January 3

Anniversary of a 1958 Fire at the Top of the Eiffel Tower


“The one in Paris is much bigger.”

“Oh, you’ve seen it, have you?”

The two maintenance workers walked past the amusement park replica of the Eiffel Tower.  The top of its metal skeleton was visible from the stretch of I-95 north of Richmond.  Up close, in a park emptied for the season, the structure was even more impressive.

Though at 300 feet, the replica was a scant one-third the height of the Paris original.

“Yeah, my family’s from there.” Peter used his broom to push more garbage into the dustbin.  The park had a rare unseasonable event a few days ago, to offer an alternative New Year’s celebration.  Families bundled in winter coats to ride roller coasters and spider cars, eat candied apples and rocket pops, and pretend they vacationed in Paris as fireworks shone through bars of the looming metal structure.

After the January 1 break, it was taking them two full days to clean up.  Streamers and confetti were more stubborn than typical summertime trash.  A rainstorm had turned the paper into mush that resisted easy sweeping.

Mon dieu, his co-worker Blake said.  “I should call you Pierre.”

“Keep sweeping.”

But Peter didn’t follow his own advice.  He leaned against the broom handle, his eyes drawn to the top of the tower.  “You know, the real one?  It caught fire in 1958, this very day.  I remember the date, ‘cause my mom told me she was there.”

“No kidding?”  Blake took out a cigarette, feigning slight interest.

“Yeah.  Way she tells it, her little sister was all excited.  The fire lit the tower at the top, and sis said it looked like a giant candle.  Mom, a know-it-all preteen at the time, decided to taunt her a bit.  Said something like, ‘But Annabelle, dear.  Who, or what, do you suppose, lit that candle?’”

Blake thumbed the roller on his lighter, but the flame didn’t catch.

“Thing is, they were far enough away,” Peter continued.  “So they hadn’t felt scared.  But when Mom looked into her sister’s face, she knew she’d gone too far.  Anabelle’s eyes went wide, holding back tears.  The poor kid imagined some hideous giant stomping through the city, lighting the tops of every tall building.”

Blake thumbed the lighter again, to no effect.

“Her little sister’s fear was infectious.  My mom was older, so she could imagine more dreadful scenes:  enemy warplanes overhead, dropping bombs; saboteurs breaking into national structures, connecting dynamite to a timed fuse; comets tearing through the sky, brushing rooftops, flaming ash falling like deadly rain.  Mom couldn’t sleep that night.  Her sister’s fright made her believe it could happen.  The world was actually going to end.”

Blake’s lighter sparked, finally caught.

High above, the top of the Eiffel Tower replica burst into flame.

From surrounding cities echoed the sound of distant explosions, like the footsteps of some hideous giant.