Playing with fire

By the age of three I had mastered such standard life skills as how to stack things, how to operate a toilet, and how to start a fire. Indeed, I nearly burned our house down. You’d think that such a traumatic experience at that age would make some impression on my developing brain, such that my childhood fascination with fires would stop. You’d think that.

When you’re the seventh of ten kids, the question of what to do with your free time is often up to you. Even the best parents to ever walk the face of this earth (e.g., my mom) have only so much time to spread around.

I’ve a memento from one of my very earliest attempts to entertain myself. Sitting on the kitchen floor, possibly still in diapers, I extracted cans of vegetables from the cabinets beneath the stove and decided to stack them as high as I could. After making a tower much taller than it was stable, I looked up just as gravity did what gravity does. The gash on my lower lip, from a can of creamed corn whose fall to earth was interrupted by my face, left a scar for life.

I found bathrooms laden with new and interesting things. The sinks and tubs were cool. And the toilet? Utterly fascinating. I made deposits far more frequently than was necessary, just so I could watch them disappear in that entertaining vortex of rushing water. With astonishing speed, I developed a fine grasp of the mechanisms involved in the essential bathroom functions, if not their correct names. Learning the verb “to pee” was easy enough. But when Mom referred to the other one as “moving your bowels” I thought she said “moving your bottles,” and that is how I referred to it for more years than I care to admit.

I was particularly bored one morning, at the age of not-quite-four, in the fall of 1966. School had just started so the house was relatively empty of kids. My sister Barb was home, up in her room getting over a bug going around, and Mom was busy tending to Marty and Kenny upstairs. I was downstairs in the kitchen, drawn to the stove and its magical feature: You don’t need matches to make a fire with this thing, I had observed. You just turn those knobs.

I couldn’t quite reach those knobs but solved that problem using those cans under the stove. Perched atop two giant cans of Hawaiian Punch fruit drink, it took me no time at all to light a little blue ring of fire. Couldn’t I make it any bigger, I wondered? Why yes, I could.

Mom stored leftover bacon grease in a paper milk carton with the top cut off, right next to the burners. I bellied myself onto the countertop to reach the grease carton, tipped it over, and took in the comforting smell of bacon grease as it oozed onto the stove before transforming into a most impressive flame. But then came the smoke. It was black, and heavy, and it made my eyes burn. I stepped off the Hawaiian Punch cans then ran upstairs to where Mom was changing Kenny’s diaper.

I did not report what was going on. Cloaking myself in nonchalance, I meandered to the open window, looked onto our backyard below, and after a relaxed moment or two turned and pointed outside. “Look at the smoke, Mom.”

She did as instructed, only to see a tower of inky black smoke pouring out of someone’s window. Ours. “Barb!” Mom yelled to my sister. “Get out here!”

Mom looked into the kitchen as she hurried us all to safety. A glance at the Hawaiian Punch cans and toppled grease carton were no doubt all the clues she needed to know what had happened. The flames were now climbing the back wall of the stove and licking the wooden cabinetry above. The black smoke was clinging to the entire first-floor ceiling of our house, like a heavy blanket defying gravity. Dad and my older brothers had painted those ceilings, indeed every wall in the house, just days before.

Barb took us into the garage and into the car while Mom tried to turn off the stove. That’s when the miracle happened. A volunteer fireman, clearly following careful instructions from God because how else does one explain this, had been driving up North Point Road just as smoke began billowing out of our kitchen window. He stopped his car and burst inside to find Mom in the burning kitchen.

“We need a blanket,” he told her, pulling Mom aside and switching off the burners. “A table cloth?” she asked, eyes burning. “Get it.”

Mom fetched the big green tablecloth, the nice one we only used for Sunday dinner, while the fireman ran water in the sink. Using the soaked cloth, they soon smothered the flame. As billows of white steam overtook the black smoke of a defeated fire, a crew of firefighters burst through our front door, the nozzle of a ready fire hose in their hands. Luckily for us they never turned it on. It saved the house from who-knows-what kind of water damage. The smoke, however, did plenty. It got into every room, every drawer, and every stitch of clothing inside those drawers.

Mom wasted no time in commencing a clean-up effort. She and Alice Albro, Mom’s neighborhood friend who had rushed over at the sight of the fire trucks, had buckets and sponges out in no time. They were wiping down walls when Warren Baker, the State Farm insurance agent who had sold us a homeowner’s policy just the month before, arrived at the scene.

“Girls, you can put down those buckets,” said Warren, who then delivered the news that State Farm would take care of everything, including putting us up in temporary lodging while they fixed up our house. So while Mom, Barb and my little brothers moved into Grandma’s house next door, the rest of us guys enjoyed a life of luxury at the Trailways Motor Lodge and Restaurant, complete with daily maid service, all-you-can-eat meals, and a different dessert every night.

“Eat up,” our dad encouraged his growing boys at the restaurant dinner table. “State Farm is paying for it!” Our last night at the Trailways, my brother Bob ate so much chicken and dumplings he threw up right at the dinner table. We didn’t stay for dessert that night.

Did the experience extinguish my fascination with fire? Hardly. Over the next few years, Mom was forever finding books of matches in my pants pockets—I swiped them whenever I could—and my older siblings nearly tired of ratting on me for my little grass fires in the yard. Mom and Dad certainly tired of telling me not to play with matches, and resorted on one occasion not to spanking or scolding but with something rather creative. They invited me to a movie.

The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne playing the real life oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair, who was famous for putting out gushing oil wells that had burst into flames. Mom and Dad took me to the French Village drive-in movie theater to see it. And they only took me.

John Wayne as Red Adaire

I really liked the movie, at least the first 20 minutes or so, which is all I saw from the middle seat of the station wagon, perched on the big hump on the floor we called the watermelon, before falling asleep. Mom had brought grocery sack filled with popcorn she made at home and smuggled in. To hear the movie there was a speaker, a big gray metal thing with slits where the sound came out and a knob to adjust the volume, hanging inside a window.

If my parents thought the experience would get pyromania out of my system cathartically, by watching huge fires up on the huge screen, they were unfortunately wrong. I kept stealing matches and just got better at hiding them—I found my clean black socks a fine place. And one day I used them to again summon the Fairview firefighters.

Most of the lots in South Bountiful Heights had houses on them by the late 1960s but a few remained vacant. One was on Bountiful Drive not far from our house. The grass and weeds grew tall there, so a kid could crouch down and not be seen by passersby. One day I headed there with my matches. It was a very hot day and when the wind blew it was like opening the door of an oven. The dry grass crinkled at my ankles as I waded through it.

Depositing myself where the grass was tallest, I struck a match. The flame was a nice one and I held it close to my face, wondering why it was blue at the base and then turning reddish yellow. I made a mental note to ask my brother Steve. He could always explain stuff like that.

I didn’t need to feed this fire. It founds its own fuel and spread in all directions, indeed with alarming speed. When I realized the smoke might be visible to others, I sprang to my feet and ran off. It took no time at all for others to see the smoke and call the fire department. On my way home, the town’s little red fire jeep passed me by. It sped to the fire and began putting it out and was soon joined by pumper trucks, whose deafening sirens really got to me. Or something did.

When I got home I decided to stay quiet. Unlike the kitchen fire, the fire on Bountiful would never be credited to me. Had I brought it up, I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad would have figured out it was mine. And then I expect they would have done the only sensible thing and sent me off to reform school.

Fortunately, no such measure was needed because the Bountiful fire was my last. Never again would I set a fire I wasn’t supposed to. We moved to Washington, DC when I was ten, and our new house there had a fireplace where I helped Dad build lots of fires. I think that helped. So too did joining Boy Scout Troop 1092. On countless camping trips with those fellas I learned to build fires safely and, I might add, with rather some finesse.

Indeed, I got pretty damn good at building fires. Nowadays I can still get a roaring fire going with no more help than the sulfur on the tip of a match.  And I do so whenever I can. It’s still fun.

Mike’s 1966 birthday. Standing left to right: Ed, Mike, Mom, Marty, Barb, Grandma, Ken. Notice Mom keeping me away from the candles.

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