Mar 1, 2009

The Fourth Element

Fire and I have a long and chequered history. We go way back, me and the open flame. I honestly think at times that I'm destined to die in a fire of some sort. Perhaps I'll spontaneously combust, go up in a huge hot whoosh and make a real ash of myself.

Since the house is on fire let us warm ourselves.
~Italian Proverb

When I was a kid my brother and I had a sort of clubhouse. It was an old pig sty my father had built one year when we decided to raise and slaughter a hog. Rectangular, it was rather like walking into a closet that went back much farther than it was wide. Since it was originally in essence a seven foot tall crate made of 2x4s there were no walls, so we had carefully tacked old carpet to the inside, keeping the wind (and girls) out, and with the huge drawbridge door closed, trapping the redolence of pig inside. It was heaven. It was privacy and solitude and you couldn't keep anything fragile out there because it was always kind of damp, but it was ours.

One summer I decided to fashion a candle holder out of half a gourd, ala' Gilligan's Island. Sawed the gourd's body in half, positioned in it's hollow recess a stub of candle I'd snuck out of the house, nailed the works to a corner post and we were in business. Light! I lit it with matches stored in an old Boy Scout waterproof matchbox and we proceeded to do whatever it was that we were doing that summer. Digging to Indochina. Hiding the Stolen Government Documents. Plotting each other's overthrow via dirt clods.

At some point, as happens with all boys, we got distracted and left. I didn't return to the clubhouse for days. When I did I saw something that chilled my guts and made me realise how close I had been to genuinely screwing up. The candle had burned the top of the gourd, then proceeded to burn the corner post in a long, charred black taper almost to the roof. I can only assume the dampness that seemed to always cling to the place had so soaked the wood that it only charred slowly, then finally extinguished.

If you ever catch on fire, try to avoid seeing yourself in the mirror, because I bet that's what really throws you into a panic.
~Jack Handey

When I was in high school I made sure to stand apart from the seething crowds that I simultaneously worshiped and abhorred. I did this by wearing a huge old green canvas Air Force field jacket, a monstrous three-quarter length lined coat with four massive pockets, a 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing/Flying Tigers patch on the shoulder and my last name stitched in white thread on a blue strip of cloth over the heart. I was state of the art nonconformist in a world of Members Only jackets, and I wore it every chance I got.

The pockets were so voluminous that they could hold everything. One New Years Eve as I recall they held four one-dozen packs of bottle rockets, back when they were still legal. A huge group of us were racing around the field like idiots, firing bottle rockets at each other in a grand melee'. I'd gotten smart and was using a foot-long length of thin PVC pipe to serve as a combination cannon and rifle barrel, and was doing a pretty fair job at accuracy with it. That is until I launched one too close to that huge right-side lower pocket full of ammunition.

A spark or two managed to fall not only directly into the pocket but fell on a fuse, lighting it and then its eleven brothers and then their thirty six cousins. It started as a slow sizzle and ended up in a flaming mass snug up against my right hip, as the jacket was buttoned up against the cold. I remember batting wildly at my pocket, thinking I might extinguish it somehow as they flamed and jetted and exploded therein. My best friend at the time ran up behind me, grabbed the collar of the jacket and heaved downwards. That action sent buttons flying, nearly dislocated both of my shoulders and succeeded in pinning my arms tight up against my body when the material proved too strong for him.

I recall looking in the mirror afterward at the ruined jacket (literally in burnt shreds,) my ruined jeans (burnt clean through in four places) and at the huge red and black scorches on the flesh of my hip. No scars resulted from that incident but a lasting respect for knowing where my sparks go was, so to speak, kindled.

Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.
~Terry Pratchett

Living in the country, normal practice is to make a burn pile. Old branches, waste from the garden, ends and bits from wood projects too small to recycle, empty feed bags, it all goes on the burn pile. Then, one clear morning, you decide it's too tall to leave anymore and you light it on fire. Then you stand around with shovel in hand and a water hose nearby, just in case. I've done it dozens of times, and will no doubt continue to do so. That's how it started this morning, only sans shovel.

The wind was up nicely, which I knew would fan the flame and also make it a little more dangerous, so I set my mind to watch. It was plenty cold, still just above freezing so I knew the fire would serve two purposes--not only would it rid me of piles of thistle weeds and old pecan branches from Katrina and so forth, it would also do a merry job of warming me while I stood there in the gusty north wind and watched it. I'd had too many trash fires turn into field fires not to be ready.

I was right. The paper chicken-feed bags I'd used for starter went up nicely, catching the Xmas tree, which in turn caught the old dead weeds growing in the middle. The wind, directly out of the north fanned the flames, giving it a ready supply of oxygen, and shortly I was backing up pace after pace to keep out of its eager grasp and ever-increasing heat. Naturally, as I expected, it began to spread, and I began working around it, stamping out little spots and tongues of flame that tried to get too far. I'd wait until the flames had moved away a little or decreased in ferocity, run by and stamp with my old tennis shoes then move away before my skin tightened too much from the heat.

That is until I was working around the pile counter-clockwise, my left side to the flames. I was stamping out a foot-sized grass fire that was threatening to wander too far when the wind decided to change direction very abruptly and very strongly. Suddenly I was no longer four feet from the fire but was standing in its midst. Looking down at the patch of grass I was stamping I saw licking gouts of translucent orange, felt my hands and face grow tight and hot from the heat and felt the heat instantly through pants and thick jacket. I turned to my right and started to run but my reflexes were far too slow for something as elemental and raw as a roaring fire.

I heard and felt a sizzling sound all around my head and exposed hands and knew I was in very real danger. Then the wind changed again, just as abruptly as it had moments ago and I was standing in the clear again, smelling the horrible sick sweet smell of burnt.

My hand was at my face instantly, afraid to touch for fear of what I'd find. Then I gave in and touched. The hair on the left side of my head, from under my black wool faux-Kangol all the way to my ear and around the back of my head felt crinkly, and I could feel tiny bits of it crack off as I rubbed. Likewise the soft black wool fuzz on my hat was now thousands of tiny brown curls on the left side only, as though the sun had bleached the tiny fibers after a summer in the sun. My left eyebrow? Just a thin crinkled stubble, as though I'd plucked most of it. Same with my eyelashes. The left side of my moustache, my one vanity, is half burnt, its length foreshortened and badly thinned, and the remaining hair had a terrible crinkly feeling to most of it. A texture that my fingers seem to have touched time and again throughout the day today. The same with my goatee--each pass of my fingers seemed to rub more singed, crinkled bits off, and lingers on the tight, strangely brittle patches here and there that still remain.

We never think about how fast things can change. We're not good at thinking in the moment, instead relying on thinking in terms of hours, days, years. "It was a good day," not "It was a good moment." We forget that the important things don't happen over a day or a year, they happen in an eyeblink. Oh, I know it'll grow back. I'm just about ready to laugh at it. This is the intake of breath before the first giggles start. I'm still disgusted, though. I don't grow hair like a beast, unfortunately. It took me almost two years to grow a set of handlebars that I could be really proud of, and this morning I had to stand in the bathroom mirror with a towel over the sink and my sharp scissors and trim the right side, shorten and thin and ruin it until I was somewhat symmetrical again. A year's worth of loving, prideful growth gone in a single lick of fire.

It certainly could have been worse. I could have been carrying a gallon of napalm in one hand. I could have been sorting my dynamite collection at the time. I could have been sky-clad, worshiping in some Old Time Religion sort of way. Still, my little-used vanity still stings, and even after washing and shampooing the whole left side of my head I still keep getting whiffs of burnt me, an unpleasant reminder.

Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people. ~Garrison Keillor

Still, could have been worse. Perhaps people will start to think I look more like Adam now.

11 comments:

Joan of Argghh! said...

Well, it is customary to go "native" at Burning Man...

:o)

What a sad fate for your 'stache. I don't go much for facial hair, but a well-groomed handlebar is a thing to admire.

Singed skin really will grow hair faster, y'know. I bet Lileks has some of those old ads about singeing being the cure for baldness. You'll be twirling again soon, Snydely Whiplash!

meno said...

You are in good company along with at least one drummer from Spinal Tap.

I remember the moment when my brother discovered that if you pour gasoline on a fire from a can, the flame will run up the stream and you will have to throw the can on the fire and run like hell.

Nancy Dancehall said...

Oh my God! Don't scare me like that.

I remember when my dad struck a match too close to our gasoline-soaked garden one spring. The fumes in the air combusted and sent both of us flying backward. My dad's leg caught fire. He still has the scars. You are so damned lucky my dear.

Sorry about the 'stache. O sends his sympathy -- he burned a good deal of his hair off this winter, standing too near a fireplace heat exchanger outside.

Shao said...

Now you, Richard Pryor and Micheal Jackson are brothers forever.

Gordo said...

Is a potentially dangerous fascination with fire a guy thing? I still have it to this day. Other than singing hair and eyebrows numerous times (Ye Gods, what a smell!), I've been lucky. Never been in the middle of it, though.

A fire-management tip from my early attempts at a career in photojournalism: a straw broom. That's what the fire department uses to fight grass fires: sweep the fire back onto itself. More efficient than boots, I'm sure.

Todd said...

My quizzical "tobacco incident" question seems a tad paltry in comparison to your actual experience. I shall strive to become fully informed through all of your "journalistic" outlets prior to posting fluffy attempts at humor.

Jean said...

damn. Guardian angels, anyone?

Clowncar said...

Sorry for the stache as well. Thought the truly scary anecdote in that post is the bottle rockets in the jacket all going off. Yikes!

We used to have roman candle fights growing up. Shockingly, no one ever got hurt.

Scott from Oregon said...

I shouldn't laugh. No... I really shouldn't...

"Wind is a vagary one would be remiss to dismiss..." Scott from Oregon

Daisy said...

I'll check Sharper Image and see if they sell a pocket fire extinguisher.

Irrelephant said...

Oooh, very funny Joan! Verrry funny!

I hope it does, I really do. I'm tired of brushing it out and feeling one side thin and strange.

meno, that's a definite learning experience for us all--I remember learning the same lesson myself. Several times.

Good lord, Pants! Scars? I've never really done that sort of damage--and sorry to have worried you!

Shao, you suck!

Gordo, I think so. There's something Basic Man Primal about fire, about its use and, yes, abuse. A broom, eh? NICE! I'll have to remember that this weekend. Burnpile, round two!

Is okay, Todd! I learned to light a pipe carefully way back when I was still in a goatee. *g*

Jean, I'm thinking more along the lines of "pure blind stupid luck." *lol*

CC, I did the same thing--every fireworks holiday we did some of the STUPIDEST things, and never got hurt. Well, except that one time. *s* I remember thinking, though, that the dislocated shoulders hurt worse than the burns. *lol*

Oh, VERY good stuff, Scott! Gonna write that one down, me...

Et tu, Daisy? I thought better of you!