It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .
|My Dad smoked almost all of his life. He started sneaking cigarettes as a boy, way back in the 1940’s when doctors actually endorsed cigarette brands like Lucky Strike and Philip Morris as 'healthy'. He really got hooked in the 1950’s during his time in the Navy. He served in the Korean War, where good old Uncle Sam provided cheap tobacco as a perk for bored soldiers and sailors. Unfiltered Camels were his preferred poison, and he enjoyed mocking their 1960's ‘walk a mile’ ad campaign.
“I'd walk a mile to put my mouth on the butt of a Camel!”
This was in the days before the plastic butane lighters became ubiquitous. Back then, some people used pocket lighters fueled with the same stuff that’s used for charcoal grills. Dad said lighter fluid ruined the taste of the cigarettes, so he always used a match.
That’s how it started, with Dad lighting a cigarette and watching the match burn down. There were little bits of cottonwood fuzz floating around in the air and Dad reached out to touch one with the still flaming match. It made a small flash and disappeared in a wisp of smoke.
“Wow, that’s neat,” I enthused. “Do it again!”
We were all sitting around our 19” black and white TV set on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Watching Dad incinerate cottonwood fuzz was more exciting than the programming on either of the two channels that we got in rural Montana. My sisters and I were soon scrambling around our 12’ wide trailer to find more fuzz. Dad was amused by our amusement and lit match after match as we waved and batted fuzz bits in his direction.
There was plenty to go around. We’d pulled the yellow trailer into the yard next to my grandparent’s old farmhouse a year earlier. It was literally surrounded by more than a dozen mature cottonwood trees. The biggest trunks were four feet across, and they split into multiple branches that formed a thick canopy of green leaves. Every spring, the trees would blossom and drop their fuzzy seeds to blow away in the wind. But, if the weather was calm, the fuzz would cover the entire yard like a snowfall. Quite a bit of it had come in through doors and windows, but eventually we ran out, and Dad put the matches down. I was having fun and didn’t want to stop; maybe I could bring more inside?
“Oh no you don’t,” Mom objected as I opened the door. “We don’t need more fuzz in the house.”
I was a precocious 9-year-old. I could put two and two together and come up with trouble. I looked out at our snow-white yard and made a brilliant connection. If the fuzz in the house was flammable, then the stuff in the yard was too! I grabbed up Dad’s matches and ran down the steps.
“Hey, whatta ya think you’re doing?” Dad yelled, but he was a bit too slow.
He came out just as I struck a match and lit the yard on fire. It was beautiful, at first. That fuzz caught and burned like gasoline. The flame front advanced as fast as a person walking, and it expanded in an ever-growing arc away from the front steps.
“Yes, it worked!” I exulted inwardly. “Just like I thought it would!”.
Delight changed quickly to dismay as I watched it spread. The fire was moving way too fast for anyone to catch up and put it out. Fortunately, the spring grass was green, and the cottonwood fuzz burned off so quickly that there weren’t any scorch marks. There wasn’t even much smoke. The flames died down and petered out when they reached the fuzz-free area beyond the trees.
“Well, I guess that cleans up the yard,” Dad grinned.
He always had a good sense of humor, and I breathed a sigh of relief until we looked the other direction.
“Oh, shit,” I heard Dad mutter as the flame front curled around to the back of the trailer.
There was sheet metal skirting around the bottom of the trailer to insulate the crawl space, but the access panel at the back was open. I don’t remember why, but it had been open long enough for the fuzz to drift under the trailer. And there was dry, dead grass under there too, left from when we’d moved the trailer in.
Dad sprinted for the garden hose and frantically pulled it toward the trailer as real smoke began to swirl from under our home. I started to cry a little as Dad dove into the smoke and started dousing the fire. I hadn’t meant to burn the house down!
The next few minutes felt like hours as Dad extinguished the grass fire. The underside of the trailer was a little scorched, but there was no real damage. I was so scared that my folks took pity on me, and I didn’t even get much of a punishment.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, one that stuck with me for at least six weeks. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should!
Author's note: ▼