The photograph below was taken in 1991 and it is of me at a camp fire with some friends firebreathing.
Ever since I was a little child, I have had a fascination with fire. I suspect that my love affair with fire started before I was even old enough to talk. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother, lighting her wood-burning stove on a cold morning to get breakfast ready. I can still see the image in my mind of the small flames growing as the kindle caught alight. Magic!
All through my childhood, I used to play with matches, and it was a constant worry to my mother. One time, when I was about six she caught me early one morning, setting fire to toilet paper and tossing it out my third story window and watching it fall burning to the ground. What made my mother particularly angry was that my sister was sleeping in the same room, and there was evidence that I had been lighting fires inside of the room as well. Mum was justifiably furious.
That day, when I went to school, my mother gave me an envelope with instructions not to open it and she said that I had to give it to my teacher and that it had to be signed by my teacher and brought back home that afternoon. When I got to school I handed over the letter as I been told, and it came as quite a surprise to me when the teacher read out a description of what I’d been doing that morning, lighting fires in the bedroom while my sister was still asleep. I’m not sure but I think it was the first time my life that I was ever embarrassed.
My mother has had the school system here in Australia, punish me on other occasions as well. One time she took me to my headmaster and told him that I had been truant and had him cane me (struck over the open palm with a cane several times). We used to have corporal punishment in schools, here in Australia, up until the mid-70s.
Near where I used to live (from when I was 6 until about 8 years of age) was a bamboo grove and my friends and I used to make bows and arrows out of the bamboo. We used to tear off large banana leaves and tuck them into our shorts and pretend we were Africans. My friends and I used to hunt each other with our bows and arrows in the long grass of a big empty block of land (it was big enough for about 10 or more houses) close by.
To make the arrows sharper, we used to melt hard plastic and wind it around the shaft tips, while it was still molten to make pointy arrow heads.
One day my sister, a few other friends and I were on the block and getting ready for another day’s safari by melting plastic for arrow heads over a small fire I had made. One of the neighbours to the block of land saw what we were doing and started yelling at us and chased us off. Unfortunately, our now untended fire got a bit out of control. The spreading fire wasn’t that big when the neighbour noticed it spreading. He ran back into his backyard and got his garden hose and tried to put it out. The trouble was that the hose wasn’t long enough, the hot wind was blowing and there wasn’t much he could do before the whole block was up in flames.
By the time the fire brigade turned up a few of the adjoining properties fences were well and truly on fire. It’s true, criminals do return to the scene of the crime, and our little band stood on the sidewalk nearby, enjoying the show. We were close enough to hear one of the policeman ask the sooty neighbour how the fire started. He just pointed at us and said “those little bastards!” We ran for our lives before anybody could get their hands on us.
Up until my midteens my pyromania was moderately slaked by fireworks. When I was about six or seven (back in the early 60s), there used to be very large fireworks called “tuppenny bungers” that were like little sticks of dynamite. Each year there would be stories in the paper how children had blown off fingers playing with tuppeny bungers.
In my childish eyes a tuppenny bunger was a thing of wonder. They were so versatile. They easily blew up letterboxes, and if you put one in a metal garbage can and then put the lid on it, the resulting explosion would blow the lid over the telephone wires. They were awesome. I can remember how angry and disappointed I was when the government eventually banned them. As a kid, I just couldn’t understand it.
By the time I got to the eighth grade in high school, I didn’t need to buy fireworks as I could make my own. As a matter of fact, I used to hang out with a bunch of guys who are also interested in very similar things. I was particularly interested in rockets, and I used to make little rocket powered cars.
I used make my primitive homemade rocket engines by mixing my own solid fuel and packaging it into glass pill bottles that had a small hole in the plastic cap. The little pill bottles were then strapped to a balsa wood car, and then ignited. With a WHOOOOSH my little cars used to streak down the road. Now when I look back on what I used to do, it’s amazing, I never had one of those glass pill bottles blow up in my face.
One day I was in the front yard at home, experimenting with my rocket fuel mixture. I had a small metal plate, that I used to ignite my mixtures on to see how fast they would burn. I noticed that a mixture that I had concocted made my metal plate extremely hot, and when I poured a little bit more mixture onto it, it would ignite. As I experimenting, a friend of mine passed my front yard and I yelled out to him “hey John watch this!” and I poured a small medicine glass of my rocket fuel onto the red hot metal.
A blinding flash, accompanied by a miniature mushroom cloud was the result.
My hand was in the mushroom cloud, and as I instinctively pulled it out I saw that all the skin from my wrist to my fingertips was a saggy white bag hanging loosely off my hand and all my fingernails were totally burnt.
Then the pain came. To this day, I will ask any woman who says the childbirth is the most painful thing there is, why many women have more than one child. There is no reason on earth, why I would willingly go through the kind of pain, I experienced on that day, ever again.
I was kept waiting at the hospital for two hours screaming in agony before I was given a painkiller. Nothing worked. I was begging them to just put me to sleep. Eventually some brainiac figured out that it would be a good idea to stick my hand in some ice cold water (which is the very first thing one should do).
I had first, second and third degree burns plus I’d burnt my fingernails completely off. I spent three days in hospital, there was talk of cutting off my thumb and it was over a year before I could use my hand properly again. All the new skin was tight, without wrinkles and I couldn’t close my hand. Because I develop keloid scars I had trouble using my thumb without tearing what little was left of the web between my thumb and index finger. The trouble with my dexterity was overcome somewhat by plastic surgery performed on my hand about two years later. The web of my hand was still cracking and splitting 20 years later. My fingernails did eventually grow back.
That year, some of my friends that shared a few of my interests had some pretty horrifying accidents.
Solly Voron opened up a jar of caesium (which ignites on contact with the air) and it exploded in his face burning his corneas and setting his bedroom on fire. Luckily, Solly got his sight back.
Alan Ritter, was making some rocket fuel when he blew up and badly burnt his upper arm and elbow.
Bernard Hegg (like all the rest of the group) had made a very powerful and extreamly unstable explosive called nitrogen triiodide. When it is wet it won’t explode, but when it’s dry, all one has to do is blow on it and it will explode. Bernard and I used to take the stuff to school and paint it on door knobs and seats so that it would make small explosions when the items were touched after they dried. As long as the solution was dry it was safe. Unfortunately for Bernard he made a pill bottle of the compound and put it away in a wardrobe to forget about it. About a year later, he noticed the bottle and picked it up. The slight movement caused the bottle to blow up in his hand and the glass passed straight through his flesh like there was nothing there. He was so lucky not to lose loose his life, never mind the use of his hand. He came out of the experience with scars that were indentical on both sides of his hand.
Finally there was, our guru, Michael Biber (he was one of those guys who had a full beard in the 12th grade) who pretended to be a doctor and went into the local hospital and checked out some radium from one of the x-ray machines and had to be treated for radiation sickness.
So as you can see I’m a bit of a slow learner when it comes to fire. Even though I’ve been badly burnt, I still love being around fires. So much so, that in the summer I barbecue over burning charcoal about once or twice a week and in the colder months about once every two weeks. I actually enjoy the colder months, because I’m able to light up our chiminea. A perfect Sunday morning for me is to sit outside on a cold day with my wife as we read the papers while the chiminea keeps us warm.
My mother sent me the following E-mail as a comment to this post.
When you blew up your hand, I heard you screaming, so I and ran out and you were running around the front yard holding on to your hand. One of the other tenants rang a taxi, but I just ran into the road and flagged one and we went straight to the emergency (The cabbie didn’t even charge me!) I just sat quietly in the cab and held your arm out, away from any contact with anything.
They took you immediately and I filled in the forms. When I was taken to you, you were being wheeled, in a wheelchair with your hand in a bowl of ice water as doctor was asking you what chemicals you had mixed together. As you were telling him, he looked at me and laughingly said, “you’ve got quite a handful haven’t you?….But he will be alright and so will his hand.”
Poor old mum and the things she had to put up with when I was a kid, and this wasn’t the half of it.