I will generally do these stream-of-consciousness entries on Friday afternoon, when Mary and I are out at Starbucks, so long as the prompt gets to me before I leave. So this one caught me by surprise, because Linda’s looking for a book title and there isn’t a book around here to be found. So I went off to Amazon and looked at the books they’re recommending for me (actually for her, because she does most of the reading in our house), and I found one called Playing With Fire.
For some of you who have been reading this blog for some time, you’ve probably heard these stories, and I apologize for that.
When we lived in Indianapolis, my mother generally burned the newspaper that accumulated at the house. This was 1959, when burning things outside was a common practice, and before newspapers were collected for recycling on a regular basis. I, being the oldest and the one least likely to take a nap in the afternoon, would usually accompany her, because she didn’t want to leave me alone in the house, because God only knew what I would do if left unattended. We had a wire basket about the size of a trash can in the alley behind the house, and Mom would crumble the newspaper before tossing in there, and when it was full she would light it with a kitchen match, the old-fashioned Ohio Blue Tip “strike anywhere” variety. Then we would stand there and watch the mini-inferno until it burned everything down to nothing but ash.
Circumstances arose where we had to move back to Chicago late that year, and after spending Christmas with Walkie and Hicks, we moved into an apartment on Magnolia Avenue, where all our belongings had been delivered. Mom and her sister, Fabulous Auntie Jill (my godmother) had unpacked everything, which had been wrapped in newspaper, and left the boxes with the discarded newspaper on the back porch.
Being a month or so shy of four, having observed my mother burning newspaper, being a “monkey see, monkey do” kind of kid (there’s a story where, after watching my grandfather daub himself with iodine when he cut himself, I did the same with brown liquid shoe polish), and wanting to help Mommy, I took it upon myself, with the help of my brothers (Jimmy, 2, and Kippy, 1), to burn the newspaper.
I piled all the paper in the middle of the back porch, struck an Ohio Blue Tip “strike anywhere” match and set fire to the newspaper, expecting the newspaper to burn down to ash and the fire to go out. Boy, was I ever surprised when the fire continued to burn after the paper had reached the ash stage.
Mom was out, so we ran to Fabulous Auntie Jill, who was living with us, and asked for her assistance in putting out the fire.
“What fire, Johnny?”
“The fire on the back porch.”
Jill ran to the kitchen, saw the inferno that was consuming the back porch, and called the fire department. I was brought to a neighbor’s house, where I was soon interrogated by an officer of the Chicago Fire Department, to whom I explained, as best I could, what had transpired.
I wasn’t too severely punished for what I had done, at least not physically. However, I found myself in nursery school the following week, because I couldn’t be trusted and was already deemed a bad influence on Jimmy and Kippy.
My next experiment in arson came when I was in seventh or eighth grade and learned that certain aerosol household products were extremely flammable. Several friends of mine told me that spraying Lysol on a lit match would result in a rather spectacular blast of flame. We didn’t have Lysol in a spray can at home, so I experimented with a number of other household products, including Niagara Spray Starch (put the flame out almost immediately). Lemon Pledge, on the other hand, gave me quite a fireball, and soon I was demonstrating this for my friends.
That ended when one of my brothers squealed on me to get out of some trouble he had gotten into. Mom summoned me to the living room, and I was told to bring the supplies for creating a “torch” so as to demonstrate for her. I was ordered never to do that again.
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