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The Boy Who Played With Matches: A Memoir

Updated on March 23, 2009

He was only 5 years old. He had been told not to play with matches, of course, for his parents were good people. They made him eat his vegetables and limit his desserts. He wasn't a firebug. Not really. Not a budding arsonist. No pyromania smoldering in his tiny brain. No incendiarism waiting to be struck on the emery. But humans have had a long and intense fascination with fire and so it was with this boy. It certainly wasn't one of the usual motives for fire raising: there was no animosity, no vandalism, no psycho pathological factors, no crime scene concealment, no profit, and no political objectives, like demanding less brussel sprouts and more ice cream.

No, it was just your garden variety fascination with all things “grown-up.” The desire to be an adult. It was probably all that family talk about being descended from Davey Crockett, which may or not be true, but he just had to live in the woods, wear a coonskin cap and hunt bear, and all possible descendants of Davey Crockett know you can't do those things if you can't build a campfire. It's instinctual. Maybe not for you, but it is for all possible descendants of Davey Crockett. And just maybe fire made him feel a tiny little tingle in his tiny little pecker, but I don't really remember, for that 5 year old boy was I.

Into the Woods

There was a great expanse of woods behind our house. It was probably actually something like a copse of woods, but to me it was a forest. There were rickety tree-houses, labyrinth paths, foxholes, and secret tunnels hastily dug by the children, made all the better by the constant danger of collapsing and suffocating the little explorer within. Countless lush memories were grown in its fertile soil.

There was the time the people a mile or so down the road had their pet monkeys escape, about eight of them. My parents read about it in the paper, so we hiked down the road in the direction I had never been before, and there they were, monkey's swinging in the trees just like in the Tarzan movies. I still don't understand why those people had all those monkey's, but at the time all I knew is there were monkeys in the trees. So you can take your copse of woods and shove them up your arse. I've got a forest. There are monkeys in the goddamn trees.

And so when the neighbor kid and I came across the carton of matches in his garage, where else would we go to practice our campfire skills but to my forest, the one with the tree houses, paths, foxholes, tunnels, and goddamn monkeys.

The Catcher in Awry

Murphy's law says that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. He could have said it will go wrong immediately. We carefully constructed our campfire. A clearing was chosen, clear of any stuff that might accidentally catch fire, and built a ring of stones. Our kindling was stacked neatly in the center with larger sticks piled nearby for when our campfire got going. Neither man nor beast remembers who struck the match and held it to the brittle tinder.

What happened next was astounding. The fire paid no attention to our ring of stones at all and immediately began spreading across the ground like...well...wildfire. Frantically we ran round and round the burning ring stepping on flames, children performing a macabre clog-dance of death. The fire simply scooted round our tiny feet, proceeding on its merry way. Clearly, even in duress I could see that we were getting nowhere but fast. I turned to my compatriot and...there was nobody there. The bastard had bailed on me. I did what any 5 year-old boy would do. I ran. I ran and I ran. I ran faster than I had ever run before. I ran like a 5 year old possible descendant of Davey Crockett with a tingling pecker runs from a bear. Straight home to mommy.

Bursting into the house, I screamed, “Mom, Mom, the woods are on fire, the woods are on fire!” My mom, being good people, called the fire department. I went and hid in my room. “Maybe they won't find me forever and ever,” I thought. Soon, the roar of fire engines and police sirens filled the air. My self-imposed exile came to an abrupt end, for what 5 year-old boy is not called to the screams from a gaggle of fire engines flying into the neighborhood?

Gone With the Wind

The sight outside was dramatic. The flames were engulfing the treetops. There were fire engines and police vehicles everywhere, their lights flashing in an unsyncopated rhythm that matched my irregular heartbeat. It was hard to believe that I had caused such an epic sight. Two kids with a red thing on the end of a paper stick and now the world was ending. Maybe they won't think to ask me if I knew who did it?

And they didn't ask. They didn't have to. They knew. How did adults always know the truth? Just like that Murphy guy, damn know-it-all. I was given a serious talking to. But why weren't my parents yelling at me? There should have been yelling. It was confusing. Instead it was a very serious, quiet talk:

“...and you know not to play with matches, don't you?” “Yes, Sir,” I answered my father. “And you see how dangerous fire can be, don't you?” asked my mother. “Yes, Ma'am,” I replied. “And you'll never do anything like this again?” my father challenged.

“No, Sir,” I said. “I'll never do anything like this ever again, cross my heart.”

And I didn't. Not for a whole year, but you know how it is with us possible descendants of Davey Crockett. The call of the wild, the freedom of living in the woods, the damn box of matches in the neighbors garage.

It was virtually an exact replay of the same scene, like a video played over and over, it never changes no matter how many times we watch it. The clearing in the woods. The ring of stones. The match held to the tinder. The arrogant fire. The disappearing cohort. And me running. Running and running, “Mom, the woods are on fire, the woods are on fire,” Mom calling the fire department, the fire engines and police cars, sirens screaming, flames eating treetops, and the talk. This was the first time I heard the word “firebug.” In retrospect, they probably should have whupped the little firebug's ass.

The Grape Popsicles of Wrath

We moved a year later, the woods regrown now, safe from one particular little boy who liked to play with matches. Oklahoma was dry. Dry as tinder. A couple of us were once again trying to be grown-ups. We had found that kite sticks that came with a kite when you purchased it at the store was a very porous wood, and if you lit the end, you would get a nice red ember that you could keep going by sucking on the stick, like a cigarette.

So we were sucking on kite sticks pretending to smoke cigarettes when it came, the bell that calls children as much as the bell of a fire engine: The ice cream truck was coming. When you heard the bell of the ice cream truck you had to work fast. First you had to run home to get money, and then back to the street to maul the ice cream man with your orders of “push-ups,” “drumsticks,” “popsicles,” “ice cream sandwiches,” “fudgsicles,” “bullets,” and “chocolate-covered ice cream bars.”

There was that moment when the bell first rings and everybody looks up and freezes...listening...waiting for confirmation...and then the second ring. Simultaneously, everyone dropped their red-embered sticks onto the dry, thirsty grass and bolted into action, scattering in every direction like rats on a sinking ship.

After purchasing and devouring our treats in the hot Oklahoma sun, satiated with the adolescent ecstasy that comes with consuming unexpected frozen goodies, we headed back behind the houses to retrieve our “stickorettes.” Again, we all froze in unison, not at the sound of a bell but the sight before us: flames. Flames spreading across the lawns of this one-time dust bowl, the circle of fire growing larger, spreading like a rosy welt on dry skin, creeping closer and closer to the houses.

The Quick and the Dead

I showed my usual bravery and quick mind. I ran. I ran and I ran. I ran into the house with the annual cry, “Mom, Mom, the yards are on fire, the yards are on fire!” Mom, being good people, called the fire department. There was no hiding for me this time. No forced exile. Why bother. They knew who did it. It was I. The firebug.

I didn't even get “the talk” on this occasion. It was just “what were you doing this time,” and then after explaining the “stickorettes,” the dreaded parent rolling eyes, followed by the look to the heavens, as if to say to God, “you do something with him.”

It was the old lady next door who saved me. Mrs. Abernathy, bless her heart. While we were waiting for the fire trucks and trying to put the fire out, she was actually fanning the flames toward her house. As my father explained to me, she was having financial difficulties and wanted her house to burn down. The fire had been such an opportunity, such a gift from heaven, that she couldn't resist helping it along. Dad thought that was so funny that he sort of forgot about me.

Fatal Attraction

I managed to go 8 years without an incident, and now that we had moved to St. Louis and I was in high school, you could say that I was a young adult and was expected to have achieved some degree of responsibility. But fire is a sneaky bitch, and she has a way of showing up when you least expect her. “Hello,” she says. “Remember me? It's been so long and you haven't called.”

Once a month a caravan of trucks filled with seafood would arrive and set up on shop on the parking lot of a nearby shopping center to sell their goods. It was fresh-frozen of course—frozen right on the ships and then trucked in from Louisiana—and my parents always filled up on snapper, salmon, shrimp, crab, and whatever caught their fancy, but always the breaded oysters. My father and I loved the breaded oysters.

One particular weekend night, I came home late from a night out partying. My father had left a note for me that read: “Chris, How about some oysters? Mmmm.” He had left the iron skillet with frying grease in it right on the stove top, for my father was good people. I turned on the electric burner underneath the skillet and went to get into my bed clothes. It took forever for those electric stove tops to get hot, you know.


It seemed like I had only been gone a couple of minutes. As I walked toward the kitchen I saw a strange, moving, orange glow coming from around the corner. I slowed down for a second, and then horror registered on my face as the realization hit me: the bitch is back.

I went quickly to the kitchen and the skillet was aflame. A grease fire. I quickly played through my mind what to do with a grease fire, and I remembered. Throw baking soda on it.

Naturally, the skillet was directly underneath the cabinet where such items were kept, such as spices, sugar, and baking soda. I darted my hand in and out of the cabinet, moving items, searching, looking for the baking soda, the flames kissing my arms with each thrust. There it is...finally. I quickly opened package and threw the magical ingredient on the fire and....whoosh....the flames shot even higher, burning in blues and greens like fireworks. I looked at the package in my hand, confused. For the love of God, I had thrown baking powder on the damn thing and it exploded.

I had to get the burning oil away from the wall, so I set a hot pad on the island in the center of the kitchen and carried the pan—hot grease, flames and all—carefully to the island and set it down. I knew that was the wrong thing to do. If I had spilled it the game would have been over, but no harm came from it. “Don't touch anything,” I said to myself. “Let it alone.”

Missouri Burning

Before too long the flames went out. Thank heavens, no harm done. The house was thick with smoke. Fortunately, my parents were still asleep with their door closed, but what to do with all this hot, smoking grease?  I knew I couldn't just pour it down the sink, and I knew that you were not supposed to put water on a grease fire.   What to do, what to do?   It came to me.   Nobody ever said anything about putting water on hot grease.   Grease that wasn't on fire.  So if I set the skillet in the sink and let just a trickle of warm water run into it, it will eventually wash away all the hot grease.  So that is what I did.   Everything was fine.

I went around the house as quietly as possible opening every window. Once I had the place aired out, I'd close the windows, and nobody would be the wiser. I was going to get away with this. I opened the last window and headed back toward the kitchen. Rounding the corner, I stopped in my tracks. There was that now familiar orange glow, except it was brighter, more furtive, and ...oranger than before.

I hurried to the kitchen. The damn thing had reignited. Nobody ever told me that. Nobody ever told me the grease fire would restart. The flames were moving up the wall behind the sink, burning the wooden roll-up shade that hung there. I turned on the water and, cupping my hands, tried flinging water at it. It wasn't enough. The flame was hungrily eating the shade now. I needed something big.

I hustled into the garage looking for a bucket, a container, anything. There was nothing. Finally, I spied a clay pot for plants. I grabbed it and hurried back to the sink. The ceiling was burning now. I held the pot under the faucet and flung its contents at the fire. Nothing. I did it again. Nothing. What the hell is wrong with this thing? I looked into the pot. Oh...yeah. Clay pots have a big hole in the bottom for water drainage. I forgot. At that precise moment, the glass globe on the ceiling exploded from the flames and the heat. Game, set, match.



I then did what any 16 year old young adult would do. I ran. I ran and I ran. Straight into my parents bedroom. “Mom, dad, the kitchen's on fire, the kitchen's on fire!” My mother mumbled, “Mmm God,” and then she rolled onto her other side but made no effort to get up. My father sleepily grunted, “For heaven's sake,” and he very slowly sat up and started to put on his slippers. What the hell was wrong with these people? “Hurry,” I gasped! Dad moved slowly to the walk-in closet and disappeared inside. What the... I half expected Rod Serling to come out in my dad's place. I mean, Rome was fucking burning and these people were getting ready for a barbecue. And they intended to arrive fashionably late.

Dad finally emerged—oh, it seemed like about 10 minutes later—wearing a bath robe. I couldn't stand it. I was jumping up and down like a cat on a hot plate. “Hurry! It's on FIRE! I'm not kidding! It's burning!” All he said was, “Just settle down.” Oh, fine. Just settle down, he says. Ok. Hold on “fire bitch”, the ice man cometh, it's just going to take him awhile. I am imagining the flames licking through the roof, illuminating the black night, and this man...this out for a stroll in his jammies down the hallways of the old folks home.

Was I speaking another language? Why couldn't I make my parents understand that the—read my lips—house - was - burning – down? Dad stopped at the hall closet, removed a towel and casually threw it over his shoulder, continuing on to the kitchen, which had turned to bright, pulsing red, a frenzied dance of shadow and light. The ceiling was burning good now. He calmly went to the sink, wet the towel, and began tamping out the flames with the wet towel. It was over in 60 seconds.

The Silence of the Lambs

We stood there in silence, my father and I. Debris—glass, charred bits of drywall, paint chips—littered the floor.  I went to the garage, got the broom and swept up the mess, all in silence.   The room was ruined, but at least you couldn't see through to the outside anywhere.  I felt horrible.   How could things have gone so awry?

Finally, my father broke the silence: “You want some oysters?”   For my father was good people.

The next day, my mother said to me: “You should have thrown that burning grease on the linoleum.   I need a new floor, too.”  For my mother was also good people.

It has been more years than I care to say since then, and I have had no major incidents.   I still have a thing for fire, I guess.  I won't cook on anything but a gas stove top because you can see the flames.   I like candles and have them everywhere. I use them too, and have even made my own.   I have a bit of land behind my house and we are allowed to have campfires and such.  There have been many marshmallow roasts, the “fire bitch” finally tamed, bending to my will.

There was one near miss. I had used gasoline as a starter which you are not supposed to do, and I guess I used a little much. Standing about 15 yards away, I threw a burning stick at the gas-soaked mound and it was like a bomb. The flash of flames hugged the ground and quickly moved outward in a circle. I saw it coming but there was nothing to be done. It engulfed me and then was gone.  All the hair on my legs was singed off except where my socks and my shorts were.   From just above my ankle to just above my knee, as pink and new as a 5 year-old possible descendant of Davey Crockett's bare bottom.

So I've kicked that nasty fire engine habit... knock on porous, dry, ignitable wood.   I wonder what mom and dad would say, for they were good people.



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