Fire Evokes Fear and Fascination

Sep 27, 2013

Fire – and the power to control it – moved humankind rapidly up the evolutionary ladder. It still fascinates us. News-Press story teller Amy Bennett Williams is no exception.

It was summer, one of those Midwestern prairie mornings when insect buzz rose like green sonic steam over the fields.

I was about 4, tagging along as my father puttered from barn to barn on the retired dairy farm where we rented a house. We were in the sawdust-scented workshop when we heard the screaming.

It was my mother, pelting toward us in shorts, my baby sister in her arms.

"Pat, Pat, the children's room is on fire!"

And sure enough, from the white wooden house, where our window opened onto an old apple orchard, a thin curl of smoke spiraled slowly skyward.

That was the last slow thing I remember about that morning; once my mother reached us, everything sped to a blur. By the time the volunteer fire department showed up, summoned by a siren in the center of town, little Gwen and I had been whisked away by a neighbor, who deposited us in the children's room of her church.

The fire had started in a window-mounted air conditioner over my sister's crib, where she'd just been put down for a nap. Had my mother ignored her crying, the end of this story might be entirely different, but she didn't, so when she stepped into the darkened bedroom and saw flames, she was able to snatch the baby and run for it.

As it was, only the back bedroom was destroyed, though the what-ifs haunted the family psyche as long as the dark smoke scent did. No amount of rug-cleaning, pillow-replacing or wall-washing could get rid of it; it had soaked right into the home's bones, it seemed. Like fear into ours.

Fire still scares the hell out of me. I work in a newsroom, after all, where I've seen more than my share of fire stories that didn't end the way my family's did. Smoking wreckage. Melted dolls. Despairing, ash- and tear-striped faces.

And I know it could happen to me again. That we live in an old heart-pine and cypress cottage in the middle of the woods doesn't ease my mind.

One of the first things we did after moving there was ask the Division of Forestry to come burn off the underbrush to make the place safer — fuel load reduction, it's called.

This year, before Christmas, the sole non-gift purchase I allowed myself was two shiny wall-mounted fire extinguishers. Kinda wrecks the cottage decor aesthetics, but it's a trade-off I can live with. Early on, when we replaced an old window, I tossed a piece of the framing into a bonfire. It went up like a candle.

A bonfire. Side by side with the lifelong fear of fire is a lifelong fascination with it.

Maybe there's a buried desire to taunt the monster that almost stole my sister, but as long as I've been a propertied adult, I've had a nice, big fire pit.

Having a ranch-bred husband who embraces my love of flames helps, as does the fact that both boys do too.

We play by all the safety rules, but the pleasure still always feels a bit guilty.

So guilty, in fact, that in a rather shameful fit of rationalization, I once drafted a list of ways our fire habit is actually educational:

·          Structural engineering: The kids build stick tepees or scrap lumber bridges, then observe which configurations hold up the longest — and which burn the best.

·         Physics and chemistry: If we've told 'em once, we've told them a hundred times as they gaze in wonder: "Fire is the rapid combination of oxygen with fuel in the presence of heat, typically characterized by flame, a body of incandescent gas that contains and sustains the reaction and emits light and heat." (Thank you, Cecil Adams.)

·         Comparative rhetoric: Ashes in the updraft, says Nash, are papery moths, feather confetti, silver snowflakes ...

·         Combustive metamorphoses: What happens when you toss common materials (at least on our place) into the flames? We've learned slash pine cones glow like huge thistles, that a handful of their needles become flickering filaments (eerily like those yard sale fiberoptic fountains) and that goose plumes flare intact, then dissolve into ash.

So I could think of no better way to send out last year than by building a 10-foot-tall creature from some the dead stuff we had lying around: slash pine limbs woven together with grape vines, topped with a palmetto frond head.

If the pure, savage pleasure I felt as we set it ablaze and watched it flare against the darkness was tinged with guilt, so be it. Life is complex. And besides, there was all that fuel load we'd reduced.