The Fireman

One beautiful spring evening I came home from a perfect day of riding my bike to find a fireman sitting with my mom at the kitchen table. I was 14 years old and I was about to hear the most surprising news of my life.

You know how, once something big happens to you, any other similar experience after that pales in comparison? For example, women say that after they’ve experienced child birth, they’re better able to handle pain – any other pain is small in comparison. Soldiers who have been in combat seem not to sweat the small stuff when they come home from war. People who’ve lived through poverty don’t send salads back to the kitchen at restaurants. Well, ever since the event I’m about to speak of, I’ve been like that with surprises. I don’t particularly care for them, but I’m an old hand at dealing with surprises. When I say, “Nothing surprises me”, I mean nothing surprises me compared to this.

At first, I didn’t know who the man was. He was dressed in plain clothes and could have been a friend of my father’s or a new neighbor for all I knew. Then he introduced himself to me as a fireman from one of the local stations. An uneasiness began to brew within me, but I still had no idea what was going on.

“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked.

I honestly didn’t. He then stated that he and a few dozen of his fireman buddies had just finished fighting a big grass fire in the big open field behind the public library. To this day, I’ve never been so surprised by any piece of news. Or shocked. Or stunned. Or afraid.
Adrenalin dumped into my blood stream and I felt the coolness of it ripple through me. I was paralyzed and speechless.

“Now, do you know why I’m here?” he said, rephrasing the question slightly.

It took him a while to get me warmed up, but once he did, I began telling him a story. It went something like this:

“Well, me and my friend, Brett, rode our bikes out to the pond that’s way out there on the other side of that field. We were there looking for frogs and trying to catch tadpoles on the edge of the pond. Anyway, on the way back we rode past all these big pipes laying out there in the field. Well, smoke was coming out of one of them, so we stopped to check it out. On the way over, we saw two teenagers on dirt bikes going out through the hole in the fence. They were pretty far away and we couldn’t see who they were. When we got up to the pipes and went inside the one, we saw that there was a little fire burning in the middle – like a campfire – but we didn’t go near it, we just left.”

Well, that fireman grilled the living hell out of me right there in front of my mother as if he didn’t believe me. Or maybe that was just his job. He asked me the same questions over and over – asked them different ways, but my answers were always the same. I was sticking to my story.

As an aside, as I was telling him this story, I was kinda wondering if he’d been to Brett’s house, yet. I knew he hadn’t talked to Brett because I had just left Brett. I asked the fireman but never really got a straight answer out of him. My hunch is that he went and talked to Brett’s parents, minus Brett, and came to my house second. This had occurred just before one of the very last days of school, and the first thing the next morning I ran up to Brett at school but the bell had already rung, we were late, and couldn’t talk long. He said he didn’t get any visit from any fireman and didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t believe him. One crazy mystery about this story, that haunts me still, is that Brett moved away without warning right after school ended, so I never did find out what happened on Brett’s end.

I also don’t recall ever speaking to my father about any of this, so my mom either didn’t tell him, or he believed my side of it from her account of it, or he just didn’t care. My father had a boys-will-be-boys attitude, so it may have been the later.

So, anyway, the fireman interrogated me (and there’s really no other word for what it was) for about 45 minutes before he was either out of gas, convinced of my story, or convinced I wasn’t going to change my story. My mother sat silently the whole time. When the fireman eventually left, my mother had no further questions for me. In fact, before the fireman even got out the door, I asked my mom if I could go back outside and she agreed.

The first thing I did was ride as fast as I could out to that field. It was quite a trip, out to the far corner of my neighborhood – in fact, the edge of town – and because of the geography of the land and the buildings, you couldn’t see into the field until you got all the way up to the edge of it. But once I did, somehow the fireman’s description didn’t quite prepare me for what I saw. It must have been 100 acres of charred blackness, the point of it clearly emanating from the end of the pipe and then extending out to the east for a few hundred yards. The fire engines were all gone, but the evidence of the chaos they faced remained. Huge tire tracks snaked throughout the, now muddy from the fire hoses, field following zig-zag sections of black where the wind, apparently changing direction, caused the fire to drift this way and that. Even an amateur investigator such as myself could clearly see the arrow-like pattern leading directly to the end of that pipe.

I sat down on the center bar of my bicycle, crossed my arms over my handle bars, and rested my chin on my arms. I gazed out over the carnage and thought about my day.

A few times a year, after dry spells, Brett and I would go out there to ride our bikes in a cement ditch because it would be clean, dry and resembled a skate park. On this particular morning we were surprised to see about a dozen huge pipes out in the field a few hundred yards beyond where the ditch ended and through where the, now dry, stream ran. They had been placed there so they could later be buried for the water to run through, with a housing development built right on top. They were enormous; 15 feet tall, each of them about 50 feet long, lying out there side-by-side like an army of those big worms in that movie Tremors with Kevin Bacon. We rode out to them and found that their weight, combined by mountains of sand on each side, held them very stable. Most of them were clean inside which made this the best skate park ever. We rode our bikes in and out of those things for hours. We even did circus-dare-devil type stuff where we would both be in one at the same time, like two motorcycles in the Ball of Doom or Death or whatever they call that thing. When we became bored with that, we found a bunch of empty 12-pack containers left over from when some enterprising teenagers used our new skate park as a party location. We placed them in a pile to add an obstacle to our daredevilism. And, when that was no longer daring enough, we set it on fire. Man, were we ever clever and brave daredevils, riding our bikes up the sides of a pipe in death-defying feats as flames from burning Coors beer boxes licked at our ankles. When we got bored with that, we left. And we didn’t bother stomping out the smoldering remains of two remarkably different types of parties. Apparently, sometime after we left and found something else to do for the rest of the afternoon, the wind picked up and blew that smoldering mess out one end of the pipe.

Two weeks earlier, my school newspaper had run a front-page story on “Jim Cunningham the Stunt Devil” complete with a close-up of me doing a trick on the front cover. The ironic part is that I had bugged (fuck, I even remember his name, Troy Strout) the student editor until he would do a story on me and my bike tricks. So, while trucks frantically tried to put out the fire we started, my friend the fireman interviewed bystanders. Two kids had seen me and Brett come out of that field shortly before the fire began. One of them recognized me from the school paper and even provided Mr. Fireman with a copy of it. That’s why the fireman came to my house first.
I sat there, straddling my bicycle, staring into that field, and pondering what I had done until it grew too dark to see the pipes from where I sat, and then I turned around and rode home.

To this day, my stepdad, who was my dad’s best friend back then, brings up the subject and hints about fires at every conceivable opportunity just to razz me. I just snort and shake my head. I’ve never copped to it to anyone but Kris. My mother still believes me. And I have yet to be punished for my crime.

As I sit here writing this, I’m sure for the first time of two details that didn’t occur to me until I was midway through writing this story. One is that the honest surprise I felt – because I was truly surprised – must have been evident on my face while sitting at the kitchen table, and this is what concealed my lies from my mother. I mean, after all, if I’d known I started a fire, I wouldn’t have looked so fucking surprised. I wasn’t faking it. And it showed.

The second detail, of which I’m now certain, is that the fireman, after leaving my house, drove back to the scene of the fire, parked nearby, and waited to see if I would come.


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