by Maria Mize
Enjoy the drama, mystery and suspense with a slight twist.
|WHEN DARE + DOUBLE-DARE = FIRE
A string of shots rang out before the sergeant shouted:
“Hold your fire!” No pun intended, he mumbled. “Surrender boys, come on out now with your hands up! Your lives aren’t over. Sure, there'll be pay backs, but think of your families. A showdown after a few fires isn't how anybody wants to remember you.” Not on my watch.
We obeyed Sergeant Pierce, quivering with fear and our faces drained of color. Slow and guarded, we walked out.
It was 1985 and school was closed for summer recess. Three young teens had too much time on their hands, crazy imaginations and a marked lack of control. Bored and with our parents at work, mischief ran amuck. What one of us didn't think of, another did.
We toyed with fire, an incredible game at first, thrilling to set and watch it grow, consuming everything in its path --- like a science project gone awry. Eventually, a few people were burned and whole lot of property.
Once the first fire was set, we couldn't go home --- Joe, Kenny and me. We were dirty, smoky and covered in soot and in an unimaginable predicament. A predominant fear of punishment overcame all reason. We stole what food we could --- fruits and vegetables found flourishing in gardens, grape arbors and orchards. With spigots everywhere, we suffered no shortage of fresh water.
Starting with matches, a dare and a double-dare, we became part of a war and not the "good" side. The whole community was against us. Forgiveness was not going to come easy after fire and smoke threatened to engulf Greenfield. With each successive fire, we were swallowed by condemnation and worthlessness. Time was running out; and we were going out with a bang, and nobody including us cared.
In June 1985, for more than a week the fires continued, sporadically set throughout Greenfield: a town full of hard-working folk, surrounded by a rural area in Southwestern Ohio. Minor injuries took their toll; yet there were no casualties. Property damage ran up to more than half-a-million --- barns, fields, a tree farm, a few old farm houses and then a church.
Something has to give! This destruction must stop, Sergeant Pierce shook his head in disgust and weary frustration.
In addition to Greenfield P.D. and the Arson Squad, the County Sheriff was involved and dispersed the entire canine unit. A church was burnt to the ground on a Sunday just before the afternoon service, a few hours short of a massacre. Things started getting more and more precarious.
Downright meanness was certainly driving these rascals who were getting kicks while creating a wake of turmoil and misery. So far the deviants were lucky enough to keep the canine unit at bay, either hiking up a creek or escaping by some other means. All of us in authority felt blindfolded throughout most of the investigation and pursuit, coming up with a mere handful of leads. It’s amazing what evil can transpire during an easy warm summer when most people are working, at home with their families or just minding their own business.
Finally watching the 11 O'clock news on a Wednesday evening, the good people of Greenfield were assured it wouldn’t be long before fate caught up with the arsonists. Three young teenage boys were missing, and the fact they might be the fire-starters was high on our list. With so many agencies involved, all hands were on deck as the local news kept Greenfield apprised. Then the witnesses started coming in droves.
We began spanning the city, any and every prospective hiding place. It was a non-stop investigation about to come to an abrupt end.
Thursday evening at around 7:15, our final call came in --- an all-agency-alert --- a house was burning in the middle of town, the home of a single mother with three young children. Alarms sounded from all nearby stations, and sirens wailed as a thick black cloud cascaded over a turbulent community.
At the scene the young mother was holding her two-year old son, a towheaded boy with rosy cheeks, wearing Superman pajamas.
“Please help me! Please, save my babies! My other two are still inside,” their mama pled through uncontrollable sobs.
Four brave firemen stepped into the hellish inferno this family called "home" with firm determination to rescue two little boys, aged four and six.
Water fell heavy and hard in every direction from multiple hoses. The smoke thickened. Breathing was labored and painful.
Finally, two firemen emerged holding two raggedy dolls, close behind them were the other two firemen. The paramedics started CPR; then put both boys on oxygen and into ambulances headed for the nearest burn center at Mercy South.
The two young boys narrowly escaped death that night. They remained on ventilators all night while being treated for third degree burns. They were in the pediatric intensive care unit at Mercy South. Their mother sat close by in a rocker, eyes vacant and distant as she cuddled her two-year-old in bewilderment. After a night of horror, she and her boys were still alive. Is this really happening? No, it's a bad dream. I'll wakeup and we'll be watching cartoons in the living room.
Luke, the family's three-month old puppy, was gone. The blaze burned hot, and there was nothing identifiable left at the residence.
Sergeant Pierce walked into the hospital room at least once a day. The nurses routinely cleaned the boys' wounds and re-applied topical ointment, re-wrapping their wounds with fresh gauze. Sergeant Pierce witnessed the boys' agony on more than one occasion. Today, he found himself reassuring their mother:
"Law enforcement is on the trail of three juveniles and we are determined to find them by day’s end."
Around 6 O’clock that same afternoon, the canine unit trailed their scent to an old abandoned shack on the outskirts of town.
The three of us, Joe, Kenny and Chris, were shaken to the core --- surrounded by law enforcement and unsure what would happen next. We believed our lives were over, and death was our only escape. We found an old pistol in the shack with a few rounds still in it. So we sent a few wild shots barreling out the shack. The authorities ran for cover and return fire rained down like hail during a thunderstorm with us quaking inside. We waited in fear, not saying a word.
At last, we heard Sergeant Pierce shout, “Hold your fire!”
The three of us were from middle-class families. Heck, most everyone in town knew us by our family names. Our intentions seemed ominous, yet we were just three stupid kids with too much time on our hands and not enough self-control or supervision. We didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. That house looked like it was empty. What started as dangerous fun, turned into a most unholy nightmare. We were guilty, and whether alive or dead, we and our families had a high price to pay. This was not how we expected to be remembered.
Sergeant Pierce coaxed us out.
With hands raised, remorseful and crying like babies, shame-faced and heads down, we stumbled out one at a time.
Everyone breathed a silent sigh of relief. Was it really possible they still cared about us after what we'd done?
Sergeant Pierce immediately set us straight with no qualms, "Because of the three of you, two little boys are being treated for third degree burns at Mercy South; last night was touch-and-go. They're both alive but suffering due to your careless, intentional arson of their home. The boys’ mama is at her wits end. They’ve lost everything but their lives."
The very next morning an old man a block down the street from the still-smoking residence called Channel 10. Luke, the young pup was wandering around pitiful, forlorn and lost, looking for his family no doubt. Except for a few scrapes and singed hair, matted with soot, he was okay. After a bath and a little clipping, he looked no worse for wear.
We were booked into jail and charged with multiple counts of arson, reckless endangerment, and unlawful possession and use of a firearm. Our cases were soon in the court system. Because of the severity of our crimes, we were nearly tried as adults but after sobering confessions, we were sentenced as juveniles.
In the mid-nineties, Channel 10 ran an update on the fires of 1985 after interviewing the three of us as well as our victims. Many were profoundly and forever impacted by our spree of terror that summer.
The three of us had become model citizens as we spent a lot of personal time visiting local schools, continuing restitution through community service, speaking to auditoriums full of students about the dangers of playing with fire and of our own personal, painful experience that summer of 1985. Though it won't soon, if ever, be forgotten, Greenfield helped us to put that summer behind us. We are still making restitution. Overwhelming evil has done a one-hundred-eighty degree turn around and is being put to good use as we shake-up young students and steer generations down a brighter path.
Channel 10 revealed that after the final night of terror, two burned little boys were left scarred after that summer in 1985 --- their marks of stamina and survival despite all odds. They grew into young men and are still calling Greenfield home. Darned if their mother didn’t marry the preacher who ministered to them at Mercy South. The good man ministered to us too while we were in jail and even continued while we were serving time in juvenile detention.
Sergeant Pierce died of heart failure a few years back. His death was mourned by every soul in Greenfield. There was a great turn out at his funeral and a lot of good remarks. Pierce Park sets in the heart of town, a thriving reminder of Sergeant Pierce, his kindness and distinct valor.
I’m Chris. My buddies and I came to terms with what we did, what happened and why. We have compassion for young people because of our experience. We didn’t deserve a second chance, but sure got one. I'm a firm believer in second chances. This story is one more attempt to say I’m sorry. Speaking for my friends and myself, if we could go back and re-live those days differently, of course we would. But what's done is done, and at least by speaking out, maybe we can prevent this from happening again in Greenfield. When toying with fire, someone is sure to get burnt --- in more ways than one.
If you ever travel through Greenfield, I run the local bookstore.
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