Playing With Fire

When I was eleven years old, I got burned. At the time it happened, the injuries seemed horrific, although none of the burns probably exceeded the 2nd degree and covered only a small portion of my body: face, chest, one arm and hand. The incident occurred at my cousin’s house, who lived a few blocks from my house with his maternal grandmother, divorced mother, and a younger brother. My two cousins and another younger neighborhood boy were playing early on a Saturday afternoon in my cousin’s backyard. So many adolescents are mesmerized by fire. Perhaps there is some element born and nurtured deep in our evolutionary past that drives us to create fire, master it, and even flirt with its dangers. Fire is one of the key tools that allowed our genus to survive the Stone Age and to eventually dominate all other animals. My cousins and I were certainly not thinking about paleoanthropology on that particular Saturday, even if “shadows of forgotten ancestors” were influencing our actions.

We decided that afternoon it would be great fun to build a bonfire. Keep in mind this was summer in middle Georgia, where temperatures frequently climb to and above 100 degrees F. In evolutionary terms, we were not exhibiting behavior of a species that is the fittest to survive. We began gathering into a pile an impressive collection of pine straw, leaves, and sticks from around the yard, and for good measure we even threw in a few charcoal briquettes we found in a bag in the crawl space under the house. The heap was probably between two and three feet high.  I don’t remember who had the matches nor who lit one and strategically placed it at the bottom edge of the dry fuel mound we had sculpted. I do remember all four of us standing in a circle watching with giddy anticipation as a thin cloud of blueish-gray smoke began drifting up from the pyre. And then nothing happened. At least, nothing discernible happened. The smoke became thinner until it all but disappeared. There was no cracking or popping sound, no flames dancing toward the sky. We were greatly insulted.

I recalled seeing a can of gasoline next to the lawnmower that was just barely tucked under the backside of the house at the edge of the open crawlspace. I had watched my father pour gasoline on charcoal to start fires for grilling. I was aware of its combustible qualities. We could not stand by patiently and hope that fire would grace us with its presence. We had to summon it with the magic of fossil fuel. I remember the gas can was heavy and thus probably near full. I brought it over to our faux alter, opened the top of the tubular spout, grabbed the handle and lifted the can about chest high in front of me, and then bent straight over to pour gas on the pile.

The combustion was instantaneous and violent, shooting hot flames toward my chest and face. Even a smoldering spark when paired with gasoline can at once be transformed into a raging inferno.  Perhaps the “swooshing” sound of the ignition gave my reflexes a nanosecond of time to tightly shut my eyes, but I could not escape the fumes that had already penetrated my shirt, which immediately burst into flames as a I dropped the gas can. One of the boys had enough presence of mind to grab the can and quickly move it away from the mound, which was now engulfed in flames. We had succeeded with building a fire, but at a considerable cost.  I can still remember turning to run in the opposite direction of the burning pile and hearing the characteristic sound of flames whipping up from my shirt, across the right side of my face, and over my shoulder. And, I distinctly remember hearing my own screams. Then I suddenly stopped, reached down to the bottom of my shirt, and ripped it over my head, throwing it to the ground. I had escaped the fire, but not before it had peeled the skin from my right cheek, the middle of my chest, and several patches on my right arm and hand. My eye lashes and brows and much of my hair were singed.  My right ear managed to catch much of the flame’s wrath and later that evening would swell to almost twice its normal size. I ran over to a water spigot, turned it on, and splashed water on my face, which did not have the soothing effect I had hoped for at all.  It stung like hell.

The entire mishap probably lasted ten seconds, fifteen at the most. The little neighborhood boy left immediately, no doubt horrified. My cousins and I went inside the house where their mother, upon seeing my condition, was visibly frightened and probably concerned that she had somehow failed in keeping me safe while I was visiting their house. Of course, she was not at fault. Children are curious and do dangerous things. Most survive; some sadly do not. I was lucky. My cousin’s mother quickly got on the telephone and called my father, who was at home making lunch for himself. Otherwise, he would have been outside on a Saturday and would not have received the call. My mother, sister, and grandmother were not at home at the time.

My father called our pediatrician, who met us at his office to assess the damage. He decided I could forgo the hospital, and he applied ointment and bandages and sent us home. The women of the house were back home by then, waiting with dread to see how badly scarred the accident had left the youngest child and only boy of our extended family. In fact, I still do have at least one scar from the burns, on the inside of my right arm near the armpit. I suspect the scar was the result of skin that didn’t heal smoothly because the bandage could not be secured well enough in that location. The other scars would eventually fade, although some of them on my arm and hand took years to completely disappear. Other mental scars have perhaps never gone away. I was probably too cautious with my sons out of fear that they might suffer a similar calamity, and that may have made me overprotective at times. I hope my fears didn’t inflict too much hardship on their childhood. I am thankful that my brush with fire never made me fearful of it in general.  In fact, I never stopped being drawn to its light, warmth, sounds, and magical qualities. As an adult, I have never lived in a home without a fireplace or outdoor fire pit.  I respect the potential danger of fire, but I will always like playing with it.

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