A Burning Man
The first time I was set on fire, I wasn’t aware of it. I was around five years old and I was sitting in our kitchen. My family lived in the kitchen. We had other rooms and plenty of space in other parts of the house, but the kitchen drew us in and held us there. It’s the heart of the home, I suppose. Most of the adult members of my family smoked, and on this particular day, one of my many brothers-in-law was standing behind me, smoking. He was dropping his ashes into an empty pop can. He started to tell some kind of story – I don’t remember what it was about – but I do recall that it was action-packed. He was very animated as he spoke, gesticulating wildly, and everyone was laughing.
At some point, I looked across the room at my mom, who was at the sink washing dishes. She was laughing, but then, she wasn’t. Instead, she looked shocked, then frightened, and she screamed out loud as she drenched a dishtowel in the soapy water and ran right at me. I had no time to react. Suddenly, she was on me, still screaming as she wrapped my head in the wet towel. I started to cry because she was crying, and she kept patting at the top of my head with a little too much force. I thought I’d done something wrong, though I didn’t know what. The room fell silent as she patted and I cried, and after a moment (though it felt much longer), she unwrapped my head. I looked at her as she looked at my brother-in-law with such raw anger that I thought he’d fall dead. You set him on fire with your damned cigarette, she hissed. You set his hair on fire! My brother-in-law looked dumbfounded, and his eyes kept darting from my mother to me, back and forth, as he tried to understand what had just happened. One of my sisters grasped the situation first. You were telling your story and waving your hands all over the place, she said, and wildly waved her own arms above her head to illustrate the scene. Your ashes fell on his head and his hair started burning. There was silence for a second, and then everyone erupted in laughter. I wasn’t laughing, and neither was my mom, nor my brother-in-law.
The second time I was set on fire, I was about twenty years old, and at a B-52’s concert at the University of Minnesota. I’d been a fan of the band since I was in high school and first heard Rock Lobster. I grew up in the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere, so the B-52’s meant something to me. The band was an oasis of strange in a flat, stale state, and I was desperate for strange. The night of the concert, I put on what I thought was a very punk outfit. It consisted of a black shirt, black pants, white hi-tops, and a vivid orange plastic jacket. I think I bought it at a hardware store in my hometown, and I’m certain the jacket was intended to be worn by hunters during deer season, so they could see, and not shoot, one another. I have no idea why I thought it was punk.
I went with a friend who was more or less like me – an undereducated rural boy who lived vicariously through TV shows and movies. We’d just been to see Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s punk musical film, Starstruck, so we thought we were experts. We found our seats in the auditorium balcony, very near the back wall, and we were so far away that we were sure we wouldn’t be able to see the band performing. Thank goodness for Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s giant beehives – you could spot those from any seat in the house. The guy standing next to me was about as punk as I was, but he seemed to have an I don’t give a shit attitude that I could emulate but never imitate. As the lights dimmed, I guess he wanted to show his defiance of all authority, and he lit up a cigarette. I was a little surprised, but I really didn’t care. I just wanted to see the band.
The B-52’s were in fine form that night, and after a couple of songs, everyone in the auditorium was on their feet and dancing. Even I was dancing, and that’s saying something. As we all jumped around and applauded and sang along, I didn’t notice what the guy next to me was doing, or rather, what his defiant cigarette was doing. It was dropping its glowing ashes down on the floor, down on my seat, and down on my orange plastic jacket. At some point, a woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, Excuse me, but your seat is on fire.
Even now, if someone said that to me, I wouldn’t know how to process it. My hands flew back and ran over my butt. No fire there. Then I smelled smoke, and looked down, and there was the fire. The hot ashes had burned — well, melted, really — through my orange plastic jacket and then burned through the old velvet seat cushion below, and whatever was used for padding back when the auditorium was built was smoldering. I looked around, hoping to spot an usher, but didn’t see one. I knew I had to do something. It’s never wise to ignore a fire in a crowded auditorium. Slowly, with great difficulty, because of all of the dancing spectators between me and the nearest exit, I moved toward the door, and once I was in the dark hallway, I called out, Hello! Is there an usher nearby?
There was no usher nearby, so I ran down the long hallway that ringed the auditorium until I found one. He was about my age – students could volunteer to be ushers in exchange for free performance tickets – and when I told him what was going on, he just shrugged. I dunno, he said. They didn’t tell us about this at training. I saw a cart nearby, filled with plastic cups and plates. It took me a minute to figure out what to do, and then I pointed at the cart. I ran and grabbed an empty glass and he did the same, then he followed me as I dashed back to the balcony. We filled our cups at a nearby water fountain, burst through the auditorium door, and dumped the water on the smoldering cushion.
The fire hissed and foul-smelling smoke rose up from the melted plastic and burning velvet, but it looked like the fire was out. The usher stood there staring down at it, waiting to see what would happen. Nothing did, so he took the empty cups and walked back out the exit door. The rest of the concert was great, and I was glad that everyone else was standing for it, because I couldn’t sit. The orange plastic jacket was a complete loss, as was, I presume, the theater seat. I attended more concerts at the auditorium, but I never sat in the balcony again.
The third time I was set on fire, it was at a tacky old Polynesian-themed gay bar in San Francisco. I don’t remember the name. I was visiting the city and went to the bar with some friends who’d moved out to the coast a couple of years before. I’ve never been a big fan of bars. I have a quiet voice, and it doesn’t carry far, so in any noisy venue, I’m usually silent. I can hear what others say, but there’s no point in my speaking. The bar was crowded and some kind of crazy mock-tropical music was blasting on the sound system. Large buckets of sand, with blazing tiki torches planted in them, and tall, inflatable palm trees, were scattered throughout the bar and ringed the dance floor.
I was doing my best not to run into anyone or step on any feet, so I was looking up and straight ahead. I didn’t notice how close I was coming to some of the fiery torches. Then I heard a bunch of drag queens screaming and looking at me. My first thought was that I’d broken some unspoken protocol, or worn the wrong clothes, or I was simply not attractive enough to be in a gay bar in San Francisco. One of my friends grabbed a pitcher of water from a nearby table and doused me. I didn’t know what was happening, so I didn’t think to duck out of the way. The water hit me full force. I was drenched. I couldn’t move. I was mortified. I’d fretted about my clothes and hair when I went out that night, feeling awkward in everything I tried on, in every direction I coaxed my hair. Now, soaked to the skin, with my shirt sticking to my skinny chest and my fine hair deflated, I knew I looked terrible. It was a young gay man’s worst nightmare, the equivalent of that common dream that you’re at work or at school or in a shopping mall and you find yourself inexplicably naked.
The friend who threw the water stepped toward me and I instinctively stepped back. I didn’t know what he was going to throw next. He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in. At first, I couldn’t hear him over the steel guitar and ukulele orchestra, but he finally got me to understand what had happened. Your shirt was on fire, he shouted, and he pointed at the blazing tiki torch that was now only inches from my head. He was laughing as he spoke, though he tried not to, and after another minute of confused shock, I started to laugh, too.
In his twilight years, my Grandpa C became a pyromaniac. This was when he still lived with my family, before he returned to Nebraska, went blind, and died alone in a rundown nursing home. My grandfather hated chaos of any kind. He’d been raised by his grandparents in the last years of 19th century Italy, taught by strict priests, and he was a devout Catholic. He believed in order. Lots of order. My family is large. I’m the tenth of ten children, and our ages span eighteen years. Large families are, in general, chaotic. Our house was a safe haven for all of my siblings’ friends, at those times when their own parents wanted to see less or none of them. There was a kegger there almost every weekend, and the local police knew my family well. When I think about it now, I understand that chaos is a kind word for the out-of-control environment in which we lived. Still, that’s what we knew, so that’s what was normal. But not for Grandfather C.
I don’t know if it was the result of our living outside the confines of city ordinances, or the fact that there was no trash collection back then, but around that same time, a trash heap started growing in our backyard. It probably started out with some piece of broken or unwanted furniture being placed there temporarily, just to get it out of the house. After that, a box or two may have been set on top of the derelict table or chair. Next came a plastic, garbage-filled bag, just until the next trip to the city dump; but that next trip never happened, and one abandoned desk or sofa transformed into a very large pile of refuse, five or six feet tall and several yards wide. After the first few items had been abandoned there, it was easy to simply toss the next unwanted item onto the heap. The garbage mountain drove Grandfather C mad.
He had grown up at a time and in a place where cholera epidemics and waves of other unhygienic diseases were part of village life. Parents often had more children than they realistically could support because it was assumed that some of them would die in infancy or childhood, and some generally did. Grandpa C was fanatical about cleanliness. He was fanatical about properly sterilized food. If he saw one of us picking a green bean or a strawberry from our garden, without first cooking it into a safe but tasteless mush, he scolded us. Carrots, radishes, and other tuberous foods were scrubbed under scalding water until no a spec of dirt was left on them. Grandpa C was certain that without his constant diligence, one or more of us would contract typhoid.
The garbage pile was the bane of our grandfather’s existence. Every morning, while he ate his odd breakfast of dry cereal with hot coffee, a raw egg, and a shot or two of brandy poured over it, he would complain about the garbage pile. It had to go. It was an embarrassment. It drew vermin. It smelled. I can’t say that any of his complaints were untrue. It did smell, and we’d become much more accustomed to the presence of large rats in our yard than any of us thought possible. Around the time that the garbage pile started to grow, things started to burn. At first it was nothing much, maybe a pile of brush that had been left at the end of the garden. From there, it graduated into larger things.
The highway that ran along the edge of our property was surrounded on both sides by large, steep ditches. The ditches were full of tall weeds and the odd cattail or two, and every autumn, these plants grew brown and dry. Weeds of any kind, for Grandpa C, represented chaos, life out of control, and he resented the presence of this plant life within his field of vision. One autumn afternoon, our mother looked out the kitchen window and saw that the ditches were on fire. These ditches weren’t small, so the fires were large, and grew larger by the minute. There was a steady wind that day, and tongues of flame were whipping toward our yard. Our mother ran from the house, shouting for my elder siblings to get the hose. She started running buckets full of water, and everyone grabbed a pail and ran toward the ditches. It took most of the afternoon, but the fire was finally doused. What was left behind was a soggy mess of charred weeds and blackened grass. The fire didn’t spread into our yard, and only luck prevented our house from going up in flames.
It was no mystery figuring out who had set the fire. Sure, it could have been a burning match or cigarette tossed carelessly from a passing car, but much more likely, it was our grandfather. On his farm back in Nebraska, he’d regularly burned his cornfields once the crop was gathered in. After that, he’d plow the fields and churn the charred stalks into the soil to fertilize it for the next planting season. Our mother didn’t hold back when she accused him of setting the fire, and he was upfront, even proud, of what he’d done. He didn’t seem to grasp that, though the ditches bordered our property, and yes, they were full of dry weeds, they didn’t belong to us. They were county property, and if anyone found out who had burned them, that person could be charged with arson. Grandpa C only knew that he’d seen a mess, and he’d cleaned it up.
There was little wind the day the garbage pile burned. This was a blessing. Wind, on the Midwest prairies, is always present. It can be an agent of change, blowing in a summer storm, churning up a tornado, then pushing all of that mayhem away again. In the winter, it creates blizzards that can bury you, and wind chills that can kill you. We don’t know when Grandpa C started the trash mountain on fire. It was probably in the morning. He always woke before everyone else, and took a dawn walk around the property, checking to make sure that all was in order for another day. He knew how to build a campfire. He often did this for my siblings and me when we wanted to roast hot dogs outside. It was as close as any of us got to camping. He likely first lit some kind of makeshift torch, a long, dry tree branch with some gasoline-soaked rags tied around one end, then worked the burning torch deep into the middle of the heap. If he wanted to burn the trash down to a pile of ash, this would make the most sense, to ignite the material from the inside, and allow it to burn out toward the surface. The garbage wasn’t compacted, so there would have been plenty of oxygen to feed the fire once it took.
I can’t recall who saw the smoking trash mountain first. I can only recall a general sense of panic that spread throughout the house, from person to person, as each of us realized what was happening. It smelled like an exploded chemical plant, mixed with the scent of campfires and roasting vegetation. This is what I experienced first, that awful smell. I only had to follow my siblings and parents as they ran toward the backyard in order to see what was happening. The fire was already on the verge of spreading to the nearby trees when my family and I first saw it. I don’t know what any of them thought in that moment. It reminded me of the burning ditch, and gave me a sense that my grandfather was a very powerful man. He could do these things – clear away weeds, make a mountain of garbage disappear – and my parents couldn’t stop him. No one could.
As with the first fire, the family organized a bucket brigade, and someone ran for the garden hose, but this time, our goal wasn’t to put the fire out. We simply wanted to control it. It was eating away an eyesore, something everyone wanted gone but no one was willing to do anything about, and so we let it burn. We made sure the ground surrounding the areas was well soaked, and sprayed down all of the trees that surrounded the heap. Then, we just watched. It was fascinating to see the fire as it ate its way through each plastic garbage bag, each broken table or chair. I knew the story of most of the objects in the pile, and as I watched, it seemed to me that the fire was erasing each little tale: The night my drunken father stumbled into an end table and broke the lamp that sat there; the morning one of my sisters sat down at the kitchen table to eat her breakfast, only to have the old wooden chair she sat on collapse under her; the old ice chest that my brother used to prop a ladder up on when he fixed an upstairs window. Each vanished. Each took a little weight with it.
A few weeks after the trash mountain burned down, our mother loaded Grandpa C into the family car and headed for Nebraska. I didn’t know that she was taking him away for good, that I’d never see him again, so I gave only a child’s cursory good-bye as I ran past the open car door on the morning they left. My mom felt backed into a corner. She wanted to take care of her aging father, she felt it was her responsibility, but she was afraid. What would he burn next? The untidy garage? The messy house? We all waved as our mother and grandfather drove off down the highway, then went back to our little lives, which were slightly more orderly now, thanks to an old man who had grown up in real chaos, and knew how it could, if unchecked, destroy a man, his family, and the whole sad village.
William Reichard is a writer, editor, and educator. His fifth poetry collection, Two Men Rowing Madly Toward Infinity, was published by Broadstone Books in 2016.