There are many cinematic versions depicting the exact moment that man invented or discovered fire. In one version, the “caveman” is sharpening one rock against another and a spark inadvertently lands in a pile of dried leaves and voila, fire! I would suggest that these versions are nowhere near the actual facts and that man didn’t really discover or invent fire, but rather stumbled upon it. Since natural wildfires are a part of the ecosystem, it’s likely that one day a man or woman was out wandering around the caveman neighborhood, just happened to hear a loud roaring noise, felt extremely warm all of a sudden, and looked up to see a huge fire moving quickly their way; wherein they immediately ran the opposite direction, if they knew what was good for them. The bigger question is, “After stumbling upon fire, when did man figure out how to harness it and make it useful?”
As was King Louie (The Jungle Book), my brother Timmy and I were fascinated with fire and “discovered” it at very young ages. It could be said that we never figured out how to harness it or make it useful, but we did experiment with it a bit. From the time I lit one of Mom’s potholders on fire and tried to hide the evidence in the kitchen drawer (being the tender age of five, I didn’t realize that the smoke rolling out of the drawer and filling the kitchen would give me away), I was intrigued by fire. There was also a mysterious fire in our bedroom closet, in which the perpetrator was never discovered (since I was forever being caught in my deviancies and Timmy’s acts usually went undetected and unpunished, I have to pin the closet fire on him). From there we graduated to creating a campfire in the small space between two houses (neither house ours mind you), only to have one of the neighbors call the fire department after our campfire grew into an out of control blaze. We thought that cooking bologna over an open fire would in some way tie us to the early pioneers and cowboys of a bygone era. Like the other two fires, we didn’t stick around to see the results of our mischief, instead running as fast and far away as we could.
When we moved to a more rural part of the country we became aware of a couple of interesting customs; both involving fire. In small town America, it was commonplace for the local townsfolk to gather up their leaves in the fall, and rather than bag them up and deliver them to the dump, they would rake them into piles in the yard or ditch in front of their houses and douse them with a flammable chemical, strike a match, and then stand around and breathe in the unique aroma associated with burning leaves. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a number of these fires going throughout the town on a crisp October Saturday, with streams of smoke floating into the air, visible from miles around. Another small town oddity that has gone the way of the buggy whip is the practice of burning one’s garbage. This is where Timmy comes into the picture.
As part of our “chores”, Timmy and I would do various household tasks such as making our beds and mowing the lawn. Another of these tasks was taking the trash from the waste can in the kitchen to the larger trash can out behind the house. In those simpler times, each house had a large, fifty gallon metal trash can, rather than the dual (one for recyclables of course) plastic bins with wheels that seem to populate the landscape these days. The interesting thing about the metal cans; they were never rolled to the street for the garbage man to pick up. Instead, the trash was dumped into the can and then lit on fire. When the fire had burned itself out, the only things remaining in the can were some ashes and a few metal cans that survived the fire. For some strange reason Timmy volunteered for this particular chore, and like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence, I couldn’t dislodge him from his duties without some sort of bribe.
Timmy would leave the house with the trash and take a gas can with him, along with some matches from Dad’s stash. Having observed a few of these burnings, I can attest to the fascination I know Timmy must have felt in doing his duty. Sprinkling a good quantity of gasoline onto the trash was the first step in the process. Secondly, a match was lit and the idea was to throw the lit match into the can, all the while maintaining a safe distance from the sudden explosion of flame that happened next. Safety was definitely first on our list of priorities.
On one occasion, after being gone for an extended amount of time, Timmy returned to the house, sheepishly trying to remain incognito, but as soon as Mom saw him she exclaimed, “Timmy, what’s that smell? It smells like burned hair. Come here and let me see you.” As Timmy drew closer to Mom, the look on her face was one of horror. “What have you done? Your eyelashes are gone and so are your bangs. Your eyebrows are singed too!” Timmy didn’t seem to be fazed in the least and offered up his hands as evidence of more damage. All of the hairs on his knuckles and the tops of his hands were gone. This event led to tandem trash burning, as Timmy couldn’t be trusted to complete the task alone and alive.
The neighbor behind us, Mark, invited us over to his house one Saturday afternoon to watch him do some yard work. Being a year older than me, he demanded a level of respect for that fact alone, and whatever he did we assumed was not only approved, but the preferred option. After mowing the lawn, Mark said he had to do some edging around the driveway. I offered to run home and get Dad’s edger, but Mark had a “better” idea. Leaving me and Timmy standing on the driveway, Mark entered his garage and reemerged with a gas can in his hand. He then proceeded to liberally douse the edge of the grass running adjacent to the driveway with gasoline. Immediately it seems the grass began to turn brown and die. However, that alone wouldn’t do and Mark instructed us to stand back while he applied a lit match to one end of the gasoline stream. Whoosh! The gasoline immediately began burning as the flame ran down one end of the driveway and across and back down the other end. Wow, this was fun! In no time, the edging was done. It looked much better than our driveway after Dad had used his manual edger; having a much cleaner look.
One day Mark approached us and asked if we wanted to go on a campout with him. Of course we had to ask permission, so we inquired of Mom, “Mom, Mark invited Timmy and me to go camping. Can we go?” “Does his mother know about this?” Mom queried. That sent us running back to Mark’s house to find out if his mother was knowledgeable of and approved of this camping trip. Mom for some reason didn’t trust us and went straight to Mark’s mother to find out if the event was indeed pre-approved. Once we were all in agreement, all we needed were some foodstuffs, a pillow, sleeping bag and a blanket. Where we were camping seemed to be missed in all the discussions.
Later that evening, Timmy and I hauled all of our supplies over to Mark’s house and Timmy inquired, “Mahk, wheh ah we camping tonight?” Mark not wanting to spoil the surprise said, “You’ll see. Follow me.” So we headed north through the neighborhood and on the outer edge of the last row of houses was a large field that had a slight incline, down and away from the backyards. Down at the bottom of the hill and in the middle of the field was a dry creek bed that ran from one end of the field to the other. As we approached the creek Mark explained to us, “This is where we’ll camp. Roll out your sleeping bags on the ground and we’ll start a campfire and cook some of these beanie weenies.” Timmy and I did as instructed and followed Mark down into the dry creek. The bottom was filled with rocks and gravel with some small puddles of water noticeable in places. It looked like a great place for a campfire, but where was the wood? Mark pointed to a number of dead trees along the bank and told us it was time to gather wood.
We took on the wood gathering project with a vengeance and before long the campfire was raging and quickly morphed into a bonfire. It was dusk by this time and an idea struck me which I shared with the other two, “Hey, why don’t we all build a fire and see who can build the biggest one.” Timmy was all for it. “Ahwight” he said as he gathered more wood for his fire and set up a spot upstream from Mark. I moved downstream and started my own fire. Once we got them going it became an obsession to keep adding wood (we eventually graduated from twigs and sticks to large logs that were so heavy we had to drag them) and as more wood was piled on the fires, the flames grew higher and higher. In all three cases, the flames of the “campfires” reached far higher than we could. It was glorious and a sight to behold. As dusk turned into dark, the light from the fires could be seen for miles. I wonder to this day why no one came running; as if these things were common occurrences in fields everywhere.
Timmy won the contest for largest fire, but before he could celebrate we saw a bright flash of light and then heard a loud rumbling noise in the southwestern sky. Mark said, “That’s just heat lightning, nothing to worry about,” as the first drops of rain started to pelt the rocks and sand under our feet. Our campout would soon be moved to higher ground; quickly! We didn’t want to go home and admit we weren’t the rugged outdoorsmen we purported to be, but where could we go in this downpour? Mark remembered something that might serve our purpose, “Martin’s tree house. It’s up there on top of the hill. Let’s go!” We ran as fast as we could, dragging our camping equipment along with us, and finally reached the tree house. It wasn’t really a tree house, but more a house on stilts. Standing under the house, we remained relatively dry, but with the wind and our limited amount of clothes, we knew we couldn’t stay there. Mark climbed the ladder and tried the door, but it was locked. We urged him to go knock on Martin’s door and get the key (nothing like waking up the neighbor late at night in the middle of a thunderstorm, all the while “squatting” in his tree house), which he eventually did.
As we rolled our sleeping bags out on the hard wood floor and crawled in for the night, it didn’t take us long to begin thinking about our warm, soft beds at home and how nice it would be to get some sleep. As the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed, it became a waiting game to see who would crack. The best scenario, to save face, would be for all of us to crack at once and that’s precisely what happened. We rolled up our sleeping bags, gathered all of our supplies and ran home as fast as we could. Mom did her best not to laugh at us, at least not that we could see, as she let us in the back door and tucked us into bed for the night. I can still see the three bonfires, burning in all their glory. What an adventure.
I don’t think we were pyromaniacs, as the official definition states “one who sets fires illegally,” but we did love fires and as we got older we never missed the chance to attend a bonfire or any other organized event where fire was involved. Even today, on any camping or fishing trip, the highlight for me is sitting around the campfire, staring into the flames, smoking a nice cigar with friends, thinking deep thoughts and conversing about God and politics, life and love.
This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.