I knew I wasn’t supposed to play with fire, but I did it anyway. I was showing off to my younger sister.
I don’t remember the time of day, but I think it was early afternoon. I don’t remember the time of year, but it must have been summer because we weren’t in school. I do remember what happened, and to this day, I can remember the sheer terror I felt when I watched orange flames engulf an old Indian blanket and grow into a small inferno.
The massive milk barn was a farm kid’s paradise. It stood like a castle looming over the entire farm with gigantic domed tin roofs rising up into the sky that could be seen for miles. A tall concrete silo stood beside it like an impenetrable watchtower. The bottom floor of the barn housed cattle on one side, and two milking bays with a cooler room for chilling the fresh milk on the other. Every morning before going to his factory job, my dad rose early and herded the milk cows through one of the milking bays to be milked, but the other bay was used for storage.
Upstairs, the loft opened up like the ceiling of some gothic cathedral reaching heavenward. One side held several years worth of hay. The other side sported a basketball court with a thick rope for climbing and swinging that hung from the pinnacle of the dome. In a time when we only had three black and white TV channels, that barn became a fantasyland full of never-ending adventures.
When it finally burned to the ground, the glow from the fire could be seen on the other side of Simpson County.
That fateful day, I was at the barn with my younger sister Cameo. Somehow, we had grown bored with swinging on the rope, building forts in the endless stacks of hay, and shooting basketball. We went downstairs to check on the baby calves in the livestock area.
I don’t remember if I had the matches in my pocket, or if I found them lying around, but when our journey took us from the livestock area to the storage area, I decided to play with fire.
One of my dad’s hobbies (it was probably a money-making enterprise disguised as a hobby since he had a house full of kids, a day job, and a dairy farm to run) was keeping bees. He had stacked empty beehive boxes alongside a mountain of wooden honeycomb frames. All of these tinderbox materials were covered with an old tattered Indian blanket woven with rich threads of black, red, and tan. I thought the large stack would provide a good hiding place for playing with fire.
“I can light a match and blow it out,” I said after we hunkered down out of sight.
My sister watched with wide eyes as I opened the box of matches.
I lit a match and watched the red and yellow flame come to life in my hands. The smell of sulfur burned my nose. Cameo bit her bottom lip. I blew out the match with a heavy breath.
“See,” I said, “I can put the fire out.”
She smiled, but I don’t know if it was out of relief, or delight in the dangerous deed. Her smile spurred me on.
I lit another match and we stared at the flame as it burned towards my fingers. I waited until I could feel the flame singeing the skin on my fingers before I blew it out. My sister giggled, and I filled with an egotistical sense of power that only a young boy playing with fire can feel.
I noticed several pulled threads from the Indian blanket were hanging down. “I can light on of these threads on fire and put it out,” I announced. She drew in a sharp breath.
I lit another match.
Of course, the thick woven blanket covered seasoned wood, paraffin, and beeswax. I was lighting the fuse to a powder keg and didn’t realize it. I was too caught up in the excitement of playing with fire. I was heady with the emotion I evoked in my little sister’s eyes as I moved the bright flame to a hanging thread, and lit it on fire.
In an instant, the flame flickered brighter and hurried up the thread so fast that it startled me. My sister gasped. I dropped the box of matches.
“I can put it out,” I stammered. I began smacking the growing flame in an attempt to stop its upward climb. My swatting hands only provided the fire more oxygen and within seconds the blanket was engulfed in flames.
“Run!” I yelled.
My sister, no longer amazed at my fire skills, scurried away and out of the barn. I stopped and grabbed the phone on the wall. My fingers couldn’t work the old rotary dial fast enough. I didn’t dial 911. It hadn’t been invented yet. I dialed 777, the number for a direct access to the farmhouse about a hundred yards away. I could see the fire growing, and my sister Cameo standing in the sunlight just outside the doorway waiting for me to save myself from a fiery death.
I don’t remember who answered. As soon as I heard another human voice in the earpiece, I screamed, “The barn’s on fire! The barn’s on fire!”
They may have said something in response or offered some instruction, but I didn’t hear it. The fire had began to bubble the paint of the roof above it, and I was convinced that the entire structure was about to come crashing down around me.
In a panic I tried to think. What should I try to save? Should I try and get the cows out of the barn? Was anybody else upstairs?
I ran up the stairs and found the loft empty. As I came down the stairs, I saw my brother’s old toy John Deere tractor sitting in the feed room. In my mind, that was an article worth saving and I steered it out past the growing fire, into the other milking parlor, and hurried for the front door.
As I got to the door, my oldest sister, Carol, jumped off her bike and ran through the door.
“Where’s the fire?” she asked.
“Over here!” I shouted, as if it wasn’t obvious.
She hurried over, assessed the situation with one look, and picked up the water hose that lay just below the phone. Her hand spun the spigot full open in milliseconds. She pointed the spray nozzle at the base of the fire and unleashed a wet fury to battle the beeswax blaze. In a matter of minutes she had the fire under control.
I felt a sudden urge to hide. I was sure I was going to throw up. Maybe I could hide, and then throw up. I loitered in the background as siblings rode up on bikes or ran barefoot to the front door of the barn and gazed in at the scene of billowing smoke and blackened boards. I glanced at Cameo. One look from her told me she wouldn’t tell. I tried to blend into the background as older siblings and my mother took charge and assessed the damage.
I thought I might be in the clear, maybe even a hero since I had made the phone call, but then I heard a siren. A few moments later I heard the big tires of the fire truck come to a skidding stop on the gravel in front of the barn. My dad came roaring up on the old Allis-Chalmers tractor right behind the firetruck.
I knew that if I confessed to my nefarious deed of playing with matches, my life was over. Either my dad would give me the whippin’ of my life, or the firemen would throw me under the county jail until school started again. I was doomed.
I slithered back into the feed room and hung my head. I don’t remember if I cried. I think I was too afraid. Eventually, my dad found me.
“We found some matches behind the beehives,” he said. “Were you playing with matches?”
I hesitated and looked at the floor. After a long pause, I nodded my head. My face must have been as white as a sheet. I waited for him to take off his belt, or maybe explode with justified anger, but instead, he just let out a heavy sigh.
“I’m glad nobody was hurt and Carol was able to put out the fire,” he said.
He squatted down and looked me in the eyes. He must have seen the sheer terror on my face and decided that any further punishment would never come close to the punishment I had already given myself. He put his rough hand on my shoulder and lectured me. I’m sure his words were wise, but I was so relieved at not getting a whippin’ or getting thrown under the county jail, I don’t remember a word of it. I never played with matches again.
Life for a farm kid soon returned to normal. The fire made the local paper, “Booher’s Beeswax Burns Barn.” I wanted to laugh, but the best I could muster was an embarrassed chuckle.
We enjoyed the barn for several more years, but then my grandmother, a widow living alone in the other farmhouse, sold the place and moved into town. I was twelve when we moved across the county and said goodbye to a farm kid’s paradise disguised as an enormous silver-domed milk barn. We all moped around the new place remembering the long afternoons of fun under the big barn’s watchful rafters and loving roof.
One night later that fall, an orange glow lit up the moonless sky. Somehow we knew that the barn had finally met the demise I had almost given it years earlier. After one look at the collapsed roof and charred remains of that beautiful building, all desire to return to the old farm disappeared. Without our castle, Camelot was just another piece of dirt.
At family reunions we reminisce about the lazy summer afternoons we spent in that barn. My siblings still tease me about almost burning it down. I harbor another memory. I remember the look of a concerned father, and the whippin’ I didn’t get for playing with fire.