...or damn near.
Getting tagged by a bunch of ornery yellow jackets yesterday brought to mind a particularly dramatic episode from my sordid youth, the consequences of which I might still be paying to this day had things gone badly. I can't help but suspect I am still here only because of my mom's ever-fervent prayers for the good lord to deliver me from my own stupidity. For most of my childhood, and some would say significantly beyond, I needed as many prayers as any God-fearing soul might offer, perhaps more so than most of my youthful partners in crime.
Witness the following account:
I was about ten, which means my younger brother, Phred, was five-ish. Our house was (and is) surrounded by picturesque woods, about which we did (and still do) love to wander. Apart from Bigfoot, a Wampus Cat, the Zanti Misfits, an Allosaurus, and something called The Ick, I had never encountered anything overtly hostile in those woods, and neither my little brother nor I felt any compunction about roaming them freely. Now, behind the house, there is a sizable hillside, back then completely wooded, now partly cleared for an electrical substation. Phred and I had been out exploring the heretofore undiscovered wilderness a half a block or so up the street. An exciting expedition indeed—until that last fateful moment before we set foot back in our own yard.
We were just making our way down the wooded hill behind the house when my brother stumbled into a hole in the ground and erupted into hellish caterwauling. Oh yes, he had discovered a sizable nest of yellow jackets, and they had discovered him. He came tearing out of those woods as if his head were on fire and his rear end was catching. I recall desperately wanting to rescue him from the swarm, but since there was a huge, seething cloud of the things, I deemed it far wiser to sit back and watch from a distance.
My parents heard the shrieking and came rushing out, and I believe it was Dad who grabbed Phred, swatted him up and down to kill as many yellow jackets as possible, and ran him into the house. The poor boy had I don't know how many stings—dozens, I'd guess. An unhappier camper I'm certain I had never seen up to that point in my young life.
Now, happily, neither of us suffer any severe allergies to critter stings, so after a period of considerable discomfort, Phred made a quick and full recovery. But I found myself guilt-stricken for not having rescued him from that raging swarm, and I quickly began to formulate a plan to dish out some just deserts for the inhabitants of that blasphemous hell-hole.
Step 1 was to pour a large Coca Cola bottle full of gasoline from the can Dad kept in the basement for the lawn mower. Step 2 was to clandestinely procure some matches from the kitchen cabinet. Step 3 was to fill a plastic bucket with water just for good measure. So I hauled myself and my instruments of revenge up the hill until I could see the offending aperture in the earth not far ahead. A few little yellow bastards were buzzing around it, but they appeared to be taking no notice of me. So I crept on up with my bottle of gasoline and, with cool deliberation, poured every last drop of it into the opening. As you might guess, this stirred up a fuss within, and I suspect I was lucky that the gasoline overcame any number of would-be attackers. I took a step back, struck a match, and dropped it into the hole.
I didn't know what had just happened. As if in slow motion, this huge ball of golden-red flame came billowing up at me, and only my youthful reflexes saved me from becoming a human torch. I dropped to the ground and skittered away from the inferno, my foremost thought being "charcoal lighter fluid never went up like that!" (I had lots of experience with charcoal lighter fluid.) My second thought was that I'd better get to that bucket of water with all possible haste. I scrambled over to it, lifted it above my head, and dumped the water straight into the newborn volcano. Now, that extinguished some of the blaze, but as you surely know (I did not), gasoline floats, and several little rivers of flame went trickling into the surrounding dry grass and foliage.
That fire was spreading faster than my brain was working. I thought maybe I could go back to the house and refill the bucket, but by that time, most of the woods and possibly our house would have burned up. Knowing I had little choice, I braved the flames and any surviving yellow jackets—I didn't see any, as they had probably all been blown up real good—and started smothering the spreading rings of fires with the bucket. By some miracle (Mom's prayers?), I managed to get the blazes under control, all without either getting flambéed or stung to death. Once the flames were mostly out, I ran back to the house with my bucket, filled it up, and returned to the disaster area, where I once again drenched the scorched earth. I repeated this procedure at least three or four times, and by the time I was finished, the fires were completely out.
The only evidence of what I had done, at this point, was a cloud of smoke hovering over the area and a charred patch of ground roughly ten to twelve feet in diameter. I sat out there for a hour or so to make sure the area didn't spontaneously reignite. I remember praying for my mom not to come outside, but I knew my dad would be getting home from work soon. I did my best to shed myself of all signs of panic, get cleaned up, and go back inside as if nothing had ever happened.
After all that, I will tell you that the true miracle of the day was that neither of my parents ever went down to the lower part of the backyard and looked up at that hillside, because if they had, I would not be here now to tell you that story. Had Dad ever found out, I'm pretty sure I would have preferred getting burned up in the inferno or fatally stung by little yellow bastards to what would have surely followed. I've always hoped my little brother appreciated me laying my life on the line to avenge his agony.
And that was the Day I Burned Up Martinsville.
|The old homestead, which I'm glad I managed NOT to burn down.|