after believing it had burned itself out, I got myself ready and bolted out the door, to meet up with Jon and the rest of the point team at South Shores near Sea World.

It was after the meeting was well under way – that is when the beeper started going off.

A phone number I didn’t recognize.

Then 911.

911 again.

So focused on the meeting in front of me, it wasn’t registering what was taking place right there on my belt. Finally after the third 911, I told Jon I had to find out what was going on. I borrowed Jon’s cell phone and made the call.

All Laura said was, “Oh Jimmy, it’s all gone.”

She was speaking of the house, my room. And maybe more.

Since it was “all gone,” I knew there was no real reason to rush home to nothing. I actually completed the meeting, leading parts of which I had committed. Every now and then, I would get in my head and wonder what had really taken place back home. Then I’d shake my head back and refocus on the moment and the men before me. After the meeting, I asked Jon to follow me home. He had thought that the friend most likely exaggerated the extent of the damage. I didn’t think that was the case.

That was the longest drive home. It took forever. I didn’t even want to arrive at the house. But it would have to come. I made the turn onto Golfcrest and nervously drove closer to my address. As I pulled up, it was hard to look upon what I saw.

The support of the men and the friends.

The top of the house burned out. Black. A pile of my burned-up belongings sitting on the driveway. A TV news camera pointing directly into the window of my room, which was completely gone, black, not one strand of material possession remaining.

My clothes gone. My bed. My spiritual trinkets. My sacred objects. My books, including the first two books I ever wrote – at age 6 and 9. One of a kind, handwritten and laminated. Gone forever.

Ellis’ room: window boarded up at right, bookshelves directly to the left. In the corner the remains of a rectangular wood carving of Jesus.

I stood in shock. Unbelievable.

Thankfully no one was injured. And yes, the fire department determined the fire originated from a candle left burning. But how could that be? I looked at it, and it was already out.

One of the strange emotions that rolled through me was a sense of relief, a sense of freedom – as if I didn’t have to be concerned about my possessions any longer. I had nothing, so what was there to be afraid of losing anymore?

Then reality came in. I have to clean this up; I have to find a place to live.

I need to have a very fast comeback story. As in now.

That’s when the Cavalry was called in. I recall overhearing Jon on the phone. “Yes, the damage is very extensive. We’re going to need some help here.”

Masks before masks were cool.

A number of friends showed up, many of them from my Men’s Division and the sister organization the Family of Women. I made a call out to a man in the division, Eric Louie, who happened to live only a few miles from this house. Though he was in Los Angeles at the time, he told me to place anything remaining salvageable in his garage. I would do so (and create what would become an never-ending story around one smelly smokey garage.)

The support was immense.

I always like to point out to others (and remind myself) that by the end of that December 20 day, I not only had a place to live – thanks and sorry Louie – but I also had more clothes by the end of the day, than I had starting out the day. The Family of Women and the San Diego Men’s Division started a phone chain that resulted in donations from all over San Diego county.

By the end of the day, I recall telling someone, “I am one rich man.”

Ellis looking at some of his only belongings.

That would be the quickest comeback I’ve ever experienced. And it only took place because I had an army of support around me.

Yes, there would be other misfortunes that hit this life of mine – a flood, homelessness for a day, skunks, even the global plague of 2020. But no matter what, these experiences come and go.

And thankfully, there are those things in life that remain.

Friendship, love, a team, a circle of honor, care and support.

Things more valuable than any material item ever found on earth.

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James Anthony Ellis is an award-winning playwright, journalist and filmmaker, who is the author of eight books, including the men-focused “The Honor Book” available HERE.

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