Papa's House: My Days As An Eco-Terrorist

Wednesday, March 23, 2005 7:20:00 AM

The Fire

When I was in the first grade in school there was a vacant lot across the street from our house. It was a sometimes-interesting place to play. It must have been summer, because the grass and weeds had grown to about knee-high but were then mostly brown.

I was an explorer, an adventurer -- OK, I was just a normal little kid with curiosity and imagination -- who wanted to learn more about the world around me. Matches were interesting: fire in a neat, tidy, instant-on/instant-off little package. Light a match and blow it out. Light a match and use it to light a piece of paper, then blow them both out.

Of course, matches are contraband for folks this age, so I couldn't normally experiment with them. I watched others use them. One afternoon my brother and I managed to acquire some matches but we knew we would be in trouble if we tried to use them around the house. Into a pocket they went, and out the door we went.

We played in the lot across the street often enough that no one would think it unusual that we were there. By the time we hunkered down in the middle of the lot to conduct our experiments we were all but invisible anyway.

Do cigarette filters burn? What colors are the flames when you burn an old sock? What do the various plants smell like as they burn? All very scientific, you see. We learned much about fire that day, but the most important thing we learned is that small fires tend to become bigger; and although you can easily blow out a burning match or a small piece of paper, blowing on a larger fire only makes it burn better.

Now we had a problem: the little bit of grass that we burned was now igniting all its neighbors.


Hey look, here's an old cooking pot. We quickly placed it upside-down on top of the spreading flames and figured the problem was solved. Yup, the flames were totally contained. We'd had enough fire education for this round, so we left in a hurry.

As we headed around the side of the house so we could go in the back door (as we usually did) we could hear sirens in the distance. Of course the sirens got louder and closer, and soon we were watching out the window at the front of the house as two fire trucks and a police car stopped right across the street. It is amazing that I don't remember seeing the smoke and the licks of flames until after I saw the first fire truck.

Apparently the neighbor who noticed the smoke and called the fire department also noticed a couple boys had been playing there a few minutes before, because that policeman came knocking on the door of our house. Of course we got stern lectures from the policeman and firemen (but I also got to sit on top of the fire truck, pretty cool huh?), and my mother had to sign some papers, and there must surely have been some discipline imposed by the adults in our house. But what I really remember was the panic when we realized that you can't blow out all fires, and the fear-inspiring demeanor of a great-big policeman with a real gun.

Wanton Destruction

Two or three years later we lived in a different house, on a half-acre lot with a few fruit trees and plenty of room for us to play. This house was sort of at the edge of town, on an unpaved dead-end road with no curbs or sidewalks.

At the end of this road was a wooded area where we loved to conduct our adventures. There was a short trail of sorts that led into the heart of the woods. Along this trail, or more accurately: in the woods near this trail, grew berries of various kinds.

There were blackberries of course, and we enjoyed those greatly. But they grew in huge thickets that towered above us, and there were the thorns to deal with, and there always seemed to be spiderwebs on every branch. The wild strawberries had the most delicate flavor, but they were hard to find and never were there more than just enough to tease you.

And then there were huckleberries. These were never as plentiful as the blackberries, but were available in large enough quantities to be useful. If I'd pick the berries Mama would bake them into a lovely huckleberry pie. This was one of my favorite delights, still slightly warm from the oven.

Well, one day I was down in the woods picking huckleberries and I had about half the amount I needed in order to get me some pie. I was getting tired of standing there picking berries, and I figured I could more easily sit at home on the front porch and pick those berries in comfort. So I found a bush that was well-loaded and broke off a large branch of it right near the ground, then carried that branch back to the house.

I stripped off all the berries and took them into the house so the pie-baking process could begin. The house was filled with the aroma of baking pies when my father got home. He was never much of a fan of fruit pies, but he did seem to enjoy these.

My father noticed more than the aroma though: he saw that denuded huckleberry branch and called me outside. Discipline was often experienced as a brief dance around some adult who was swinging a belt or other implement, followed by a burning sensation on our backsides. This time I only remember what some would call a lecture. To me it seemed a calm and very grown-up, rational discussion; wherein I learned how it would be much better to leave the branch attached to the bush so that the bush could continue to grow and produce the next season's crop. It was a lesson I learned and appreciated well -- perhaps because I didn't have to sit gingerly for the next couple of days.

The Explosion

That same house, the wood at the end of the road: a few yards into the wood there was a huge ant-hill right in the middle of the trail. Now these ants didn't bite or sting, but we found them annoying nevertheless. Me and my gang (OK, it was just my brother and one of the other hooligans -- umm, I mean "kids" -- from down the street) had somehow acquired an explosive device. It wasn't just one of those firecrackers you could find over at the five-and-dime store, this was one of those really powerful ones. I can't remember whether it was a "cherry-bomb" or a famed "M-80", but we were sure it would blast that ant-hill clear to kingdom come.

We used a stick and poked it down into the top of that ant-hill to make a hole. Of course the ants were mightily disturbed by this and were swarming all over. We lit the fuse of our bomb and dropped it into the hole, then ran as if the devil himself were chasing us. Running and hollering and running and laughing and running and... waiting-for-the-bang while we were still running as fast as we could.


We turned and looked back to see dirt and twigs and leaves and ants flying in every direction. As the dust settled we approached cautiously to discover that, for all the fury and excitement, only about the top quarter of that ant-hill was gone. It still stood there menacingly right in the middle of the trail. Within a couple of weeks the ants had dutifully rebuilt it, and we continued to give it wide berth whenever we traveled that way.

📅 c: 2005-03-23 07:20 ✏️ e:

tags: #childhood #adventures


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