Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Just Watching the Fire

The other night the living room was quiet and a fire was blazing and we were reading and I looked over at Nick.  His attention had left Solomon Snow and his eyes were dancing in the firelight or vice versa, which ever seems more poetic.

"Whaddya thinking about, Nick?"

"I dunno... thinkin' about watching the fire, I guess."

There are many things I'd like to know when and if I make it to an afterlife.  I sort of keep a list in my head.  It's a weird list.  I'd like to know how many nights of my life I've spent camping.  I'd like to see all the beer and booze I've ever had to drink in one room, or garage, or warehouse, whichever.  I'd like to know why people suffer.  I'd like to know how many books I've read in my life and see a list of them if you please.  How many places have I lived?  How many friends have I had?  How many meals have I cooked?  You get it.  There are more, of course, personal things that I'll save for that day.

I'd also like to know how many hours, days, weeks, months - whichever - I've spent gazing into a fire.  My very conservative guesstimate is one-hundred twenty-four hour days.  You can learn a lot about how a fire works in that long a time, you learn about combustion and flash points, wet and dry wood, how aluminum burns instead of melts, that sort of thing.  But, mostly, you learn about yourself and the stories you will tell.

My buddy Kirby (not his real name, unless it is...) and I were in an apartment I had once, seriously thirty or so years ago.  It was late.  It was one of those nice rentals with a pool and patios and, God forbid, a fireplace.  You know how when you stop by a convenient store and they have those little bundles of crappy wood for sale out front?  Yeah, that's the reason, so crazy twenty-somethings can have a fire in their relatively nice urban rental apartment... until the wood runs out.  Which it did.

Naturally, me being a country kid and he being a kid that grew up in that early suburbia where woods backed up a majority of the lots, we ran out to the patio and looked for sticks and such to throw in.  I'd be lying if I said we didn't find a few twigs and such downed from the anemic trees that surrounded the parking lot.  I'd also be lying if I said we didn't pull a dead limb from one of them and dragged it into the apartment and  cut it up with a campsaw we had.  Right there in the living room of that apartment.  Our best work?  No, probably not, but it gets more hairbrained.

The wood is running out; our beer is not.

In the corner of the room is a lamp, under the lamp is a pretty little blue placemat, like for dinner, under that is an end table.  But it's not, an end table, that is, it is a wire spindle.  A sturdy thing I'd grabbed on a construction site I'd worked the summer before my freshman year of college.  There were two once, the first having met its match under a keg of Rolling Rock - the keg was okay.  You understand what this is right?  A sort of large spool that wire comes on, in this case heavy two-twenty electrical wire, I know, I ran it.  Which is another important detail, these spindles come with a beer-can-sized hole in them on each end so it can lay horizontally, on a frame of some sort, and spool out.  I strictly forbade shoving empties in it when I had them in the dorm room.

Kirby lifts the lamp, sweeps away the dust and ash laden placemat, revealing what used to be an end table but is now, instantly, irrevocably... fire wood.  He tips it and sort of rolls it towards me, my heavy Timberland crushes the center hard cardboard tube with one lucky stomp, the ends fold in and it is, by our estimate, small enough to fit into the, well, small fireplace.

The embers of the ornamental pear tree we had so inelegantly pulled into the space, glow, hot and ready. We shove the thing in there. It smolders, seemingly ending our night of fire-gazing and genteel conversation.  But then, a trickle of a flame, first one side and then the other, climbs up the sides.  The heavy tube, dry as toast, first smokes heavily and then bursts into flame.

We hear a slight hiss. 

Remember, the beer is not running out.

You know how a when a roomful of people can't remember the same word, "britches" say, and one person says it and everyone knows at once the word, a sort of collective realization.  Well ours was that over the years a number of butane lighters, Crickets and Bics, had ended up down that hole in the end, the one I mentioned earlier, and they were harder to get out than a pick from a guitar.  We sensed our collective doom.

Having had a modicum of military training, and less beer, Kirby was first to act.  In one move he jumped up and over the couch and hunkered behind it.  I ran to the half open patio door and dove out headfirst as if Farrah Fawcett was drowning in the cement.  I stuck my head back in after a couple seconds and Kirby peered, Kilroy-like, over the couch.

Nothing but fizzling and dripping plastic.  Most of the lighters were most likely empty, I am sure we would have fished out a full one at some desperate point.  Also, they are designed to not explode.  Also, the beer was not running out.

We spent the rest of the night in a beat-death-endorphin-rush, laughing at ourselves and recounting my inglorious and painful dive and his glorious leap.  We still laugh about it to this day.  A friend called, I told him to get a couple of those bundles of wood at the convenient store, and while he was there to grab some beer... we were finally running out.

So, that's the story of the first time Nick and Zack burned a huge pile of brush after the remnants of Hurricane Ike took down a mess of branches and trees in our yard in 2008.  They had a hulluva good time using the fire pit and learning the fundamentals of...

What the hell!?  That's not the tender story I told, of memories made and stories begun.

Wait... Other-one-me!


You may remember that an annoying and brash alter ego haunts these pages.  He thinks he's me, but he most certainly is not.  He first showed up at a mandatory all-staff meeting which I'd intended to have alone, thank you very much.  He continues to pop in unannounced.  It's irritating.  He's interrupted a heartfelt Christmas post and a piece in which I had every intention of saying very deep things - he may have said deeper things, but that is beside the point.  He did it again in a Halloween piece I started which was going swimmingly until he interrupted just as...

Did which again?  Interrupted or said deeper things?

(He insists on using italics.)

Which this time you did neither of .  You just deleted what I wrote and told a completely different story.  One I don't think we should tell.

(I can see parenthesis.)  No, it's the right story to tell, today.  It'll be the right story for them to hear when they read it, sometime ahead, when they need it.

Oh, you're a fucking soothsayer now?

And, you say I'm the rude one...

Well... I, uh... Well at least I didn't destroy my copy. 

Ha!  You called it copy, which you once got pissed at me for.


And I didn't delete it, I pasted it in as a new post, see right above this one.  Titled Boring Fire Stories.  And it was 'copy.'  You wrote it to impress.  You wrote it well, I'll admit, but for the wrong reasons.

And this is better.  How do you figure.  I don't need to have the whole world know I got drunk and rammed an end table into the fireplace.

Well, yeah... you do.


Listen and listen carefully.  This is the story you told.

No, the story I told was about watching Nick and Zack burn anything on the ground in a grand bonfire, the likes of which they'd never seen before.  It was about the awe of fire and our genetic lust for it.  About the foolishness and danger inherent in combustion.  About the passion and crazy excitement it can bring us, about the madness of it... Oh, I see.

You know better than anyone that the stories never finish.  That they loop back and around, meeting in the strangest places at the strangest times in the strangest ways.

But what about the drinkin' and carryin' on stuff. 

Dude, it's gonna come up.  It is a part of your story, and your theory is that our childhood is theirs, our past is theirs; our story is, by inheritance, their story.

And your theory is that these are the kinds of stories Nick and Zack will need to hear, someday.


So, to help them better understand their story I must reveal mine as honestly and openly as I can?


Not.  Gonna.  Happen.

We'll see...

Alright.  You may - may, mind you - have a point.  I'll just ask this, where is the line?  And which one of us will determine it?

We may have to work together on that.

Yeah, sounds fun... Can I still tell the story I was gonna tell?

No, of course not, can't you see how long this is already?

Well, that's your fault.  I just wanted to talk about...

... stuff you've already talked about.  Just tell it another time, tell it when it needs to be told.

How do I, you... uh, us, no, we, determine that?

I dunno.  Whaddya say we start with a quote from that note Kirby sent you a while back?

No, not yet.

Why not?

Length, dude.  This is already, like, seventeen hundred words.

Who cares?

Nobody'll read it...



Listen, the right person might now, and the right grown boy might someday.

Kirby sent me this once.  They are good and true words and the stopped me in my tracks.  He succinctly and gently explained the very dilemma in which I find myself right now:

"I have this friend, and he is going through a fairly important moral crisis. You see, he spent
his youth questioning societal norms, flaunting rules, thinking for himself to find truths he
holds dear. This way of being served him well during his youth. He was considered a thoughtful,
intelligent, rational, creative individual by those who knew him. He struggled with concepts of
addiction, want, and desire, but found a path through situations that have ruined other men.

Several years ago he got married and had a couple kids, and very much like he is want to do, he
adopted a non-traditional approach to child rearing. He became a stay at home Dad. He did
everything that should have been done to ensure the successful raising of small children. He fed
them well, encouraged creativity, limited exposure to the societal pitfalls of violence,
stupidity, greed, sex, and selfishness. To this day they are the bright articulate hope of this
nation, and he deserves a medal of pride.

But, what he faces now is an ever increasing necessity to lie to them, to hide his past from
them, because he knows that children are easily influenced, and a misstep in this area could
mean the ruin of a child. Especially children raised by an honest broker of information.

If he lies and keeps the secrets of his youth, he can craft a message for his children that
possibly leads them to an addiction-free existence, filled with learning, and service to others.

If he tells them of his past his children could misinterpret him telling them stories as
approval for those actions. We all know the phrase, "Do as I say, not as I do" doesn't hold much
water with children, never has, never will. Revealing the past is a sort of all or nothing deal.
Either you are honest, or not.

There is at least one other possible option to consider. He lies to them, crafts a message, and
they find out about his past anyway, and they eventually confront him about his lying to them...

It is a dilemma I don't envy having."

So, here we sit.  You gonna publish this or what?

I don't know.  I am not sure I am ready to.

I'll do it then.

Wait.  That image up there has nothing to do with your disreputable story and, well, I'm just a little uncomfortable with all this...  Hey, did you sneak a sentence into that paragraph up there about questions for God? 

No, I wouldn't do that.  Don't worry about it...



  1. Nice story. I do love gazing into a fire myself.

  2. Your story reminded me of some of my own which in my estimation is a sign of success for a writer.

  3. As an unofficial pyromaniac myself I can appreciate the youngers days of way to much alcohol and fire. Great Read!

  4. Hey Bill. Brought back some childhood memories my mother would like to forget. Just wanted to say I'm looking forward to hearing you share at the Dad 2.0 Summit in a few weeks.