The Cast: Erich (future firefighter), Myself (practicing pyrotechnician), Rick (a mountain of a man, with a heart to match, and the cop who let us live).
One of my earliest memories is of my father handing me over to a bear to be held so that my picture could be taken. It was terrifying for me. First of all, a bear was stretching out his arms toward me so that he could do I didn’t know what. It was a bear! Second, my father was willingly, purposefully, passing me over, into the arms of a bear!?!
At that early age, I couldn’t read what was on his hat, not that it mattered because I wouldn’t have known who he was anyway, but as I grew older I learned who Smokey the Bear was and what he taught. He taught us about fire safety. Prevention, how to dispose of matches properly, all kinds of good fire safety procedures. Smokey the Bear taught us well. That being said, when Erich and I decided to start a fire, it was not done without considerable thought.
After some time of using The Turtle Tower, it became clear that a backup, a secondary, a secret, fall back position was going to be required. When you’re busy saving the world you’re bound to make some enemies. You gotta’ have a backup. So we found a secondary base. A secret secondary base. Right in my backyard.
In a pioneer community, there are all sorts of weird things like cellars in small corners of your yard. MIne had a large cement “potato cellar” behind some lilac trees with an old rabbit cage covering its opening. If we hinged the rabbit cage to the top of the “potato cellar” it could remain a secret. We just had to get the garbage out of there. There were a few garbage bags down there. What looked like part of a chair, maybe a rocker? And possibly spiders. Um, and maybe dead things… Neither one of us wanted to go down there first, especially without knowing more about what was in that hold.
Having developed an affinity for fire and its ability to purge gross stuff—and evil—we figured that fire would be our best option. It made the most sense and was really the safest option. It was an enclosed cement block, so the fire couldn’t spread. There wasn’t enough garbage in that cement tomb that it shouldn’t take long to burn away, then we could safely go down in and clear out the ash by shoveling it into a garbage bag. All we needed was some way to put the fire out and some way to start the fire.
We gathered up the garden hose, with trigger nozzle—so the water could be on and we could spray water on demand, some matches, and just to make sure the filth would burst into flame we grabbed some gasoline.
Safety first, so… Water on with trigger nozzle on hose: Check. Possible flammable brush surrounding the cement block cleared away: Check. Matches ready: Check. Gasoline poured: Check. Fiery underground, self-contained blaze: Check!
After the fire was ignited Erich and I just stood there watching the black smoke billowing out of the narrow opening, ever vigilant for embers that might find their way to freedom and create a problem. If any ember did attempt to fly away and be free, we would terminate them with the garden hose.
We had all day to make this happen, but we did not realize that it would take… all… day… long.
After a few hours of billowing smoke and a hot sun, we got bored. So we put the fire out—no smoke—and took a little snack break. After the break, we went back at it. We hadn’t really anticipated how much the water would retard the second fire. But in anticipation of possible problems, we added more gasoline. Heh heh.
More black smoke, much more black smoke. It just billowed out of the hole and downwind from us, which we were grateful for. It was the most boring fire I have ever been a part of. We couldn’t see the flames, due to the smoke, so we couldn’t see how quickly things were or were not burning up. Not much fun. And fun is what mattered.
So we put it out once again. There was still some smoke pouring out, so we sprayed more water down the hole, and less smoke came out. Each time we sprayed, we listened for sizzle sounds to tell us if the fire and heat sources were out and cold. Once we established what we thought was an acceptable situation, we prepared to leave. We put the gasoline away, the matches, all the while we took turns pouring water into the “potato cellar”, then we turned off the water and wrapped up the hose. Finally, we walked away to head down the street to the local gas station to see what video rentals they had available. We figured we would be gone for about 10 minutes, then go back to be certain the fire was completely out.
On our way back to my house, which was only two blocks from the gas station, it was easy to see the fire truck and the two—or could we see three—cop cars. Oh, it was three cop cars, and all four vehicles were in front… of… my house… MY HOUSE!!! What happened?!? Oh, wait…
As we approached my house, Erich and I tried to ascertain just exactly what was happening and just how much trouble we were going to be in.
As we got closer, one of the officers met us at my property line. It was my cousin—the same one from the story about my father—he towered over us, leaned in, and with complete seriousness he said (more to me), “In my official capacity, as an officer, I can protect you from Aunt Vivian. Because she is going to kill you. Both of you.” I knew he was joking, but also not joking. I wasn’t really worried before, but now… now I was truly afraid for my life.
As the two of us were escorted to the backyard our guardian immediately had his hands full as my mother flew out of the house and began to let me and Erich have it. “Aunt Vivian, I need you to back-up and let me take these two around back.” Ohhh, mom might kill him too…
“What?!” Was all my mom had to say.
“I’m here in official capacity and we need to see how things look. Why don’t you speak with him.” Rick gestured to another officer. Nice.
As the three of us moved around to the backyard I was horrified, shocked, and amazed all at once. I saw volunteer firefighters wandering about speaking with local law enforcement. Nothing, I repeat, nothing was burned. What was the big deal? What was all the fuss about? And then I saw something that made me sick, there was a fireman—in full gear: helmet, oxygen tank, the whole set—crouched over the opening of the cement block attempting to put out the “fire” with my garden hose. And worse still, the sprinkler head was still attached! It was one of those heads with the three ends that spin around, and the water was going everywhere but in the hole! This same fireman was calling to another fireman to turn the water down some more so he could take the sprinkler head off. Our town’s fate is in the hands of these morons? Oh man… We’ll burn to the ground.
Erich and I received a lecture from my mother—while we were protected by my cousin, the cop, thank you Rick—as well as a lecture from the firefighter in charge. What we learned was that I was grounded and Erich needed to head home, that our neighbor thought his motel was on fire and he is the one who called, and that adults do not think that children are competent. As a result of this encounter, I have strived, as an adult, to not do the same.
Erich and I were berated for our poor judgment. So we politely pointed out all the precautions we had taken. We pointed out that the fire was inside a cement block and then showed everyone the pile of weeds we had removed from around the cement block, and how far away from the fire the pile was. We also mentioned that we never allowed the flames to reach the interior ceiling so as to minimize floating embers. Us: 2, Adults: 0.
Adults don’t like to lose to ‘children’ so Erich and myself were shut down and informed that leaving was dangerous because there was still a fire. We asked if anyone had noticed how much water was already in the cellar before they began to ‘put out the flames’. We pointed out that since the firemen had not added much water, and there was a large amount of water already in the cellar, we had been safe. They didn’t believe us because the sprinkler head was on the hose, not the trigger nozzle—like we claimed, so we pointed out that the trigger nozzle had residual water in it, and showed them. Us: 3, Adults: 0.
Adults really don’t like being wrong twice in a row, especially if they are authority figures. So, to trump our victory and show us who was better and smarter than us ‘kids’, myself and Erich were informed that we could be charged/ticketed for not having a $5 permit to burn within city limits—something we didn’t know we needed. Us: 3, Adults: 1.
So really, Erich and I still won, but we were not going to point that out. Because by the time the firefighters had arrived, there wasn’t any smoke and there was no fire, and they couldn’t give us credit for making safe efforts. Some adults just can’t ‘lose’ to children. So, Erich and I just accepted the slap on the wrist and watched as everyone left, including my cousin—one of the last, to ensure our safety.
The irony of the whole situation is that originally, there was very little garbage in that “potato cellar” until Randon and I dumped some of the garbage bags from The Turtle tower clean-up into the cement block. But Erich and I had forgotten all about that. There should have been no need to set fire to that garbage.
To this day, this event is referred to—by my family—as the time I set fire to the field and almost burnt down the neighboring hotel. It never even came close to that.