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Playing with Fire
A fuel source. Oxygen. Heat. The three necessary components to ignite a fire.
And in the case of when I started a house fire in my childhood home, a fourth component - a little human curiosity.
On a cold day, in the early months of 1988, I sat on the carpet in front of the fireplace in our basement, simultaneously eyeing the coals in the fireplace and the rack of exquisite fireplace tools on the hearth next to me. How many times had I witnessed my father manipulate and control fire here? Grabbing logs and readjusting them, poking the hot coals, using the bellow to motivate the flames -- this was the type of household responsibility I wanted -- Fire Master. I already knew, at seven, that Dads got to do the fun chores, often outdoors, that involved tools and machines and flames and that Moms had to do the lame inside chores like dishes and cooking and laundry folding and putting away.
My parents were out for dinner and the neighbor girl from down the street was babysitting my little sister and me. It was the eighties so nobody was too concerned that I was in the basement hanging out with the fire that had roared earlier in the day and was now slowly dying.
The aforementioned very-special-looking-fireplace-tools that were not for little girls to touch were really calling my name. Curiosity sparks all types of, shall we say, curious behavior. Whenever I catch myself yelling these words, "Why in the world would you..." to my children, curiosity is usually the culprit. A deep and foundational desire to interact and experiment with our environment, rising up from within us, and often only muted by other human drives like the drive to belong or the drive to avoid death.
Anthropologists believe that humans first came to use and manipulate fire by coming across already burning fires and interacting with heat and flames and ash. Early humans had to play with fire to understand fire.
One of the tools in the set was a little broom with wire brushes and a tiny metal pan. Of course the fire poker was off limits and the bellow might make a big mess of ash but nobody could be upset with me for sweeping, right? I was just going to tidy the ashes. Curiosity mixed with the right amount of gender-conforming chore-performing should make this okay.
I carefully removed the broom and dustpan from the rack and positioned myself on the hearth in front of the fireplace opening, broom in my left hand and tiny pan in my right hand. I felt powerful and alive just holding these forbidden tools that belonged in a category of household items that were off limits: the chess set with hand-carved pieces, the silver tray adorned with tiny glasses, my oldest brother's delicate Christmas ornament depicting the singing of the Declaration of Independence, my other brother's synthesizer.
I began to sweep the coals and ash into neat piles in the fireplace. Everything was going quite swimmingly and I decided it was wise to just clean out the entire fireplace. I found a tiny red plastic garbage bin and placed it on the carpet in front of the hearth. I swept a pile of ash and coal into the tiny pan and expertly transferred it into the bin without spilling a bit. I was really doing this thing. I felt grown. I felt responsible. I was basically an adult in this moment.
On my third or fourth pile transfer, a strange chemical smell assaulted my nose. What was that? I thought. I put my head closer to the fire and sniffed, I walked around the room investigating the smell. I learned over the garbage can and the smell intensified. I lifted the can and discovered melted plastic on the carpet beneath.
My chest tightened, eyes widened, I held my breath. My soaring heart of moments ago dropped violently into my stomach. If the pride and lightness I had felt while sweeping and scooping were a bird in the sky, it was as if that bird were shot with a large stone from the slingshot of panic/shame/wrongness, and fell out of the sky landing in the dirt with a hard thud.
In a frantic attempt to hide the damage to the carpet, I quickly picked up the garbage can and carried it to the back room of the basement, tossed it into a larger garbage can and shut the door. I tried to scrape the plastic off the carpet with a spoon - which didn't work. I pulled the tiny rug that sat in front of the fireplace over to cover the carpet, slid the spoon under the couch, and put the fireplace tools back in their rightful position. I positioned myself in front of the small basement tv and sat with my hands in my lap, sweating profusely, trying to follow the plot line of Unsolved Mysteries.
Curiosity was gone. Replaced with fear that I would be found out. Fear that I did something wrong and everyone would be mad at me for melting red plastic on the floor.
"Pizza is here," the babysitter yelled downstairs. Ooh, Dominos.
As we ate our pizza on the first floor, the smoke from the backroom of the basement made its way up the empty clothes shoot to the second floor hallway. The smoke crept down the hall and into my brother's bedroom where he was working on a high school final paper. He was supposed to go to the dinner that night - my Great-grandmother's 95th birthday - but had decided last minute to stay home and finish his paper.
All I remember after this point is being unable to find my teddy bear, Teddy, when Zach shouted that we all had to get out of the house because there was a fire. I tried looking for him but was pulled away. We ran barefoot down the street, freezing, to the babysitter's house. She wrapped me up in a blanket and I sat on her bed with my sister, sobbing. All the while I knew that I had started the fire and that I had probably just murdered Teddy.
I don't remember my parents yelling at me or being angry. I remember my mom being on the phone saying things like, "we are just so lucky that Zach decided to stay home," and "thank God I had done laundry that day or the smoke might not have made it to the top floor," and "Zach had pretty much put the fire out by the time the fire truck arrived." I do remember my other brother taking me out to the garage the next day to show me the large garbage can that had melted down to near nothing. I remember him saying, "See what you did? You could have killed us all." He wasn't home at the time of the fire but I think he was disappointed my parents weren't punishing me and wanted me to feel the burn, so to speak.
I knew I had done something wrong and I got that same sinking feeling every time I thought about the melted can or saw the red plastic on the carpet. That lasted for a few weeks, maybe a month, but I got over it.
I stayed curious after this. I still wanted to do and try all the grown up things. Even with all the terror and pain of going too far and getting burned, I continued to take risks. I was the first in my group of peers to try all kinds of things. Where others were cautious I would race ahead.
Humans honing their ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution. Fire provided a source of warmth, allowing humans to migrate and survive in harsher elements. Fire provided a heat source for cooking food and for making more sophisticated tools. Fire was an early security system against larger and more ferocious predators. A small man with a big flame could go farther in the world than a small man with no flame.
Few chimpanzees have shown an ability to start and use fire and there is a certain type of hawk that intentionally spreads already blazing fires to scare prey into open areas, but no other species uses fire like humans.
I think my interest in fire and the ash it left behind is so quintessentially human. Perhaps passed down through countless generations so completely that when the opportunity arose I was called to play with the fire.
Humans dance with things that used properly catapult us forward but that used improperly can devour us in flames. I think we are the only species with the consciousness to engage with danger in such a complicated and peculiar way. Our curiosity can take us to the edge of discovery and to the edge of self-destruction and sometimes we don't find out which one of these outcomes we've arrived out until it's too late and we are managing the aftermath of our risk-taking.
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