I published this humorous essay in River Voices a Muskegon Community College literary magazine in 2008. As a prize winner I enjoyed the honor of receiving my award and shaking the hand of world renowned humorist David Sedaris on the stage of the Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon, Michigan.
We do not allow students to light enough fires in school these days to do us any good. The average person would be hard pressed to remember a time they actually saw a school on fire. I am an English major so I must stress that I am not being metaphorical here. I have always loved books – of matches.
In the strong American tradition of broken education I propose a fix to cauterize all our wounds. We must no longer blindly follow the government line of abstinence in fire prevention education. As a country we have a blaze imbedded deep in the loins of our ancestry. The Spanish conquistadors brought flame to this continent in the 1500’s in the form of firewater with which they intended to romance the native women away from warm glow of their cooking after dark. Erik the Red may have actually appeared as if his hair was on fire when he sailed in our direction some five hundred years before that, but the chicks dug his heat (they had to – he killed people over stealing his shovel) and his passion made a Leif.
Since we never step far from our historical pioneers my parents should not have been surprised at five years old that I lit leaves on fire to sail them down the creek past our house. My little Viking funeral ships died out in the ripples before they passed under the neighbor’s bridge. I retro-suspect Mom and Dad were probably not as terribly shocked as they let on because they did move the matches to the highest pantry shelf and left me to my own devices on more than one occasion.
At the time I figured they need not worry. School’s Fire Prevention Week proved most inspirational even if it dealt heavily in theory and bad drawings of flaccid hoses dousing the sneering faces of angry cartoon flames. The volunteer firefighters wrestled black coiling lines that hissed 200 PSI across the fire station parking lot with too much ease. They taught us to put stickers up in our bedroom windows, meet our family at the mailbox and then expected us not to play with matches. No, no, our minds sizzled like a shortening fuse.
The school had us talking – sixty eager Kindergartners convinced we could save our house with a garden spigot and a pail. Bradley Bickel and I first took the learning home to his living room. We attempted to set a lampshade ablaze with an empty butane lighter. We wore our thumbs raw spinning the flint before his mother screamed, “Bradley!” in his ear. Forced to hide the rest of the afternoon in his bedroom, we blistered our hands hammering on his toys. Still, my combustible lust smoldered on, unsated, my schooling untried.
My release finally came between a spark and a spank that reddened all four of my cheeks. After floating my last burning barge down stream, a day’s destruction well done, I turned to face a surprise holocaust climbing the pine trees surrounding my parent’s home. The needles on the floor quickly curled black and the flaking bark hissed and popped. Despite all my training I froze in the fire, armed only with my ignorant tears.
Earlier, I expertly stomped out a small burn. I covered those ashes with fresh orange needles to hide my growing mania. Then I dashed directly up the hill through the flames, my tootsies amazingly untoasted. I spiked the guilty book authored by Sulphur at the dog house and looked frantically left and right. Perhaps I wished for marshmallows to grow like bolls from the pines instead of the wads of Quilted Northern stuffed in my underwear. Yes, I had time for padding while my family fought to save the house.
Few people can actually pinpoint the precise moment they became an American. Not cogent at birth, I discount it. Immigrants who take the oath follow way too many rules and actually know Lincoln was more than a log and Teddy less than a bear, so they are out too. Some might sense that I felt my patriotic heritage when I ducked into the bathroom to cover my ass, but it came after in the trash. Dad thwarted my entire plan by baring my heart shaped heinie to the flat of his palm. I hold no recollection of pain, but shame seared me when my mother found the useless paper overflowing from under the bathroom sink. Suddenly Americana dripped from my tongue thick and alive. I lied, perjured myself at the bench of family court. Already in so much trouble, I could stand no more. Repentant I swore off sources of ignition for a month, worked community service covering charred landscapes and did a weekend of rehab at Pyrononymous.
Twenty-five years later my five-year-old son left us sitting at my parents’ dinner table to walk his newly fashioned firework home. Some limp kite string taped to a four inch piece of discarded dowel slithered in the dust behind him. He muttered musings of pulling some matches from the cupboard. I could see him spilling them across the kitchen floor, countless bulbous heads racing in front of wriggling splinter tails to torch my house. I knew it was time for The Talk – The Burn in the Trees.
What can I say? The kid loves the Fourth of July and I have a sneaking suspicion they did not let him light anything during Fire Prevention Week because they needed the extra paper to fill in more bubbles. Once again I feel failed by our uber-cautious education system that claims No Child Left Behind will revolutionize American schools with high stakes testing. The politicians shout “Save the school!” but I hear, “Burn the home!” My son’s so young to find American cognizance. I ran home and hid the matches in his school backpack because:
to me it seems quite clear
that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating…