In Part I of “The Fire Next Time” I wrote of one instance involving fire that was warm and fuzzy and two that could have ended badly. In Part II I will share three more stories; one which ended badly, one which could have ended badly but did not, and one that left me scratching my head. My first story, the one that ended badly, is the story of Hank Snell.
All of us kids loved to play with fire when I was young, and some of us were more inquisitive and adventurous than others. I don’t know who it was that first learned about holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of a can of hairspray to create a serviceable blowtorch, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it. In no time at all spider webs and model towns made out of popsicle sticks and plastic model airplanes and automobiles belonging to siblings were being incinerated by a horde of little fire starters who were imitating Carrie White decades before Steven King wrote a novel with that incendiary young lady’s first name for a title.
Anywhere, at any time of the day or night in my neighborhood of East San Diego, one might see a jet of flame piercing the air, making an alley or the Park or somebody’s back yard when their parents were away at work look like flares erupting from a Saudi refinery. When I look back on the kids that I hung out with in my neighborhood, it’s a wonder that nobody ever got torched by an errant eruption on the part of a careless associate. Hank was the one exception to that history however, and it was Hank himself who turned out to be his own worst enemy.
In the course of time we all grew tired of the buzz that we achieved by lighting up our San Diego neighborhood with Spray Net and Aqua Net blowtorches. Something had to be thought up to take that trick to the next level and, sure enough, somebody did.
I don’t really know who that somebody was. Maybe that person saw a circus act on television – I’m not aware of a real circus, other than my neighborhood of course – coming to San Diego. Maybe they saw a sideshow at the County Fair featuring a human flamethrower. I know that I saw a sword swallower and a fire eater there, so a flamethrower is possible. In any case an evolution of the hairspray trick was needed and a cadre of intrepid teens in our neighborhood, which included Hank Snell, stepped up to the plate.
The new trick went like this. A person would get a mouthful of rubbing alcohol, light their Zippo cigarette lighter, and blow the flammable liquid through the pilot light to create a human blowtorch. The trick was sometimes successful but oftentimes it was not, so an improvement was made right away. That improvement came in the form of taking in a mouthful of lighter fluid and then repeating the established steps.
The result was electric! On every attempt, the highly flammable lighter fluid would blaze into an impressive bloom of flame as it was ejected forcefully through the lit Zippo. Several kids found the courage to do this trick, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that several kids simply lost what few marbles that they had left. Either way, it was an awesome display and none had a more spectacular delivery than did Hank.
Maybe he was just full of more hot air than were the rest of us, or maybe he tricked us and employed gasoline in his act. I don’t know, but Hank could create a fireball that looked a lot like “The Gadget” which was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945, just before it’s two siblings were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But all good plans have a fatal flaw. Hank’s fatal flaw was that he failed to take into account the wind. Therefore, one fine day he was demonstrating his oral pyrotechnic prowess to a group of friends and blew his blowtorch straight into the wind. The wind returned the favor and blew the flames right back into Hank’s face.
Hank got cooked like a deep fried turkey, or at least he looked that way. Eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, but luckily the skin of his face did not burn into the dermal layers. He looked plenty well done however, so his friends helped Hank to get home and then bailed out as soon as his parents took him off of their hands. They had no interest in waiting around and having to answer embarrassing questions. Hank was transported to a small hospital on El Cajon Boulevard; Hillside Hospital, I think it was, but I’m not sure about that one. There he was treated with state of the art aid and, on the next day, received visitors.
I wasn’t with that group, but a friend of mine was. He told me that Hank looked like the Mummy with all of his dressings, and that patches of red and blistered skin, all slathered in some sort of shiny salve, was visible. Maybe a blister or two was dozing something for good measure. I can’t testify to the truth of this account, but the story went on to tell of Bill Killman, one of the biggest, meanest and craziest kids in the neighborhood, passing out at his first sight of Hank’s face, and cracking his head open on the foot of Hank’s hospital bed. I have heard that story from enough sources to believe that it is probably true.
On another occasion I experienced an episode that could have gone bad but somehow didn’t. Jeff Brained and I were fooling around with matches close to the wall of the garage behind his house. Jeff lived in the middle house of the three that were tucked in between the church on the corner of 44th and Wightman and the Park. When they build the Park, or the Highland and Landis Recreational Center as official types preferred to call it, they took out most of the houses on that block, and Jeff lived in one of the few that remained.
I don’t remember what we were burning; it could have been just about anything. The problem was that we didn’t find a place to burn that was sufficiently far from the weeds which had grown up after the scanty rain of spring and summer, and were now a foot or more tall and dry as a bone. Predictably, the fire got into the weeds and was soon spreading towards the garage and the alley behind it.
Jeff and I were not very different from most of the other kids that we knew; that is, a couple of tacos short of a combo plate. But soon even we could see that the situation was getting entirely our of hand. We began to try to stamp out the flames, but with zero success. Then we tried to kick an area free of weeds between the fire and the garage and weed-choked alley (which did not run the entire length of the block, and was therefore little used and thick with weeds), but that too was a futile endeavor.
At this time something happened to me for the first, but not the last, time. On occasions of extreme stress I would sometimes sort of lose touch with reality. I would go onto some sort of auto pilot, and while I still functioned in a normal manner at those times I would simply lose the memory of what had transpired. This happened once or twice again in my teens, a few times in Vietnam and a few times in the first years after I returned to San Diego and civilian life. It’s weird, and it hasn’t happened again for a long time now, but it happened the first time in Jeff’s back yard.
I think that Jeff ran and got the garden hose while I continued to thrash away at the flames, but I don’t really know that for sure. One moment I was imagining the garage and perhaps more than that going up in flames, and the next I was standing in a patch of blackened soil, the fire thoroughly out. I know that I had kept stamping at the fire because my tennis shoes were sort of melted and my jeans were blackened and singed. Beyond that I didn’t then and still don’t know what happened. If I ever run into Jeff I’ll have to ask him.
The final story of this round of tales took place in my own back yard. I was probably twelve years old and, as I often did, I had a small fire burning in the middle of our back yard. Now, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I knew how to keep a safe fire. Well, my own back yard at least. Anyway, I had a small fire going and I was sitting on a big chunk of wood and tending my blaze while I daydreamed of pleasant things. I still do that, by the way.
At some point the sound of sirens from a fire engine broke into my consciousness, and I began to think of putting out my little fire and riding my bicycle to what certainly must be a bigger show. I scanned the horizon for smoke but saw none, so I resumed paying attention to my fire and my daydreams.
The siren grew louder and at last I decided that something seriously exciting was happening nearby. Once again I looked all around for smoke, and once again I found none. Getting back to my fire and my daydreams however was now out of the question. The sound of the siren grew until it seemed like it was very nearly on top of me. There was a good reason for that; it very nearly WAS on top of me.
The siren was turned off and moments later three gigantic firemen in full uniforms, with boots and thick clothes and those big, wide-brimmed fireman helmets on top of huge heads with scowling faces, came thundering around the corner of the house, burst into my back yard, came to a dead stop, and then looked around for the fire.
The only fire was my little affair, hardly big enough to cook a hot dog over it. I stood by the fire, stunned and stupefied, looking for all the world like I had no idea what was happening. This, no doubt, was because in fact I had no idea what was happening.
“Where’s the fire” one of the firemen asked me. I looked around, hoping that a neighbor’s house was burning. Alas, all that I could see, besides every kid that I knew running from the Park and lining my back fence, pointing at me and beginning to laugh, was my little Boy Scout blaze.
Pointing at my weak flames, I told him “I guess that’s all the fire that there is around here.”
Fifty seven years after the fact I can still remember the look of disgust on the fireman’s face. “Well” he said. “We got called to put out a fire, so let’s put out a fire.”
They brought a hose into the yard; not one of those big canvas affairs, but rather a smaller rubber hose which nevertheless had a good deal of pressure. The fireman pointed the brass nozzle at my fire, pulled a lever, and blasted my little blaze out of existence.
Later, when my mother got home from work, she quickly figured out that our next door neighbor was the party who ratted me out. She was a little bit odd under the best of circumstances, and she virtually never operated under the best of circumstances. She was certain that I would eventually burn the neighborhood down. I suppose that I might have gotten a little ash on her laundry once or twice, so that didn’t help things much. My brother was in the house at the time, and he said that she was looking out from a bedroom window as the firemen ran up our driveway. He said that she had a smirk on her face.
Which brings me to the end of Part II of this account of my early love affair with fire. In Part III I will share two or three more stories that revolved around fire, and then put the topic to rest.