Growing up in the woods, it was my job to come home from school and build a fire to warm the house in the winter.
Here's some tips for potential parents: 1) don't leave your kid to his/her own devices after school. Studies show that latchkey kids have troubles later in life; and, 2) Don't leave an unsupervised kid in charge of FIRE.
The only other kid in the neighborhood was Mike. Since we were the only boys in the same grade, it was pretty much a given that we had to be best friends. We were able to get into some pretty good trouble together.
Once we stole a bottle of whiskey from his dad's cabinet and took it, along with our friend Jon, out into the woods one afternoon to drink it. Splotchy snow still lay on the early spring ground. Walking along a familiar path and drinking the hooch, we happened upon a small pond still frozen from the winter. Mike and I, being fairly diminutive, ran out onto the ice with the bottle. Jon, who at 11 years old had been 6' tall and close to 200 pounds, was wisely hesitant to follow us onto the weakened ice. Mike and I walked the the far side of the ice and commenced drinking. As soon as Jon circled his way around, we would walk over to the other side, much to his chagrin.
Jon was afraid of falling through the ice. Not that he could have fallen through and drown. It was really more of a large puddle, perhaps four feet deep at the center. He just had enough sense to know that hypothermia was a pretty significant buzz-kill.
As I stood in the middle of the ice, laughing at the silliness of it all, my right leg gave out from under me. Or, more precisely, the ice gave way under my weight. I sank to my knee in freezing, fetid swamp water.
"Oh shit!" I yelled, as I scrambled to pull my leg out. The pressure put down by my left foot trying to free my right was enough to shatter the ice under it, plunging my left leg in over the knee. The harder I fought, the more ice gave way, and the harder Mike and Jon laughed. I was finally able to fish myself out, soaked to the waist and stinking of filthy pond water.
Suddenly very sober, I realized that I had to get warm. Fast. The two miles to my house was a long, long walk. Soon enough, my wet jeans froze solid. Trying to walk without bending my knees must have been an hilarious site. I wasn't laughing though. I was cold like I'd never felt, and scared of hypothermia.
My drunken friends laughing at me didn't help matters much.
I made it home. I stood by the fireplace, but had to cut my shoes off, as the laces had frozen tight. I peeled the stiff jeans off my cold blue legs and left them to defrost where they fell, and quickly made my way to a warm bath to try to get feeling back into my legs.
I survived, even though I missed Jon getting sick and puking int he middle of the street. (Jon always had a weak stomach, and it never failed to get a hearty laugh from me.)
But that's not the story I wanted to tell.
This one involves fire, not ice.
As stated before, my daily chore was to make fire. Since my task involved making and maintaining fire, I figured that playing in the fire was a perk of the job. One day while hanging in unsupervised, albeit cold bliss, Mike and I discovered a way to project lit matches at a pretty good distance.
How to describe this? Hold a book of matches in your left hand, palm down, with the striker facing down as well. Hold the tip of a match on the tip of your right index finger and place it against the striker. In a brisk motion, run your index finger along the striker, sparking the match while simultaneously thrusting it away from the body. It flies a pretty impressive distance.
So, Mike and I discovered the way to project fiery matches at one another. And oh what a laugh we had doing it. Match fights! One match fight was truly epic in scope, and went on for hours in the basement after we had gotten the fire rolling.
My parents arrived home to find the floor littered with a blanket of burnt matches. They were nonplussed. Imagine working so hard to raise a family and buy a house for them to live in only to come home one day and find that one of your progeny, through sheer stupidity, could have burned it all to the ground. It was about this time that Mike remembered he was late for dinner and beat a hasty retreat.
I should have learned a lesson. Scratch that, I should have had a lesson beaten into me. But it was not to be. I'm sure I got the "Not mad, but disappointed" routine. I'm sure I put on my poutiest pout and my most puppy-eyed eyes. I don't think any grounding or corporal punishment came from it.
Which is probably why this next bit came about.
One afternoon while finding ways to entertain ourselves with fire, Mike and I discovered the cabinet under the sink full of aerosol cans. Furniture polish, glass cleaner, bug spray. It was all flammable, and all ours! Oh joy of joys! The mischief in our eyes must have been ablaze! Quickly we scooped up cans into our arms, hustling off to the wood stove like looters.
Imagine if you will our delight as the first can we tried, spraying into the fire, erupted in orange and yellow flames. We would start our improvised flame-throwers in the fire and draw them out, howling as we waved the raging flames in the air.
Perhaps it was the giddy delight of a budding pyromaniac. Perhaps it was inhaling far too many fumes. Eventually it turned disastrous.
Mike grabbed an extra large can of Raid bug spray. In my memory, the can is dark purple, with yellow letters. He holds it toward the fire, his finger on the trigger, his excitement eclipsing his good judgment, he doesn't realize that he had the nozzle pointed backwards. He presses down with destructive glee, and instead of seeing yellow fire blasting from his hands, he sees nothing, because he has sprayed poisonous bug-killer into his face, his mouth, his eyes.
He dropped the can while shrieking in pain and surprise. "Ahh! Oh! Oh shit! Ooooh!!" He howls, spitting, eyes clenched.
This has somehow gone horribly awry. Imagine that. I dropped the can of furniture polish in my hand and tried to steady Mike. I led him, blind, through the house to the bathroom upstairs, where I pushed his head under the faucet, splashing water into his face, yelling at him to keep his eyes open under the water.
He survived. We still played with the aerosol cans in the fire, but warily. We made damn sure that the nozzle was facing the right way.
But even that isn't the ultimate story I want to tell.
Not long after the bug-spray-in-the-face incident, Mike got shipped off to Montana to live with his mom. I don't remember the circumstances that led up to his moving, just that I was losing an old friend. This was before the Internet, so keeping in touch was a challenge, and eventually became impossible. Diminishing returns, I suppose. We eventually lost touch.
Until 12 years later.
My parents were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and I had borrowed my roommates car to attend the celebration. I made a solemn promise to check the oil diligently and add more as needed, which was almost certain. After leaving the party, I rolled into one of two gas stations in town to fill up with gas. After checking the oil, I walked around the back of the car to pay, only to run into Mike, standing there smoking a cigarette. I stopped short and almost fell backwards against the car.
"I thought that was you," he said, "Wish I'd known you'd be stopping by, I woulda saved that joint."
Through some cosmic misstep, he had landed back east, working the late shift at a gas station, and I had happened to come by with a dry tank. What the fuck was this? It was like seeing a ghost. We talked for a while, each of us with a quizzical look on our faces. For my part, I had thought I'd never see him again. And here he was, smoking a butt.
We exchanged numbers. Since he was in the area, and I wasn't too far away, we made a promise to meet up and reacquaint ourselves. I drove away with my head and hands shaking. "That was fucking surreal," I kept saying to myself. In my amazement, I had forgotten to latch the hood of the car, and had to make an emergency pull off when it threatened to flip up at highway speed.
Weeks pass. We lose touch again. I remembered laying in bed with my girlfriend, telling her about how I had lost my dear friend for a second time. He had died twice.
The very next night, she and I were sitting around trying to figure out what we were to do with our Friday night, when the phone rings:
"Hey it's Mike. I'm gonna be passing through town in about an hour. Wanna hang for a bit?"
This guy really has a flair for the dramatic, I thought. Of course I wanted to hang out. I brought my girlfriend out to meet my old friend. We settled in to a table at a local bar. Eventually we started telling Jill stories about growing up, until Mike dropped this little ditty:
"Yeah, we were messing around in the fire one day, and Brandon sprayed bug spray right in his eyes..."
I leaped to my feet, the chair falling behind me, my finger outstretched, pointing right between his eyes.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH!" I bellowed, as heads swiveled to look our way, "That was you! How long have you been telling that story?!"
Mike had gotten it backward. Maybe because it made for a better story. Who wants to relay a tale of one's own misfortunes? I was so angry at him. Even after convincing him that, yes, it really was him and not me who ate bug spray, I stayed agitated and slightly hostile. I made him promise to make it right to me by correcting himself to anyone who had heard that story. Who knows if he ever did it.