I was 10 years old when I started making fires in my house. I’d grab a book of matches from the old man’s night table drawer, where he kept them alongside packs of cigarettes, nail files, clippers, and such.
For a kid growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, getting matches wasn’t easy. There was a cardboard box of stick matches that my mother kept in a cabinet. She would use them to light candles for special occasions, like birthdays or fancy holiday dinners. But they were off limits. My mother would surely notice some missing. So the smart play, the only play, were the little matchbooks Dad used to light up with.
The old man was a two-pack-a-day guy. Viceroy was his vice. But you had to be careful about stealing his matches. If he knew I was lighting fires, there would be hell to pay. The old man had a long fuse about most things, but stealing matches and starting fires in the house? Forget it. He’d definitely haul off on me.
I could slip a little matchbook right into a pocket of my dungarees or shorts. But I was careful to use just a couple of the matches and then to return the book to the night table.
I made fires in the bathroom, usually when the rest of my family was outside or not at home. I’d throw some toilet paper or tissue into the little wastebasket, watch the thing burn a bit, and then toss the ashes in the toilet and flush the evidence away. Sometimes I’d just start a fire in the toilet bowl. I’d open a window to air things out or turn on the bathroom fan. I loved the thrill of watching the fire grow as I fed it, and I loved the feeling of getting away with it.
One day I found out I wasn’t the only kid in the neighborhood who played with matches. My friend John Reilly, an altar boy and a Boy Scout, had experience, thanks to the Scouts. He said he had learned to build campfires and talked about how much fun it was.
He’d show me how to build a good safe campfire if I was interested. We could toast marshmallows, he said, and hot dogs, too, or just sit around the fire and tell stories. All we’d need was a place to build it.
I never told John about my fascination with fire, about my obsession with it. Nor did I mention that creating a fire in the woods was a big step for a waste paper basket-toilet bowl fire-addict punk like me. Sure the marshmallows and hot dogs sounded like fun, but the fire – the hot, crackling fire and its flames growing bigger and bigger and burning hotter and hotter – now that would be something.
Our North Massapequa neighborhood was a collection of ranch houses, cape cod, and split levels, mostly from the 1950s, and a few older houses built before the war. The streets were named after trees: Hawthorne, Hickory, Walnut, Maple, Cedar, Pine, Beech, and Linden. There were several wooded lots that hadn’t been developed yet, and houses with growing families usually sat next to those lots.
It was a good place for families from Brooklyn and Queens to settle, where kids could roam safely, ride bikes, play hide and seek, jump rope, or roller skate. We played baseball and tag in the streets and built tree houses and clubhouses in the wooded lots. Nobody bothered you. As long as you were back by supper, nobody wondered what you were up to. Nobody thought you were starting fires.
John and I decided to build our campfire in a wooded lot across the street from John’s house. John was picky about the kinds of rocks to use. Big rocks, at least the size of melons, for the base; stray bricks were okay, too. Some rocks we rolled, others we carried. It was sweaty work in the dry, summer heat.
We dumped our rocks in piles before sorting them to form a circle about four feet in diameter. The biggest rocks first for the base. The next biggest wedged between pairs of them. The next biggest wedged between pairs of the second tier. Small rocks plugged into gaps here and there. John laid a pile of dry twigs and old leaves on the ground in the middle of the circle. Finally, satisfied with our construction, we went looking for whatever we could find that would burn. Dead branches, scraps of lumber, anything we could get our hot hands on.
John lit a match. At last, we had fire. We began feeding it. Slowly at first and then more and more. As the flames licked higher and higher, we watched as smoke billowed up and out over Pine Street toward the neighboring houses. I loved it. But John was scared.
“Russell, it’s too big. Let’s put it out.”
Both of us began throwing sandy dirt on the hungry fire. It was useless.
“I’ll get my brother,” John said, and ran across the street.
Alone now, I watched the fire. I was mesmerized by its ferocity. I threw in another big branch, just to see. It roared with approval.
John returned with Billy. He was two years older and not a Boy Scout. He grabbed a small Christmas tree somebody had dumped in the woods and began batting the angry fire with it.
We screamed that he was making it worse.
But Billy was determined. He was swinging that dry old Christmas tree like Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Suddenly the fire jumped over the rocks in several directions.
Now it was truly out of control. “Run for it!” yelled Billy.
And the three of us scooted across the street toward their house and into their backyard, slamming the wooden gate behind us.
Then we heard sirens. Two fire trucks came. An ambulance. Police cars, too. There were lots of neighbors, kids screaming, dogs barking, while we peered through the slots in the fence at the chaos we had created.
We watched as the firemen hosed down the neighboring houses to protect them from the flames that were consuming the tall pines in the lot.
We decided to have a closer look. But only after taking a solemn oath to say nothing to anybody for the rest of our lives.
Flashing lights and smoky smells filled the air as I slipped through the buzzing crowd.
The fire was dying back now, the nearby houses safe, the wooded lot smoldering as the firemen kept dousing water on the charred land.
“How did it start?” I asked a lady in my best innocent-kid voice.
She shrugged. “Maybe a cigarette. Who knows?”
A couple of long weeks went by, and the fear of being found out slowly diminished, like a dying ember. No policeman came to my house to handcuff me. No official letter arrived in the mailbox demanding my parents turn me in for questioning. I kept my mouth shut tighter than a Long Island clam. I never told a soul, not even Fred, my best friend.
Then one day outside the comic book store, I ran into John Reilly. “I told the priest,” he said.
“You what?” I said.
“I told Father Flanagan, I went to confession.”
A cold wave of parental and priestly fear washed over me. I’d been double-crossed by a Boy Scout.
“Don’t worry, Russell. It’s why you go to confession,” John said.
I stood there pondering that while he skipped away to catch up with a bunch of other neighborhood kids.
Russ Harris grew up in North Massapequa, Long Island. He’s been a sports writer, advertising copywriter, and voice over/narrator for over 30 years. He likes golf, poker, and tofu. He lives in Piermont with his wife, Molly.