Thursday, August 28, 2014

Playing With Fire

Photo credit: Sebastian Ritter
I loved matches: I loved the sulfurous smell that stings the nostrils. I love how the spark leads to a flare, and then to a small flame that burns on a tiny sliver of wood, or a compressed pile of paper.

I used to make miniature rockets with matches, using only a small piece of tin foil, a paper clip, and a needle. I would wrap the head of a match with the foil, making sure that about the first half of the match was covered tightly. I would then insert the needle along the shaft of the match, under the foil and up to the head, creating a vent.

The paper clip would then be spread apart gently, such that if you lay it down, the larger loop of the clip made a stable base and the smaller loop would rise up at about a 45-degree angle. The match would rest on this stand with the head at the top part of the paper-clip launch pad.

I would then light a second match and hold it under the head of my rocket match, standing to the side of it.

Blast off!

I loved setting things on fire. I would crumple sheets of paper into tight balls and see how long it would take to burn through. The tighter the ball, the longer the burn.

My mom didn't like me playing with matches, was afraid that I would set fire to myself or to the house. But I promised that I would take care not to burn myself and I never set fire to paper indoors.

Except that one time.

I was alone in the house, playing in my room, in the house at 69 Chesterton Drive. I was in the fourth or fifth grade, or perhaps it was during the summer, when school was out. I remember looking out the family-room window that overlooked Chesterton and Woodmount Crescent, and the grass was green, people were outside without jackets.

I loved to light paper matches, bending the one at an end around to the strip and lighting it while it was still attached to the rest of the pack—failing to close the cover before striking. I would use that match to light all the others in the booklet, delighting at the mini fireball.

It was a wide matchbook; perhaps, twice the width, with twice as many matches as a typical book. When I ignited the pack, the flaring light was spectacular, burned brighter and faster than I could have imagined. The fireball startled me, and I dropped the pack.

I was young, but I wasn't stupid. Not completely. Before I struck the first match, I had taken the precaution of setting myself up over the garbage can in my room. It was tin: blue, with an illustration of Snoopy, standing beside his doghouse, dressed with a scarf and a World-War I pilot cap and goggles, pretending he was about to embark on a mission in his Sopwith Camel. On the other side, Snoopy sat atop his "plane," bullet holes in the side, smoke trailing from behind. He was shaking his fist and uttering, "Curse you, Red Baron!"

When I dropped the pack, it fell straight into the waste basket. I wasn't entirely stupid, but I hadn't thought everything through. There was a lot of crumpled paper in the basket, but it wasn't balled tightly and it caught fire immediately. Soon, I had a raging inferno to accompany Snoopy's plight.

My waste basket was close to my bedroom window, and I could see that the flames were well-above the top of the can, trying to reach out to my curtains. Out of fear of burning my house down, despite my assurances to my mother, I took swift action: I lifted the can and ran to the bathroom, which was next to my room.

It was a stroke of luck that the smoke didn't overpower me, that the flames didn't reach for me, or that the burning paper didn't lift out of the can and spread. I set the can in the bath tub, under the faucet, and turned on the water. In seconds, the room filled with smoke and the tub echoed the hiss of doused flames. Relief flooded me as I realized I hadn't burned the house to the ground and my mess could be cleaned easily.

And that's when the pain set in.

I looked at my hands, the palms and fingertips seemingly melted, and I screamed in agony. The flesh was glistening and I could see the bubbling blisters begin to form. I crossed my arms, tucked my hands into my armpits, and squeezed, hoping to alleviate the burning, or at least hoping the pressure would distract me.

I ran around the house, upstairs and down, jogging laps around the main floor, wondering what to do, crying uncontrollably.

And then Mom came through the front door.

She didn't scold me, she didn't punish me. She could see her young son was in pain, that he had punished himself enough. I showed her my burned hands and she told me she could make them feel better. She said nothing as she applied the ointment and wrapped my hands in gauze. Gave me aspirin for the pain. And held me tightly as I cried some more.

I never played with matches again.

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