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The smoke on the hill first alerted Grandma.  She was having coffee on her couch in her front room and visiting with one of the neighbors who had happened to stop by.   The coffee had just poured and their conversation only just gotten underway when, like a siren blaring, a little plume of smoke caught their attention. 

Grandma was 56 then, a recent widow, a bit melancholy and bitter, and not very spry anymore – except, I guess, when it came to smoke.   Suddenly she was excitable and doe-like; she sprung from her couch and pressed herself against the front window where she could always get a better look-see at what was going on up at our place.  Sure enough there was smoke on the hill – that same hill where we’d played Dennis and the bear.

Not missing a beat, Grandma ran straight for the phone to warn the entire community.  She was doe-like here too in her concern.  Everyone must know; everyone must be warned.  She understood like Bambi’s mother the need for a healthy forest and the consequences of forest fire.  She was, after all, the daughter, the widow, the mother of loggers and hunters, people who depended upon forests — the unburnt kind.

Well, she wasn’t entirely like Bambi’s mother, for when Grandma wasn’t visiting with neighbors or watching our hill, she was keeping house and preparing meals of Bambi’s mother for hunters and loggers, and so in that way had little to share with the Disney animals of the forest.  Maybe a fairer comparison would be Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, who was known to exclaim to all around, “Warning! Danger! Fire! Damn kids!”

In any event, Grandma was quick to make a connection.  She knew that smoke coming from a heavily wooded spot on the hill across the road from her and up behind our house in a thick of brush and trees could only mean one thing: her grandchildren had run amok, again.

Now, earlier in the day Dennis had shown me a discovery he had made.  He was perched on a woodpile in the garage.  We were lingering there contemplating our options, pondering the remainder of the day and our chances for enjoying it.  That morning, after Mom had gotten rid of the other kids – sent them off to school – we had a disappointing time going to town on some errands.  It was usually fun to take these rides with Mom to town, especially when they resulted in a Hershey Bar or some other goody, even when the goods had to be shared.  But this trip generated no such treat, and upon getting home and out of the car we had gotten only the instructions to stay close to the house.  Mom went inside, taking Frank, who was still a baby, and Marianne with her.

Dennis and I stayed in the garage just toeing at the dirt and gravel on the floor and scratching at the stacks of firewood.  We must have been suffering for the lack of prospects, feeling quite sorry for ourselves and quite deserving of some kind of fun.  Mom had yelled at me in the car for something.  I had pouted.  Dennis had done something, too. We fought in the back seat of the car.  Mostly we had shoved at each other and traded turns pleading with Mom to take sides in our struggle against the other’s transgressions.  Mom never took sides, but was always quick to remind us of her remedy to any of our conflicts: a big stick she kept atop the cupboards in the kitchen.

But that was on the way home, after the grocery store and its candy rack. So adding to my disappointment was the bother about why Mom had forgotten to give us a treat.  She hadn’t yelled at us until we were nearly home.

Dennis wasn’t as bothered as I.  He was acting much like a well-fed cat as he clambered up to the top of one of the stacks of firewood that lined the wall of the garage.  Having settled on a spot and lying on his side, cradling his head in his hand, he announced very nonchalantly that he’d happened to find something he wanted to show me.  I knew that canary-in-the-mouth smile of his and knew that he’d found something really good.  Maybe there was a treat after all.

“Matches,” Dennis said holding up three full matchbooks   He’d found them in the kitchen lying in the back of a cupboard behind some empty jars on the top shelf where Mom stored jams and other preserves when such things were in season.  The cupboard was high enough and far enough out of reach that temptation was inevitable. 

“’Ten we’re campin’,” Dennis added.

That was all he had to say.  Like our sentences and our ideas that came and went thoroughly undisturbed by any actual semblence to proper construction, our words were often incomplete.  Ten was an example of this.  It had nothing to do with numbers; we hadn’t yet learned to count that high.  Ten was our stand-in for pretend, a concept we understood to mean play, which was something that meant anything we could ten was always okay. 

So we wouldn’t after all stay close to the house.  We’d find somewhere far enough out of sight that no one would ever see us, for we knew that if we were found out we’d be in big trouble.  We’d light a little fire.  No one would ever see a little fire.  And with a little fire what could go wrong?

We looked at each other and grinned.  “’Ten we’re campin’” sounded great, exciting, wondrous.  And everything was clear. 

I let out a giggle as involuntary as a hiccup and Dennis jumped off the woodpile, giggling, too.  He handed me a share of the matches.    And we were off to the hill to find a suitable place where we could ‘tend to make a campsite in the wilds just as we’d done lots of times; only this time there’d be no ‘tending we had a campfire. 

Marianne had by then joined us, probably sent outside to tell us again to stay close to the house.  Marianne was a great little reminder.  But by the time she caught sight of Dennis’ discovery and overheard the bit about camping, she must have reasoned that life as a messenger for Mom and the baby was not as appealing as some reality camping with matches.

When we got far enough up the hill, the three of us found a spot where a tree had fallen, making a kind of wall or bridge or mountain that we could climb.  Ferns, dry from being trampled on or something, proved perfect for combustion.  Dennis lit a match and it blew out.  He lit another and another.  They all blew out.  The wind was being a nuisance.  So Marianne and I simply went deeper into the thick brush of our campsite where the wind or spirit of caution had little effect.  I lit a match and it stayed lit, so I held it under a cluster of ferns leaves.  Soon they were ablaze. 

For a moment we ‘tended the campfire was grand, and crouched there huddled around the blaze, mouths agape from the wonder we had started.  As the flames grew, however, we checked our amazement and looked around at each other with this “uh-oh” realization on our faces.  It was time to put the fire out we all silently agreed and simultaneously darted in no particular direction for some miracle.  Even we knew by then that the fire had become much too grand even for ‘tending.

The flames were soon in the trees.  I snatched up a club-like stick damp with the moisture and mud from the ground it was half buried in.  Dennis and Marianne ran off down the hill toward the house to a water faucet.  Furiously, I beat at the flames with the stick.  I swiped the stick over the dead tree that had begun to sport little tongues of flame.  Just as furiously, the fire lapped up the stick and I eventually abandoned it.

Dennis had found an empty tuna can somewhere near the water faucet – a can that had served as a shovel for us on some other occasion.  He filled it with water and rushed back up the hill to the fire – to throw the water onto the fire.  He was sobbing and shaking and running and spilling the water.  And he knew it.  With each spill he wailed even harder and as he cried harder he spilled more water.  By the time he reached the fire all he could fling at it was a few drops that had miraculously not already spilled.  Had he just stood there weeping on the fire he would have done more good.  But undeterred, Dennis lit out again for the faucet and repeated his ascent up the hill to the fire, shedding more tears after each trip than he had drops of water left over in the tuna can. 

To compound his misery, Marianne, that great little reminder, ran beside him down the hill, then back up the hill, cautioning Dennis with every step he took that he “was gonna get it.”  She didn’t mean the fire on the hill.  She meant the fire in his pants that would surely come when Mom got hold of us.

Well, Mom did get hold of us, but not on that day.  Grandma had instantly notified the whole community about the fire and the whole community instantly descended upon our place to contain first a fire and then, thank God, our mother.  As much as Mom must have wanted to go first for her stick and then for us, hosting a community fire became too much of a distraction.  People, perhaps I should say witnesses, were everywhere.  And, as the fire was being quelled, a party was beginning to build.  Dennis and I surely recognized a good thing when we saw it and accompanied Mark and Dan, by then home from school, in greeting everybody.  With each new comer to the event, we’d run down to the gate leading onto our property and dutifully stand by while we were identified:  “This one stole the matches,” Dan would declare pointing to Dennis.  And in a kind of pride that he wasn’t a stupid, Dan’d point to you know who and beam, “This one lit the fire.”

Not until a few weeks later did we realize the extent of the consequences for our actions.  The fire had been contained, the government timber saved, the house spared.  The slightly toasted T.V. antenna mounted atop the charred hill still gave out at least one channel to us and the rest of Gunter.  And no whippings ensued.  But when all we kids came to get a front-row seat round the big fire Grandma was making down at her place to burn some rubbish and, I think, to heat the water she needed to pluck and harvest her chickens – an annual event for which she was happy to press all of us into service – Dennis and I were made to sit way off outside the ring of siblings and cousins who had assembled. Grandma was stoking the fire with a long stick, pushing and poking all her throw-aways into the flame, wishing, perhaps, we were also throw-aways.  It was a spectacular show. 

“Don’t let them get near this fire,” I recall her telling Dan or Joann.  She probably didn’t trust herself.

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2 Responses to “Story 004 – Fire on the Mountain”

  1. Mr. Dennis Says:

    I suppose, there was something to be learned, that day, on that hill, with those matches. Something like don’t go ‘tend your camping’ on a brush covered, forest floor on a windy day, in front of any witnesses.

    However, the backside of a cactus-covered camels head deep in the rocks of witches’ cave, where if your fire were to get out of hand, to any would-be witness, we are unidentifiable, and our part in the disaster completely deniable.

  2. Debbie King Jeter Says:

    Cousin Pat!
    I think I may have even laughed as hard reading this as when you told this story at Mom and Dad’s! Glad to see you writing and sharing…
    Deb


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