The childhood fascination with fire probably, at least I would guess, arises from a false sense of control. Sure, maybe it served another purpose evolutionarily. Something super elevated and important. But that view, like a tall shelf, extends beyond the reach of the majority of children. In general, control of most things avoids children. Adults usually try to maintain control for the benefit of the children. In fact, when and how much control to afford a child precipitates many arguments among adults. Although a child may believe that the element of fire can be controlled, like many children themselves, it cannot.
But, regardless of why the fascination occurs, it occurs. And it occurred with me too. A friend across the street, whose parents smoked, could often easily access matches or a lighter. Sometimes I could obtain some other source of flame from my house. Although my parents weren’t smokers, creators of fire amount to useful household tools in general. The grill, candles, the basement’s wood-burning stove…lots of things benefited from on-demand fire summoning. If we could not obtain the necessary purveyors of heat we would even resort to old fashioned means by using a magnifying glass to focus and direct the sun. Whatever the situation called for, our obsession dictated that we create fire. Stolen from the Olympian Gods and given directly to us. To me.
We constructed appropriate housings for the flames when necessary. These were not large bon-fires or blazing camp-fires, instead they were small combustions tantamount in size to the elementary schoolers creating them. Dried grass or leaves confined by the setting we deemed proper, some random bricks or rocks to create a tiny, make-shift wind block. Some suitable surrounding for our pyrotechnic machinations.
The Fourth of July presented a unique opportunity to exercise our mastery. Fireworks developed into an accepted method of patriotic celebration for some absurd reason. Our family, and many others, purchased an armory of cheesy little snappers and poppers to annually mark the occasion. Along with a few bottle rockets and roman candles. Whiz, boom!
Now, this seems like a tangent, but trust me it relates, I lived a few blocks from a totally different place. Partially manicured and partially wild, it lacked any of the human dwelling structures found in the surrounding, like my house. The space produced a park amidst the residential sprawl. A hidden wood-chipped trail encircled a natural pond deep within the woods, all set well behind a roadside playground and tennis court and half-basketball court. The place’s true purpose, for us, disguised to any passerby. Just a park. Just some boring old woods behind a playground and other plain park-type-things. Nothing else to see here. Just go about your normal business please. Thank you.
The location developed into the hidden home-base of extra-residential activities for my friends and I. In the middle of the suburbs it provided the opportunity to completely disappear. Someone somehow magically maintained the trail that circled the pond. Once a year we arrived to discover fresh wood chips along with cleared brush and a trimmed path. Maybe special trail elves visited in the night? At two points, streams connected to the central body of water. Ingress and egress for the pond. Solid wooden bridges across the streams provided easy passage.
Almost daily I ventured into this place to let my dog run freely. She loved it. I loved it. The scenery seemed to block out reality. Friends and I often gathered in this secret wood. It belonged to us. So it developed into a place where we felt free to act naturally. For a time, acting naturally meant attempting to start small fires.
Along one of the streams we discovered an old tree-trunk, remnants of a past forest sentinel, now just two or three feet tall, sticking out of the mud. Inspired, we felt that a wooden tree trunk might provide appropriate fire fuel. Still, so much water surrounding it cast doubt on its potential efficacy. But it took little to move us to action after that “spark” of inspiration. Once the idea flickered it quickly fanned into a question of “how” not a question of “if.” To combat the doubts the surrounding water roused, we accumulated a wealth of currently available fireworks from our various residences. We packed them into the trunk, along with dried leaves and twigs and whatever else we found laying around, hopeful to create a mass of combustable energy.
Like the fuse to a bomb we lit some of the dry kindling we had added and backed far far away from…( I don’t know what we expected, a perfectly contained but amazing display?) it. From just beyond ground zero we watched the fire start slowly. First just the leaves and grass smoldered and smoked within an un-embroiled wooden shelter. The wet wood of the trunk denied its participation. Fairly anticlimactic given our grand expectations. But finally the heat escalated beyond the trunk’s ability to resist. Surrendering, the trunk itself erupted into flames. From nascent to hearty. For a brief second I felt pride in our accomplishment. Man marshals fire! But then the heat activated some of the fireworks. Sporadic shots of fire into an environment consisting of all sorts of fuel, and, to add to the spectacle, emanating from a central hub of fire.
Something more than fear engulfed me. Immediately I imagined the evening news reporting my participation in burning down the entire park. Concern for my own wellbeing sublimated to concern for my pride should I survive the catastrophe. Starting a huge forest fire for no legitimate reason. I could only point to my own musings as the motivation for the significant chaos. Surely not a legitimate justification for the devastation, for casting shame upon all associated with me.
We immediately leapt into action spurred on by the display. The tree trunk was luckily rooted right next to the entering stream. My friend began splashing as much water as could be enticed by his cupped hands from the reservoir. I removed my shoe, the only vessel I perceived capable of containing any significant amount of liquid, and began using it to hurl water at the inferno.
Apparently the combustion lacked the actual power we imagined it might contain. Our efforts successfully extinguished the blaze before it could expand to the whole park and then encompass surrounding homes and then the rest of the city and then the entire state…
Now I remained, standing in a muddy stream, slightly on an angle, facing a smoldering tree trunk that emanated wisps smoke. I stood there silently beside my friend. Both of us wet and frightened, reminded by the lightly smoking tree trunk of what could have been. How our lives came so close to being so different. How we had come within seconds of becoming fugitives from the law. How clearly fire could not be controlled.