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May 20, 2022

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Everybody Has a Story: Move with uncle goes up in flames

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My belief is that everyone should have a person in their life who looks at the lighter side of things — someone who can provide levity in the most serious situations.

For me that person was my Uncle Mike, my mother’s brother. Mike Hansen was known in the community as an actor in local theater and for wearing festive attire, up to and including attaching bells to his mustache during the holidays while working at Hazel Dell Fred Meyer.

The story I relate here is not of his humor, but of the very rare times I saw a serious look on his face, and is therefore one of the funniest memories I have of him.

In the late 1970s when I was 15 years old, I was enlisted to help Mike and his young family move from the Carter Park neighborhood to their new home in Minnehaha. Mike had rented a large moving van for this purpose. It was old-school, with a manual stick-shift transmission and bench seat. Family and friends had been assembled to help and we began the chore of loading the van.

As my mom would say, “Many hands make light work,” and we soon had this land yacht full and ready to set sail. I was thrilled when Mike asked if I wanted to be co-pilot on the drive to his new home. We hopped in the cab and got ready to roll.

As per his custom, as soon as we were settled in he reached in his pocket for his Pall Mall cigarettes. First offering me one, which I politely declined, he proceeded to light up and we were on our way.

The first couple of blocks were rough as Mike got acquainted with the shifting pattern of the behemoth he was driving. After a little grinding of the gears and popping of the clutch he got the hang of it. We pulled onto 33rd Street moving east toward Columbia Street. The ride was starting to smooth out. As we made our way to the stoplight at Carter Park, Mike, who was still enjoying his cigarette, casually commented, “I don’t know how a rental company can make any money. These trucks take a lot of abuse and you know that people aren’t careful with them.” Holding the cigarette in his right hand, he paused and took a big puff, then reached to downshift the transmission for the upcoming red light.

Then it happened! He misjudged the unfamiliar stick shift and drove the cigarette into the handle. The cigarette erupted like Mount St. Helens with embers landing on the seat between us. In no time an inferno began to consume the seat. Mike stopped the truck and we jumped out. He was frantic as he tried to knock the embers off the seat, his expression panicked as we watched the seat melting away. I’m sure he was worried the entire truck would catch fire and burn up the family possessions.

I don’t recall seeing a fire extinguisher in the cab but he did have a thermos of coffee that he used to douse the flames and avert disaster. We waited for the smoke to clear and then hopped in to continue our trek. As he shut his door Mike looked over at me and with a straight face said, “See what I mean, people aren’t careful.” Then we both burst out in laughter.

We arrived at our destination without further incident, but did explain that we had taken a little extra time on our trip to change the bench to bucket seats. I don’t know what the resolution was for the damage but am pretty sure my uncle didn’t get his deposit back.


Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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