DAVE TOMAR: I’m not sure what it is about boyhood and fire. Perhaps it’s the promethean impulse toward creation. Perhaps it’s the sentiment of occasion and celebration first inspired by a birthday candle, a fireworks display or a citronella torch on Labor Day. Perhaps it’s the joy of holding a force of such sheer, unimaginable destruction in the palm of one’s hands. For me, it was that very special episode of Webster when he burnt his parents’ house down while playing with safety matches.
Man, was that show hip to the culture of young boys. From my personal experience—and this may not be true amongst the kids today, what with their video games, interwebs and pogs—but from my personal experience, fire was the coolest thing going in elementary school.
In fact, I was a preadolescent pyromaniac.
This is not to say that my friends or I ever intended any great destruction. It was that we were willing to risk it to fulfill our endless fascination with all things flammable. Like many of my friends, I kept a little pyro kit of matches, lighters, aerosol cans and other implements of destruction in a cigar box under my bed. By junior high, the cachet of flammables had risen yet further. The popularity of Beavis and Butthead, a program which perceptively articulated the trials of youthful idleness, highlighted the obsession with fire suffered by so many young men such as myself. Indeed, the show was at a certain point in its history censored from ever uttering the word fire again in light of an incident in which one if its young viewers successful confirmed the combustibility of his baby brother.
I personally never dabbled in anything so dramatic, but all in all, I did make some fantastic discoveries during my youthful experimentation with fire that you should never ever try, even though they sound cool.
First, I can tell you from experience that the aerosol/lighter blowtorch is a classic. Most people probably already know that if you hold a lighter in front of a can of aqua net, you can spray fire. Of course, this is incredibly cool and it would be a shame to live your whole life and not try it. But seriously, don’t. As kids, we did this with the full knowledge (based on urban legend and strong likelihood) that some kid, somewhere in suburbia, held the button down too long, allowing the fire suck back up into the can, causing a bloody, disgusting explosion.
The same urban legend applies to lighting one’s farts, though I was never bold or gassy enough to experiment with this.
Another cool trick is one best attempted in a garage or other hard open space with good ventilation. Write your name in lighter fluid, or really any flammable liquid, then light it on fire. It doesn’t have to be your name of course. It could be Rod Stewart’s name, or anybody’s name really. It doesn’t matter. The point is, you shouldn’t actually do this one either, even though it’s pretty much totally worth it.
And finally, probably the coolest thing that you shouldn’t try is a trick I learned from my friend’s irresponsible father when I was 11. He showed us that you can spontaneously create a fire by touching the prongs of a 9-volt battery to a brillo pad. This truly works. I tried it at home once without adult supervision. I stole the battery from my dad’s transistor radio and, leaning out of my bedroom window, touched it to a brillo pad. The brillo pad started to smolder. Seconds later, it was a little ball of flame, so of course I dropped it out the window. It landed in the mulch just under my bedroom and I had to run down the stairs and outside to stomp it out. This was the closest I ever came to burning my parents’ house down.
Ironically, now that I live in my own house, I hardly ever have the impulse to set things on fire. Sigh. I guess I’m growing up.
AKIE BERMISS: My trouble with fire is that I am practically always playing with it. Cigars — I love ‘em. I smoke ‘em. And there is no better solace after a long night’s gigging that drinking some stale gas-station coffee and smoking my cigar on the drives back to Brooklyn. Some of the drives, you see, are pretty late and pretty long and its rare that there’s anyone to talk to. I used to hook up my blue-tooth and just call anyone I thought might be awake and get them talking, but these days its not as cute as it used to be. People hang up. So its just me. And the road and the darkness. Usually, I light up and I turn on NPR (if I can get it) and I hit the road. But see the thing about cigars is: they’re big. A cigarette is easy to light. You almost don’t need a flame as a really strong spark will probably do the trick. Cigars, on the other hand, they take some real fire to get started. Really its just a barely-controlled micro-blaze.
And its alarming close to one’s mouth.
The other thing about a cigar is, because its big it isn’t so easy to put out. I’ve seen people smoking cigarettes and when they get down to the filter, they just toss them on the ground and walk away. Probably that’s not a safe thing to do, regardless of what you’re smoking, but with a cigarette you’d really need optimal conditions to get a blaze going. They usually just go out on their own. Cigars, on the other hand, are like tiny torches. And they’ll burn and burn and burn. If you don’t squash a cigar (which can be a bit strenuous to be honest), it will almost certainly make something close to it burn. Why is this important? Because any smoke will tell you that with this universally-held-as-disgusting habit comes the scars of the trade. You can surround yourself with fire and not expect to get burned. Maybe some flaming ash falls on your shirt, maybe you put the wrong end of the stick in your mouth (sounds ridiculous, but I’ve done it a couple of times), maybe it falls out of your mouth while talking and your reflexively catch it. In the palm of your hand. Thoroughly burning yourself.
And sometimes, maybe it falls out of your mouth and on to YOU. And that’s where it gets interesting…
Every once in a while this happens to me. I’m pretty used to it by now and I usually just reach down and pick up the cigar. Usually I’m not much worse for the wear (though anyone who has ever hitched a ride in my car can attest to all the burn marks scoring the seats and seat-backs, the roof, the dash, and so on. There IS a doomsday scenario, however: Occasionally, I will drop the lit cigar into my lap right after ashing it so the exposed ember will come in contact with my pants. If its been a particularly dry day, rest assured: my pants will catch fire. Its not like backdraft or anything, but it IS a burning fire IN MY LAP. Actually, in a real sense, the fire IS my lap. Now, this can be a pretty alarming situation and nearly every reflexive action one is bound to take will only make things worse. It is at that point, one must be coldly, calculatingly cruel. One must go beyond the mere psychological panic and make a tough choice.
And that’s where my coffee comes in handy.
Several times it has been a fresh cuppa’ that has saved my family jewels from fantastic ruin. And if I made the glory of driving home with a cigar sound compelling earlier: there is little more shaming experience than a long quiet car ride alone, in the dark, with wet underpants and nothing but smoldering self-recrimination as company.
Somehow, one recovers. One acknowledges that there is no escaping such incidents when smoking is your past time. Those who love to bake cannot avoid flour, those who love to garden cannot avoid dirt, and we smokers — we cannot avoid fire and smoke. They are our constant companions. That is, indeed, one of the reasons why we say, “We burn.”
And always keep some fluids near by.
DAN SZYMBORSKI: Guys like fire. Guys also like blowing stuff up, but fire is the safer, society-friendly version of blowing things up.
Every boy, at some point, experiments with fire. It’s part of natural selection, to remove from the gene pool those future men who cannot be trusted with fire. Who wants to trust the most important, raw power on earth (life couldn’t exist without the sun, the coolest, baddest fire in our lives) with some kid who burns down his house?
There’s kind of an order of growth with fire. First you figure out how to use matches. Then a lighter with one of those childproof switches that stop only clumsy adults. Then you learn how to set fire to small things, like leaves. Later, when you learn about how light works, you use magnifying glasses to burn leaves and bugs. Finally, once you pass all the childhood tests, you receive your mastery of fire diploma and are allowed to make awesome fireballs on grills on 4th of July and set off neat firecrackers (bottle rockets and roman candles, naturally, not those little white things that snap when you throw them on the ground).
Because of the importance of fire, many men grow up to do post-doctoral work in playing with fire. They may become firefighters, hvac technicians, or in extreme cases, enrich nuclear fuel for Iran.
As a society, we naturally embrace fire, both literal and figurative. Hell’s Kitchen on Fox is a popular show, but does anyone think Heaven’s Kitchen would be as popular? Have you ever seen a fast food commercial in which the latest chicken special is described as icy and mild? Ever heard anyone describe the icicles of passion?
Next time you see a kid making a fire in a metal garbage can, don’t scold him. Thank him for the greatness he will achieve someday and for making America a better place.