When children get the urge to create fire, according to Freud, he or she does so to gain power over nature and fulfill a primitive desire. The inflicted yearn to feel the heat, to get close to the licking flame, to watch it rise and burn. And when the sparks die, when flames turn to ash, the adolescent naturally seeks tinder and stokes the fire.
I am seven and alone, and I am behind my grandmother’s house searching for an innocent Garter snake to chop in half with a spade shovel when I find a gas can. I lift the metal housing, shake it, feel the slosh. After heading into the house to grab a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches, I return and lug the can across the street to the neighborhood playground where Tonka trucks and matchbox cars lay haphazard in the sand and crabgrass. I rearrange the toy vehicles, setup plastic soldiers as makeshift construction workers. When the ideal community is constructed, when the foreman begins to bitch at the grunts with a deep voice, I dowse it with gas, then reach for the matches. On the first pop the flame goes whoosh, rises and touches my face. It engulfs the men, covering their molded bodies, while their unsuspecting wives probably laze at home nipping vodka. Soon the fire crawls over the Tonka trucks, the ’57 Chevys, eating at their windows, at the drivers who clutch AR-15s and struggle to flee, their charred faces and muffled cries now stuck to the Plexiglas.
When the blaze dwindles and flickers like a child’s tongue, I splash it again with gas and catch the can on fire. I panic, shout for help. Nobody is around. I heave the metal housing—wait until it bleeds out and burns.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 1994), pyromania is determined by the following characteristics:
- The deliberate setting of fires on multiple occasions.
- An onset of arousal before the deed.
- A desire for or an attraction to fire and its consequences.
- The individual seeks pleasure, fulfillment, or release from fire setting and witnessing its destruction.
- There is no money to be gained; no criminal mischief to cover or anger involved. The culprit is not suffering from a drug-induced hallucination or impaired judgment such as mental retardation.
- The acts of setting fire are not better attributed to other conduct disorders such as manic or antisocial. In other words, he or she isn’t touched; rather it’s merely a desire to set fire.
A month after the Tonka truck mishap—when the wives along our block recommence to their morning gin martinis and no longer watch from verandas with a suspicious eye—I get another urge to create fire. I take a purple can of Aqua Net hairspray to the backyard and search for ant holes, the soft mounds with miniature working armies. When a colony is found—where hundreds of leggy specks carry the dead home on their backs—I flick the lighter and press the spray valve. A stream of hissing fire bursts forth. The ants curl, smoke, pop. Their carcasses reduce to ash. The living scatter, seek shelter under blades of switch grass. When the mouth of the hole is blackened and nothing moves, I scout for something else to burn.
The backyard is double city lot. A 1966 Buick Le Sabre four-door rusts in the open; high weeds wilt around its dead tires, its sagging frame. I move my Reeboks through the gaunt vegetation along the driver’s side door, uncover a toad. It is the size of a woman’s fist. I nudge it with my shoe away from the car, kneel close, hit the valve on the homemade flamethrower. The toad squeals. Its warty skin ruptures, blisters. A white film forms over its eyes. During the toad’s attempted escape, its sacrificial burning, the grass ignites. I say, “Oh shit,” and stomp the flames. It spreads. I stomp harder. Within minutes the festering fire is out. The charred earth looks ruined, desolate like the underbelly of a barbecue grill.
At this point I am hip deep in a world of shit. I drag an algae-filled kiddie pool atop the scorched earth, rake around it. When the makeshift disguise appears somewhat believable, I head inside—flip on Inspector Gadget—await detection, the possible belt blisters, when my parents get home.
I am eight and in the third grade. It is October and National Fire Prevention Week, so a local volunteer firefighter visits our classroom. He struts up to Ms. Nowicki in a wrinkled uniform, shakes her hand, winks; he has a huge gut and a tiny body, a cleft chin. He speaks in monotone. “Learn not to burn,” he says, “learn not to burn.” Little Bobby Timms raises his hand after the firefighter has finished repeating the phrase for the sixth time. The man nods and Bobby stands. “Mark burned his sister’s leg while camping this summer with a hotdog stick,” he says, “and his daddy whipped him on the bottom for it.” The man thumbs the stubble on his chin, says, “Learn not to burn, son, learn not to burn.”
After watching a cartoon about a dog named Sparky and why not to play with fire, we get to go home. When we hit the alley adjacent to the school, a few of us smoke menthol cigarettes behind a row of juniper bushes. The smoke burns our lungs, makes our chests feel full, cold. We cough and mock Bobby and the fireman, and when the red glow of our cancer sticks reach the filters, we flip the butts into the grass, head our separate ways.
Almost Every Child Experiences Fire at Some Point
It is a humid summer day and I am foraging for sticks in a small pocket of woods near the city limits to build a fort, a hideaway to smoke cigarettes and peruse Hustler magazines. When the ideal location isn’t found, and I reach the end of the dense expanse—where forest gives way to field—I notice, at the edge of the high grasses and swollen hills, a 55-gallon burn barrel smoldering in a yard adjacent to a clapboard shack. A heavyset woman in a tarp-like yellow dress is outside hanging wash on the line. She has clothes pins sticking from her mouth, and sometimes, before she reloads, she yells at two young girls, who shriek close by in only underwear, to hush. The girls do not listen. They keep chanting, “Mother may I,” then leap and skip before laughing and falling. I creep through the woods to get closer. The gray haze from the barrel lays feral over the field and smells of burnt plastic, and I have the urge then to stoke the fire.
When I get twenty yards from the woman, I sit on a seasoned log and smoke a cigarette, and as I finish and stomp it out in dirt and dry leaves, the woman begins to shout. It startles me and I stand to run. But she is only shouting at the girls. They are standing next to the burning barrel, and some of the fire has spilled over the side, igniting the brown grass around their feet. The woman slaps at the flames with a pair of blue jeans but the fire rages on. She cusses and the girls watch and soon fire is swallowing the yard, the small hills which rise throughout the field. I am conflicted with whether to help or run. And while I stand there the town’s fire whistle moans and then uniformed men arrive and wrestle large hoses from the trucks, begin dousing the flames. When it is clear the men are subduing the fire, I slip back into the woods and head for home with a burning smoke pinched between my lips.
Freud and the Legend of Fire
When a man first discovers fire, he feels an urge to quench a puerile desire by urinating on the tonguey flames. And, perhaps, most every man—lost somewhere in the natal fantasies of those more primitive before him—stands above the blaze, makes the embers hiss and smoke and pop, and subconsciously contends with other men at being the strongest, at lasting the longest, in order to subdue the earthly force and become a God.
It is February and Steve and I are in his parents’ garage working on a 340cc Arctic Cat Panther motor pulled from a snowmobile. We are trying to get it to run but aren’t having any luck. The engine is on the workbench and the gas lines, two plastic hoses, snake from the carburetors to the tank on the floor. Steve sprays more starting fluid into the carbs, yanks again on the recoil rope. The engine fires and flames shoot out the exhaust. During the ignition the bench and gas lines combust from the dripping fluid. Now the floor is on fire, and when the flames eat through the plastic gas lines, it leaks along the cool concrete in a rolling, purple flame. Steve panics. He runs out into the February night and comes back with chunks of packed snow, drops it onto the fire. It does nothing. The flames rise, spread atop the snow and inch toward his mother’s Dodge Daytona. I panic, bolt. When I reach the blacktop thirty yards away, I turn and Steve is still scrambling to dump snow on the fire, and the inside of the garage glows orange; I feel sick and run like hell for home.
Two hours later Steve calls. “I wish you wouldn’t have skipped out on me, man,” he says. “I could’ve used you.” We both go silent. “Did the garage burn down?” I ask, finally. “No,” he says, “but my daddy’s pissed about his workbench being burned up and my mom’s car needs new tires now, which I got to pay for somehow.” Then he hangs up.
I sort of feel guilty, but it isn’t my fault. I decide to wait a week, until the smoke clears, before heading back to Steve’s house.
The Day the Clowns Cry
It is July 6, 1944, and thousands of men, women, and children are corralled underneath the big top for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the north end of Hartford, CT. It is 90 degrees outside the tent and 106 inside. Spectators are pinched tight in the bleachers—choking down corndogs lathered in mustard and ketchup—with sweat running down their faces, elbowing one another. Lions pant down in the ring, and saliva drips from their corrugated tongues. The Flying Wallendas clutch ropes high above, preparing to toe the high wires, mere feet from the lions’ femur-crushing jaws.
Near Section A of the bleachers, a flame the size of a buffalo nickel gnaws at the tent’s canvas cover. In seconds the fire spreads. Smoke fills the inside of the tent. People shrug, shriek, squirm. Some start in on their second or third corndog and wait for the Wallendas to begin, sip Coca-Colas. But the fire intensifies; it roars and hisses and swallows much of the tent. When people realize the blaze is not part of the act, they push and shove. Women and children fall, skid head first down rows of wooden bleachers, some split their skulls, get trampled at the bottom; others jump from the pinnacle of the bleachers’ steel rails. Bones break. The canvas rains atop the people in wet, fiery patches. It catches hundreds of them on fire. The melting cotton canvas coats their necks and arms, their hair, and erodes their flesh; it blackens their tender bodies like burnt marshmallows. People continue to scream, run. The exits are blocked with animal cages, with spectators who are crushed, stacked, three or four deep, in tangles of busted limbs. The band plays “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The fire rages on.
In less than nine minutes the entire tent burns to the ground. Witnesses, with gauzes stretched over their aching physiques, peel chunks of canvas from their skin and describe the chaos, the pleas and echoes from those who are believed to be dead somewhere amongst the ashes. The pine tent poles smolder, pop, and bodies lay across the crippled earth like twisted airplane propellers.
I am riding my YZ 80 motorcycle in circles around our house trailer on Deer Lake Road. It is summer vacation and I am in shorts and a t-shirt and the wind feels good on my face, my legs. I shift the bike into third gear, pop a wheelie, and gun it through the field full throttle. When I reach the end of our property, I turn low to the ground and the foot-peg snags a buried strand of barbed wire. The bike spins 180 degrees and I cling tight to the handlebars, try to ride it out, but before I can react the bike is laying on top of me, still running. I try to shove it off, but my leg is stuck and gas is pouring from the tank. I can’t get the leverage or gather enough strength to jerk free. I buck and push and now my leg is burning underneath the bike. The leg feels hot and wet. After a few attempts I wiggle free, scoot away. A patch of skin, about the length and width of a man’s hand, is missing from my thigh. The injury is russet-colored, the skin leathery. It stings. Gas still drips from the tank, but the motor has quit running. I grab the handlebars and stand the bike upright, untangle the mess of barbed-wire from the foot peg; my thigh skin is stuck to the face of the muffler, smoking.
I push the motorcycle home, limping the whole way. When I get inside I lay on the couch; the pain is severe, like a never ending pinch, and the burn has begun to dry and crack. I ice it but that doesn’t help much, so I apply two fingers’ worth of petroleum jelly and position the lesion in front of a box fan for three days. And, twenty years later, I still carry a scar on the inside of my thigh that resembles a baked potato.
The following morning after the circus fire, the State’s Attorney, H.M. Alcorn, Jr., announces that 168 people are dead and over 675 are injured. It has been determined that the tent’s canvas had been waterproofed with paraffin wax and three parts gasoline, and five circus employees are being charged with manslaughter. Tensions around Hartford reach a melting point. After a lengthy trial the men are found guilty of not having adequate fire equipment on site and for blocking the exits with animal cages, among other offenses. All the men serve jail time, except one, and those jailed are let go shortly thereafter to resume work and help the circus pay off millions in insurance claims.
Six years after the Hartford fire, in 1950, Robert D. Segee, while serving time in an Ohio prison for arson, confesses to starting the blaze. He tells investigators that an Indian on a fiery horse urged him to ignite the tent. He also admits to crushing the skull of nine year old girl with a stone during a fit of rage along the banks of a river in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1938. On both instances he is never charged and years later he recants these statements. To this day nobody knows how the fire reached the tent. Some believe a cigarette butt in the dry gas is the culprit, while others say it is Segee. Regardless of the cause, fire is to blame, and the dead are still dead.
We are in the fourth grade and on a class camping trip to Camp Daggett on Walloon Lake. The trip is scheduled to last two days, and on the first evening, after a busy day of snake exhibits, nature walks, and swimming lessons, we hunker down in our bunks, await sleep. The night is cool and crickets chirp and moths bang at the window screens. A whippoorwill calls somewhere far off, and I wonder what it is like at the girls’ cabins. Are they in soft nightgowns and whispering about their budding breasts or, even better, us?
At 3 a.m. a thud and a moan wakes me. I sit up. The moans are soft and carry through the darkness. I slip from the bottom bunk and make my way toward the noises. What’s going on, what you doing? I say softly. It is Chris and he’s on the floor, cross-legged. Again, he only grunts, moans. Now, other classmates are up, inching closer. We huddle around Chris, and Dougie hits his flashlight, shines it on Chris through semi-translucent fingers. Chris squints and his right hand grips his left wrist; he opens his eyes and lifts his left arm chin level. It is bent like a 9-volt flash light, the small square type, and he regards the arm, stretch before him, like some divine trophy. In unison we howl, say, “Oh” and “Ah,” and jump and squirm; we jostle, then wedge in to better study the grotesque bends in Chris’s radius and ulna bones. Little Bobbie Timms says, “Holy shit, good Christ, it’s bent like a flashlight.” Chris just holds the arm steady and now our counselor is up and getting us to move away. When he notices Chris’s arm, he says, “Hot damn,” and grabs a blanket, lays it over the busted arm. We can still see the shape of the flashlight through the fabric and the counselor ushers him down to the main lodge and somebody rushes him to the hospital.
The next day there is no Chris. Later, around the campfire, we rehearse the expressions on Chris’s face, how he held the bent arm before us and moaned; how he seemed kind of stoned when examining it in the light. We laugh and take turns acting out the incident before the counselors tell us to hush, and be respectful. We grow quiet. The orange light dances over our cheek bones, and our eyes, in a moment of brief brilliance, glow like those of beasts laying patient in the dark.
The Morgue and Burial
At the State Armory in Hartford, the dead are lined on cots a foot apart. The stench of paraffin wax and burnt flesh permeates the room. When husbands arrive and push through the barricade to identify their dead wives and children, nurses give them shop rags to cover their noses. Inside, 168 bodies are stretched wall to wall and only a thin cotton blanket covers them. Police and military personnel escort families down rows. The interior of the building is hot and humid, and residual water drips from the dead and vomit coats the floor. Most of the victims are unrecognizable, and their semi-cremated bodies are dark and brittle like a raven’s wing. It is hard to tell if the remains are male or female since most are now reduced to shards of bone and teeth. One father, after locating his eleven-year-old daughter, sobs in front of the military men and pulls the blanket away, crawls onto the cot. It sags, creaks. He hugs her, though she is stiff from rigor mortis and her face is half gone. He whispers, “Oh my darling, my little peach,” into her ruined ear, then lays his head against hers.
Over the next several days, when the majority of the dead have been claimed, funerals are held every 15 minutes. The entire fleet of hearses in the Hartford area is in use so a quarter of the victims’ coffins are loaded into livery vehicles or pickup trucks and delivered. The funerals go morning until night and span the entire week, and the grieving often remain on site to attend the funerals of friends and loved ones throughout the day. The community congregates and disperses and congregates again until the final miniature coffin is lowered into the ground and the last fistful of dirt is tossed over the dead.
I am not sure whose idea it is to pack the steel pipe full of gunpowder. It is bingo night so my grandmother is gone, and we are across the street at the neighbor’s. Carl kneels next to the mouth of the explosive. It is two-inches in diameter and a foot long and chuck-full with smokeless gun powder. Only one end is capped, and Carl is using a powder trail along the ground for a wick. The rest of us are ten yards away, leaning against clapboard siding, sipping Yoo-hoos and eating Ding Dongs, awaiting the detonation.
“You dickweeds wait until you get a load of this,” Carl says, and lights a hunk of rolled newspaper, touches it to the trail. Then he tries to run; there is a whoomph, and a cloud of smoke devours him. When the haze clears and the fiery pipe has ceased breathing, Carl is on the ground, mollycoddling his arm. We rush over. The burn, from wrist to bicep, is green and hairless. Black bubbles swell along the outer edges of the flesh wound; the center is cherry red and raw, and powder residue is ingrained into his arm. Carl digs the heels of his Chuck Taylors into the grass; he mumbles, squirms, and begins to slip in and out of consciousness. Nobody attempts to help. A green Ford Tempo swings alongside us on the lawn, and two towheaded boys in the backseat hang their arms outside the car.
Now, I am nervous. The driver shouts for us to get help and we scatter in opposite directions. I head for my grandmother’s alone. I lock the door, run upstairs, and watch from the spare bedroom. Lights flash. Men in dark uniforms lug big handled boxes with a red cross on the side. They drop them in the grass and slip to their knees, shout, work on Carl.
When the ambulance and the Tempo are gone, I open the window and climb onto the roof. Two policemen are on the scene; they wear rubber gloves and examine the pipe, stop to write things in tiny notebooks. One of them spots me on the roof. He walks over. “Howdy son,” he says, “do you know anything about the incident across the street? “No sir,” I say, “just heard noises so I came out to see what happened.” “Are you sure?” he asks. I nod, act cool. “Come on down,” he says.
This time I have no way to run. I survey the roofs of rundown houses, their cankerous shingles that have curled under the sun. Somewhere someone is burning leaves, and the cloud and stench of that hovers above me, and it follows me still where ever I go.