Yesterday, I told about my little paper-burning adventure, and how the fire almost got away from me. That brought to mind my first childhood adventure of “burning down the field.” That memorable event was the first, but not the only time we burned down the field. It became an annual event!
The field was about twenty acres of overgrown grass and weeds. There were wildflowers and vines, but no shrubs or wild juniper bushes like the fields on Beaver Island. We were allowed to wander the field, as long as we always kept our own house in sight. Toward the back, along a wide dirt pathway, wild raspberries grew. We went there often, in season, to pick them…but we were careful.
A family lived in a tiny house at the end of that path. The story we told each other was that they were crazy. The father shot a gun. The boys played with knives: big kitchen knives instead of jackknives. They had an outhouse for a bathroom. The mother smelled bad. That, we knew because my parents hired her, on occasion, to do our ironing. The little house was home to seven raggedy children, who often waited at the bus stop with runny noses. All the signs of insanity, in our childish thoughts. If any of them came near us when we were picking berries, we’d run for home.
Beyond the field was a small woods and a swamp that was sometimes just mud, other times several feet of water. There was an electric fence back there, too, that the boys would test by peeing on it. All of that was beyond sight of the house, and we’d be in big trouble if we ever got caught back there.
At the back of our property, at the edge of the field, we had a large metal barrel that we used for burning trash. As soon as he was big enough, eight or nine, maybe, taking out the trash and burning it was Ted’s job. Every now and then, Mom did it for him. We always knew that Ted played in the fire. He often burned his fingers trying to grab something out of the flames to twirl in the air, or to poke other things with. Once, he leaned over the barrel, and got a long blister across his belly. That was a hard one to explain.
The already volatile conditions – fire, dry grass and sometimes wind – were helped along by Ted pulling things out to wave them around and watch them burn. The field caught fire again…and again. And again. Just when it was beginning to look like it couldn’t possibly be an accident, and Dad was losing patience with all of Ted’s excuses, Mom caught the field on fire! Out burning the trash for Ted, a breeze came up and pulled some flaming papers out of the barrel and into the tall grass…and there it went again! That time, one of the neighbor’s sheds burned up, too.
After that, Dad took out a burning permit once every year. He gathered friends to help. They’d spend the day with rakes and shovels, keeping the fire controlled, while they burned the whole field down. We were allowed to watch from the sidelines, and sometimes help. After the fire, the grass came up nice and green. It was less of a hazard, he said. Burning down the field became a big family event: our family and friends, all playing with fire.