Around Christmas time, folks on our block would set out their trees for the garbage man to pick up. My friends and I would drag them into the vacant lot on the block and pile them up. The trees by this time were dried out and ready...all it took was a single wooden match and a little wind, and viola, an inferno in the middle of a residential street. It's amazing how high the flames from 10-15 Christmas trees will climb. Strangely, nobody bothered to stop us. The residents had probably burned trees in the same lot when they were kids and saw nothing to get excited about. The cops would cruise by and wave, no big deal. Today it would become a four-alarm circus with fire trucks and reporters responding from miles around.
Another fire-related activity involved "borrowing" a neighbor's garbage pail, not the plastic ones we use today but the galvanized iron ones that weighed a ton. We would then round up brush, scrap wood and newspapers, fill up the pail and ignite the whole mess. Then, using potatoes someone had liberated from the fruit store or his mother's refrigerator, we'd spear the potatoes with sticks and char-cook them over the fire. For some reason, these street treats were called "Mickeys". If you're waiting for me to tell you they tasted great, I can't. They tasted like a combination of raw potato and ashes, but it gave us the opportunity to burn something and after all, that was the point.
A rather unique fire pastime required a wooden thread spool, a fat rubber band, and the long wooden matches that were used to light gas stoves before pilot lights were common. You cut the rubber band in half, attached one end to the side of the wooden spool with a small nail, and wrapped the other end of the rubber band over the hole in the top of the spool and attached it on the other side. This little device acted like a mortar. You slipped the plain end of the wooden match through the hole in the spool to the other end where you grasped it with the rubber band. You then lit the phosphorus end on the match, pulled the rubber band back, and launched the flaming match at your intended target. Neat.
While doing this in my back yard one day, I accidentally shot a lighted match into an old sofa we had standing against the back of the house. I didn't realize my folly until I saw the flames shooting out of the sofa and licking the sides of the house. I began running into the kitchen for glasses of water to douse the flames. After the third trip, my Mom got suspicious. She ran out and grabbed the hose, which was there in plain sight, and put out the fire. I guess my ten-year old brain didn't register that a hose would be more effective than multiple glasses of water for putting out a fire. My mother was furious and used the wooden spoon to good effect that day. She didn't rat me out to Dad though. Mom was a stand-up guy.
Finally there was the fake dynamite incident. In another post I talked about how my Aunt Anna had made me a horse out of an old trestle table. Cowboys were all the rage in the fifties, and I would play in our cellar for hours with my trusty steed. One favorite plot was to tear off thin strips of newspaper, stick them into the whitewashed cellar walls, and pretend they were dynamite fuses. I would light the fuses, and then run like hell, leaping onto my horse to make my getaway before the explosion. Usually if I was quiet, mom left me alone, thankful I was not pestering her. One day she got a whiff of the burning 'fuse' and went ballistic. "Are you trying to burn down the house" she hollered. "Do you know what your father keeps down here?" Tony Boots, my dad, had an old wooden dresser full of turpentine, paint thinner and other flammables. Needless to say, my dynamiting days were over.
In the days before video games, we had fire. Like Early Man, we were drawn to the flames...trying to ignite dry leaves with only a magnifying glass and sunlight, heating a penny to see if it would melt, or tossing cherry bombs into an open fire. In school they had a fire safety campaign with a mascot called Little Hot Spot. We could have been featured prominently in that campaign under the heading: "Where There's Kids There's Fire".
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