I grew up a bit of a pyromaniac.
I had a fascination with fire. I was not a chubby little arsonist or anything, I just enjoyed the idea of starting fires (I re-wrote that a bunch of different ways and they all make me sound crazy).
At around 11 years old, I did the most idiotic thing I have ever done… and that is saying something (re: falling through the ice).
I was not alone in my actions, but I take full responsibility for what happened on this summer day in the mid nineties.
The neighborhood that I grew up in is surrounded by trees, fields and a lake. Within these were a series of bike trails that were converted from trails formed by hunters and deer. There seemed to be endless paths and places to explore. Tucked in the woods an old abandoned house existed, that may or may not have been haunted (depends on who you talk to).
I had a core group of friends in the neighborhood that let me tag along with them while we explored and made up stories about what we were doing. Our most frequent story line revolved around living alone in the woods, pretending we were The Boxcar Children.
When do we lose that imagination?
Anyway, my father had just finished building an amazing fire pit in our back yard and my friends came over to enjoy the fire and roast marshmallows.
We sat around the fire for about a half an hour before we got bored. The lazy summer sun made a fire at 7pm not quite as appealing. We decided to take our bikes out on our favorite trail for a while and return when it was dark (we must have been really bored if I left a ‘Smores buffet).
Before we left, I grabbed a book of matches.
We made it out to a small clearing in the woods not far off the main road. I can’t remember exactly how it started, but we (I) began lighting small fires in the brush.
I told you this was idiotic.
We would build up small clumps of tinder, light it on fire and then quickly put it out by smothering it with a coffee can. We must have done it half a dozen times. Then…
It happened so fast that I still can’t believe it to this day. I started a tiny fire and we let it get a little bigger than the previous fires. A gust of win blew a small chunk of the lit brush 6 inches from the fire and that was all it took.
The fire quickly became bigger than the coffee can, a scenario that we hadn’t planned for. Initially, we all laughed as we worked to stomp on the flames. We made the realization that we were not being effective and we started grabbing fists full of moss and dirt to throw on the fire, this did not help.
The fire started to spread in all directions in a circle about ten feet in diameter. We were all beginning to cry. A girl in our group lived 500 yards away so we hopped on our bikes and made our way there to get her dad.
What a nightmare it must have been for him. Enjoying a perfect summer evening when 5 kids come running up sobbing about a fire in the woods.
He came out to the fire with a rake and made a futile effort to beat back the flames while screaming, “what did you do?”
We all retreated from the fire and headed to our homes. I do not know who called 911 but I was convinced that not only was I going to be responsible for burning down the forest, but the town as well.
I rode my bike home heave crying trying to figure out what I would say to my parents.
I could say that the fire was already started when we got out there… I could say that I started coming home before the fire started… No, I need a way to say I did it but not get in trouble… I know!
As I peddled my sobbing, chubby self up to my house I could hear the fire trucks approaching in the distance.
It’s an odd thing to hear sirens and know that they are because of you. We hear them so often and ignore them but, when they are for you, they are truly terrifying as it means that something has gone wrong for one reason or another. In this case that reason was me being a complete dumbass.
I ran inside my house sobbing and began telling the worst lie I have ever come up with.
“We were…sniff sniff… in the, the field and I had the matches… sniff sniff… in my pocket. And, and I had put a already used one… sniff sniff… in my pocket… And when I put my hand in my pocket it, it burned my finger… sniff sniff… And, and I dropped it and it started a fiiirrrrre.”
How I thought a story like this would ever work only shows the level of dumbassery that was taking place this day. I eventually told the truth.
A little while later there was a knock at the door. It was the fire marshal, he wanted to speak with me. The hallway to the front door never looked so long and I have never walked more slowly. Eyes down, I walked on to the porch to the marshal.
Dead man walking.
I am going to jail. I am never going to see my mom again…
He asked me what happened and I told him the story. I don’t remember what he said to me, I just remember that I cried and cried and cried, convinced I was going to jail. The conversation turned into lessons on fire safety, he was stern but not dramatically so.
In the end, the damage was limited to about an acre of land thanks to the quick response of the fire department. On a windy day, it would have been much, much worse.
Everyday that I rode my bike down that trail afterward was a reminder not to be an idiot.
Hmm… I wish I had to drive down that trail everyday…