Burnt to the Ground

Harry Drabik

No, the title isn’t world news. Inside while snow flew, I remembered an incident when I was six. Mother going to lie down with a headache (I’m sure it had nothing to do with me) presented a perfect opportunity for a camping adventure. I set camp behind our soon-to-be-reupholstered green chair. Wadded newspaper as campfire fuel proved remarkably effective. I was cooked out of my spot in seconds as tongues of flame shot up the chair back. Somehow I knew to smother fire. I used a pillow that didn’t fare too well. Lost its fringe, but the fire was out. Problem solved, I played trucks. Stink and ashes in the air were no concern. When mother flew from bed in a panic, I acted as any child my age would. I played dumb. I smelled, knew, and saw nothing until faced with the singed pillow. “What’s this?” I was pretty sure of being caught, but at six there was always hope. “I went camping.” I made my remark in tones suggesting Mother should be glad of my return. She saw things differently and became a much lighter sleeper, for which I was never properly thanked.

It was six years before I again ventured to fire build indoors. My parents went to an adult affair. I’d stay home to tape record Lawrence Welk. Not a fan myself, I didn’t attend the recorder constantly as Dad did, stopping if for commercials. I was too busy enjoying forbidden toys, a WWI doughboy helmet and a rusty rifle taller than I was. Engrossed, I forgot the recorder. It went another half hour that I decided was bonus recording. By then it was bedtime, so up I went, certain that a semblance of obedience was good as the thing itself. Freedom from supervision is child cocaine. High on liberty, I was reminded of the railroad flare. I told kids it was a stick of dynamite and I’d blow them up. That got their respect! Anyway, it came into my head to carefully examine the 5 MIN FUSE to plumb, so to speak, its potential. I plumbed. Next thing I knew, flames gushed. It was camping behind the green chair all over again, except in a different room and minus the chair. If you’ve never lit a FUSE indoors, don’t. It’s not recommended. Sparks fly. Blobs of molten glowing phosphor drool from a thing that once it’s lit is hard to extinguish. I learned that trying the smother routine with an old wool blanket. Gouts of red flame ate wool like a hot knife in butter. 

When smothering failed, I determined to get it out my window. That’s when I took damage. Before that I was shuttling so quickly I missed the more direct consequences of my act. Standing at the window, I was raw meat for spark attack and glowing embers. With the screen wrenched aside, I held the flare outdoors, only to watch as glowing phosphor blobs piled on the shingles of the flat porch roof outside my window. Fearing I’d set the house afire, I tossed the flare toward the backyard. The porch roof was a mere 15-foot throw, but, shaking, I missed. The FUSE fell in the metal gutter. I knew that wasn’t good. Between visibility and fire danger that wasn’t good at all. I had to go after it. I did, tossing it onto a safe patch of yard.

It seemed to me the episode went a lot better than the earlier one, because so far no one but me knew a thing. All I had to do was make sure I got the spent FUSE before anyone found it. But what if a neighbor had seen the FUSE held out the window or (worse) me scuttling out on the roof? Me on the roof was the worst because I wasn’t wearing much, in fact nothing. That would be hard to explain in light of day, but given unsupervised freedom the delicious contrast between army gear and bare skin was too much to resist. This is simply not the kind of thing a kid is able to explain. With the lesson of six years earlier as guide, I realized I wouldn’t need to explain if I could cover up. Well, I did it. I covered up the evidence. No neighbor reported me. I got away with it.

I’m not a luck pusher. It was a couple of years before flames spouted in our house again. We were living on the Iron Range the night Mom and Dad (ah, freedom) left me home with the son of Dad’s boss. We gave a valid reason for Roger being there, but the real motive was rocket fuels, which we began making in the basement soon as my parents left. We mixed and lit small batches of zinc dust along with aluminum/bronze dust and sulfur, followed by potassium chlorate and sugar. (Powdered sugar was highly reactive.) Roger, being taller, was first to note the thick layer of odorous dense white overhead. “Well, I better go.” Roger bailed on me, an escape that let a gush of stinky smoke upstairs. There was no hiding that stench under air perfume. I had to let it out. It was ten below. African violets and parakeets don’t take to cold, but I had to air the house. Doors and windows open, the furnace kicked in. In a half hour the smoke was gone. The smell lingered with the chill when Mom and Dad returned.

I didn’t get away with it that time. But unlike the hot, humid night in Chicago, I had no bare skin embarrassment to worry me. I took my licks and felt content knowing my parents had yet to find out about the small mortar I built. They’d be none the wiser, either, about columns of smoke and occasional grass fire coming from scenes of hastily abandoned experiments. Though I might be reported pedaling away from the area, I could allege other kids did it and I was a mere passerby. There was a lot less danger in that than having to deny a house full of flame and smoke.