From my earliest memories, I have had a fascination with fire. According to my mother, my talent for setting things on fire surfaced at a very young age. From what I'm told, my parents must have lived in constant fear of me burning down the house. I could expertly strike a match before I could go mining in my nose.
Apparently I could always seem to find a match somewhere, no matter how hard my parents tried to keep them hidden. My father smoked cigarettes, so there were matches in the house all the time. I could grab a long wooden kitchen match, strike it and have it blazing before anyone could make a move to stop me. After numerous scoldings and a butt whipping or two, I still didn't seem to be getting the message. Actually, I did get the message not to do it in the open and get a spanking; rather I would hide in the closet or under the bed. When my parents smelled smoke and tracked down the source I would be in trouble again. It became apparent that lectures and spankings weren't getting through, so another approach was warranted.
One afternoon, my father came home with a package of the long, strike-on-anything kitchen matches. A package contained three large boxes, so there were several hundred matches in a pack. He and my mother made me sit on the floor, and they placed a pan of water and a small trash can beside me. I was told to strike every match in the package, let each one burn most of the way down, dunk it in the water and throw it in the can.
To a three-year-old pyromaniac, that was the greatest day of my life up to that point. I loved it! A kitchen match gives off a lot of sulfur when it is ignited. We lived in a small garage
apartment, so after a couple of hundred strikes the odor got pretty intense. My parents were getting teary eyed and nauseous, but I couldn't have been happier. When I finally dropped the last match in the can, they looked at me and asked, "Did you get your fill of playing with matches?"
I looked at them through the smoky haze and said, "Can I have some more?"
They knew at that point their lives were going to be in constant peril as long as I could get my hands on a source of fire. Fortunately I never did any serious damage, at least not until I was old enough to know better.
A few weeks prior to my fifth birthday, my father was killed in an automobile accident. My mother and I moved in with my grandparents, so I was able to ply my talents in a bigger place with many more places to hide and fire things up. My grandparents learned quickly to keep a sharp eye and a keen nose during all of my waking hours.
By the time I was eight years old and playing with other kids in the neighborhood, I was king when it came to burning up toys, model airplanes and other things. Charlie Jackson was visiting one Sunday afternoon when we decided to see how far a paper airplane could fly with its tail on fire. We launched several in a matter of a minute, and each one had landed on the roof of our house and all were burning brightly. We were admiring our accomplishment when my mother stepped out the backdoor to see what we were so interested in on top of the house. I can't tell you how upset and scared she was. She yelled something about me not having the sense God gave something, then grabbed the water hose and put out the flaming airplanes. Charlie decided to go home about the time my mother stepped out the door, so I was standing there alone when she
extinguished the flames. She attempted to yell at me, but she was having trouble coming up with words to adequately express her anger. She finally pulled me inside the house and whipped my ass. That was a small price to pay for seeing all those paper airplanes ablaze on the roof of our house. A great artist sometimes has to endure pain when the common folk don't appreciate his genius.
Behind our house there was a two-acre pasture that belonged to our next-door neighbor. Occasionally they would put a couple of cows in it to graze on the grass before taking them out to their farm. When there were no cows to eat the grass, it would quickly grow to a couple of feet tall. In the middle of the usual East Texas summer drought, the grass would dry up and become a fire hazard. Across the pasture there were a couple of other houses whose yards bordered the property.
One afternoon my mother was at work in our grocery store, which was located next to the house. I hadn't done anything to scare the hell out of her for a few months, so she had been lulled into a false sense of security. I was strolling around with a pocket full of matches trying to find something to safely burn up. I walked to the back of our yard and leaned up against a fence post with my back to the pasture. I began lighting matches and flicking them up in the air, making sure they were flying back over my head and into the pasture. The last time she found a bunch of matches in the yard there had been hell to pay. After eight or ten matches I was getting bored. As I stood there contemplating the meaning of life and staring at the clouds, it seemed to be getting a little hotter than it had been a few minutes before. I looked behind me to find the pasture engulfed in flames. The fire was quickly spreading through the dry grass. I ran for the store at top speed
and told my mother to call the fire department because the pasture was on fire. When she hung up the phone she turned to me and asked, "Did you start it?"
I wasn't thinking clearly enough to lie. "Yes", I said, "I did it."
She glared at me and said, "Go to your room and wait for me."
I knew from past experience that nothing good was going to happen. She ran to the back yard, grabbed the hose and started spraying water on the fire. I went to my room and looked out the window as the fire trucks arrived. Across the pasture the neighbors were frantically trying to keep the fire from getting into their yards. Two-thirds of the pasture was lost by the time it was under control. My mother put down the hose and started walking toward the house. She stopped briefly to cut a switch from a bush. I could hear her footsteps as she crossed the porch. When she opened the door a hundred desperate excuses raced through my mind, but nothing sounded like it would fly. The next couple of minutes I endured the worse whipping of my life. Child Protective Services would have had every social worker on their staff at our house if it hadn't been the sixties, when it was legal to make your kids mind. It would have made a normal kid never want to light another fire in his life, but I wasn't a normal kid. I was convinced fire was a form of entertainment, and I just needed to be more careful when enjoying it around people who didn't appreciate it.
The next year I went through a growing spurt, so my mother decided it was time for me to have a new suit. She and I traveled to Nacogdoches to the Mize Department Store and found a
nice one. As she was paying for the suit, I noticed some small kerosene lanterns for sale on a table next to the cash register. I immediately started begging for one and making all kinds of wild promises about how careful I would be. In a weak moment she bought my story and added a lantern to her ticket. I was shocked! I don't know what was wrong with her. Maybe she thought I had matured and she would give me the benefit of the doubt. That made her at least partly to blame for what would happen when we got back to Crockett.
As soon as we got home I ran next door to the kerosene pump in front of our store and filled up the lantern. I took it into the house and put it on the kitchen table. Mother showed me how to light the lantern and adjust the flame. After a few minutes she made me put it out, and after I promised not to light it when she wasn't home, she went back to work at the grocery store.
I sat at the table and stared at the lantern for a few minutes, then I went for the matches. I lit the lantern and watched the flame for awhile. Being the middle of the afternoon I could only speculate how much light it would give off in the darkness.
In our hallway there was small closet we used as a hamper for dirty laundry. Mother had washed clothes a couple of days earlier, so luckily there were only a few items in it at the time. It seemed like the perfect place to try out the lantern. I opened the small wooden door, crawled inside and shut it behind me. For the first minute or so I sat and enjoyed the light flickering off the walls. All of a sudden the fumes from the burning kerosene began to get to me. I started getting dizzy and sick at my stomach. I shoved the door opened and rolled into the hallway. I left the lantern in the hamper, and in my haste to escape I kicked it over, spilling kerosene onto the
clothes and starting a small fire. I reached in and smothered the fire by piling more clothes on top of the flames.
After the crisis had passed, I pulled all the clothes out of the closet and inspected the damage. Most of the clothes belonged to my mother, while a couple pair of my underwear were burned pretty badly. She, on the other hand, had lost several pair of panties and some bras. I knew exactly what to do in this crisis situation -- hide the evidence.
Our next-door neighbors, the Parkers, had a large tin building behind their house that was used for storage. I couldn't remember the last time I had seen anyone go in or out of it. It seemed like the best place to stash the burned clothes. The tin was pulled apart along one corner of the building, so I crammed everything through the crack and ran. I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon playing around without another thought about the fire.
About suppertime, I coolly stepped through the kitchen door to see what my mother had cooked. There she sat with Mrs. Parker at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking. On the table in front of them was the entire pile of charred underwear. The look I got from my mother was one of pure disgust. Mrs. Parker decided it was time to take the last quick gulp of coffee and go home. Surprisingly my mother decided to try grounding me this time. I'm pretty sure she figured she would beat me to death if she resorted to whipping me. She was too mad to trust herself.
Believe it or not, that was my last dangerous fling with fire. I still love lighting campfires and watching them burn, but I haven't put my life in danger for many years. My son Jamie used to light his toy soldiers and watch them burn when he was a small child. It made me so proud!