After a recent funeral in my hometown, I was among people I have known for almost my entire life, although many I hadn’t seen in a long time.
There’s always an effort toward levity after such a somber occasion, usually through retelling of stories everyone knows and has heard a hundred times. The stories are retold because they’re familiar, and most of those gathered around know enough to follow along and have their thoughts taken elsewhere for a moment. If even one person says they haven’t heard it, everyone buckles up.
That’s how my own father sold me out on the sidewalk in front of the church, by retelling the fire story, which was something he didn’t even witness, although he was certainly a significant part of the aftermath.
It was late July 1988, in Russell, Kentucky. Summer break was ongoing as I prepared to enter the seventh grade. The region was enduring a terrible drought.
The neighborhood I grew up in was teeming with kids around my age, as well as many the ages of my younger brother and sister. Daily baseball games at “Fields Field” — the vacant lot beside my house that fronted acres of woods that used to be a strip mine — were common. But sometimes we got bored.
On that day, we were very bored. There were several of us gathered, all under the supervision of one of our older friends while our parents worked, ran errands, etc. Despite the heat, I was wearing my father’s olive-green jacket from his time in the Army, complete with golden oak leaves on the shoulders noting his rank as a major at the time of his honorable discharge. A few others were wearing a parent’s former garb from various branches of service.
In our quasi-military mindset, we got the bright idea of grabbing a bunch of fireworks in the home of our host that were purchased in Tennessee and left over from July 4. Instead of stopping us, the guy in charge offered his help as a “good aim with a bottle rocket.” He ended up a nonparticipant, but also a crucial nondeterrent.
We began firing bottle rockets at a screened-in porch to scare some of the neighborhood girls. This went on for a while.
After being chastised by a friend at a nearby home for our reckless activity, we realized that he was infinitely wiser about what was going on and had a much better sense of perspective on life choices. In recognition, we decided to fire some bottle rockets at his house.
But one didn’t lift off. Instead, it exploded in its stationary position inches above grass that hadn’t seen rain since the time of Noah.
“Uh ... fire. Fire!”
We stomped. We stamped. Younger kids ran across the street for buckets of water. We even got our well-adjusted but condescending friend and his older sister as the blaze extended beyond any hope of extinguishing through stomping or stamping. They pulled out the garden hose. It did nothing.
Someone called the fire department. The blaze was stopped mere feet from the wooden support structure of the back porch. I was sick to my stomach thinking about what would’ve happened if it had carried just a bit farther.
We all knew we were dead men. Well, dead pre-teens. I briefly considered running away from home, and I made it as far as stuffing a jar of peanut butter and some underpants into a duffel bag before the fog of stupidity lifted, and I returned to the scene to take my medicine.
Many of us were grounded. Three of us raked up all the dead grass and resowed the lawn. The fire department — deployed only twice in neighborhood history, to the best of my recollection — certainly drew a crowd, and people came to gawk at the damage and our mitigation efforts for days. My additional penance — after it was determined that I had a certain lack of structure in my life — was to join the cross-country team and run 3 to 5 miles a day for the rest of my middle- and secondary-school years. It was the most-effective punishment my parents ever devised.
“I got a call from Mrs. [redacted to protect the innocent], and she said, ‘Your son is burning down my yard,’” my dad recalled outside the church, in the presence of myself, our would-be overseer from that day and several others.
“Well, she wasn’t wrong,” I said, with a little more exasperation than humor. A sudden realization hit.
“Oh, God,” I groaned to my wife. “They’re going to tell this story at my funeral, aren’t they?”
She nodded in the affirmative with a sympathetic look in her eyes but a mischievous grin on her lips.
No matter what I do in life, no matter how much I’ve grown or tried to become a better, more mature person, mistakes can’t be undone. I’ll always be responsible for that fire, and everything else I’ve ever done that I regret — some remembered by many, and others by only a few, if anyone outside my own head.
I’ve heard folks thank the maker there was no social media around when they were growing up. But the long memory of a collective community and my own inner critic are, to me, harsher arbiters than any fallout over an idiotic tweet or Facebook post.
In fact, even though I can kind of see the humor now, retelling this tale here is just another way of trying to unburden myself while probably doing the opposite. That it might make a lot of people rethink their own close calls and less-than-admirable moments with perhaps a dash of humor is a happy accident. On the plus side, happy accidents are better than those caused by a faulty bottle rocket.