The Theory of Fire
Graphic by Ruth Mountaingrove
The day the lawnmower caught fire I was daydreaming, as usual, pushing the mower along. It was the summer of 1963. Maybe I heard it at first, or perhaps I initially smelled the smoke and then looked down and saw the flames, but whatever the sequence of events the mower was engulfed very quickly, and I stood there shot through with panic, fear, and confusion. What do you do when a lawnmower catches fire? How do you put it out? Do you even try? All I could think of was an imminent conflagration approaching by microseconds in the elastic moments that stretched as time elongated. What to do? What I did was run a short distance and jump over the side of a small hill, where the lawn pitched down, and then I watched the black smoke rising in a sinuous, oily cloud, the flames snapping and lustrous in the clear summer light. I was eleven years old.
Oh dear. The entire machine was now engulfed. I was just waiting for the inevitable explosion, the big bang of a TNT-scale whomping concussion that would blow my hair back in a white crack and then roll in thudding waves off the hillsides. That was what always happened on television -- car catches fire, short pause, followed by immediate Armageddon. Then a neighbor drove by in his pick-up truck. Almost all the other fathers I knew were white collar, engineers mostly, like my dad, but this man was in construction and drove a truck , rather than the customary sedan or station wagon. He ran over to the burning mower with a fire extinguisher that he kept in his cab, sprayed a long blast of CO2, and put the fire out.
This episode turned into an ongoing joke with family and friends, another laugh at my expense in the neighborhood. The man who lived across the street took the mower for parts -- melted, deformed, a charred plastic glob, and it stayed in their basement for years, a continual reminder of my bumbling ineptitude.
There was a lesson here, of sorts. I had done the right thing in running away after the fire had started, although it seemed, from the chuckles my misfortune elicited, that perhaps there was something I could have done to avert the meltdown. But what? Beat on a burning motor, positioned next to a tank of gasoline mounted on the chassis, with my T-shirt? Perhaps. Who's to say? What were the other options? Run to the field and claw up some handfuls of dirt from underneath the hay? Maybe find some sand along the shoulder of the road to toss on the flames?
On another level there wasn't any clear lesson. This was just random perversity, the pervasive, rumbling presence of mystery. At the cusp of my adolescence something in my hands had just burst into flames in a flash of spontaneous combustion, resulting in the transmutation of whirring, chopping metal and plastic into explosive, crackling flames and smoke, and all that I could do was run for cover, an activity that was not very high in my estimation of respectable responses to crisis. I just watched, and although a burning lawnmower was a fairly innocuous, seemingly insignificant event, I was still left with an uncomfortable mix of embarrassment, pleasure, and guilt. There was, strangely enough, an odd, illicit satisfaction that I took in watching the stupid thing burn, but then there were -- what? twinges of guilt, perhaps, as a result of my own secret, demonic gloating?--which were then further complicated by an unsettling ambivalence, a discombobulating kind of mental limbo, as I floated between taking responsibility -- the moral choice -- and a detached, hedonistic, exhilarating pyro purity. I felt suitably bad, in other words, but it was pretty cool watching it burn.
This all happened at one of the earliest points when the line of events leading to adulthood achieved unbroken continuity, emerging out of the blurry, inaccessible reaches of childhood. Yet it was also an arrhythmia, an anomalous interruption, an unexpected intrusion which had a hypnotic, somnambulant fascination, and at the heart, the ill-defined center of the rush of emotions that were slamming me around, was oddly a calm, almost paralyzed, resignation.
This stillness mixed up a lot of things. They now sound dramatically overblown for an eleven year old, but I still believe they were there, if only very dimly present, just hints of shadows. This was a frustrating, contradictory, almost schizoid fusion of dread, abandon, shame, liberation, rage, fascination, and even a weird kind of joy. Smoke, flames, wind, grass, and rustling branches plucked notes on an ancient blood-memory harp, a cellular lyre with strings spun of DNA codings pulled taut within the coils of the brainstem and spinal column. These were atavistic resonances -- echoes of sacrificial atonement, riverbank deliverance, and tombstone finality -- with subtle, complex shadings of shadow and light in the spiraling, numinous chords. All of this was rising from a flaming hole, a rip in time, a blackened husk on an idyllic summer's day. The sum of the possibilities of all I knew and all I would ever know fused for a moment into one thrumming, energetic, sailing impulse, a beam of concentrated light breaking through clouds of dust. A veil was pulled back and I lay there in the grass in foreboding and solitude and did not think in words. I watched and felt the pull of ceremony, whispered intuitions of the theory of fire.
Many times learning takes mysterious, hidden forms, cloaked in enigmatic folds, and all we can do is sense the penumbra. Maybe it's the resistance to easy reading, the intransigent, stubborn way our lives insist on appearing fragmented and chimerical, that makes us look to books and movies for capsules of meaning -- for narratives of metamorphosis and growth and integration, or, as so often happens, of entropy, dissolution, and the phosphorescence of decay -- rather than reach back into the files of memory and realize the coherence of our own dream. We sit with a stranger we pay by the hour to interpret our accretion of story, a reading we hope will help us untie the knots we find ourselves balled-up in. We try to make sense of things, we really try, and yet many times no matter what we do, and even if we are open and receptive -- even if we are so beat down that we would welcome any learning, no matter how difficult -- past events, and the lessons they might offer, remain inscrutable. Moments of shock and trembling arrive unbidden, jolting us awake in tangled blankets at 4 AM transfixed on an evanescent image, an astonishing florescence of chrome, jeweled water, glass, steam, and stars, a runaway train flying off a cliff into moonlit surf. We listen, shuddering in the night, to echoes spreading slowly in the reverberating space that remains after the cracking report when bone is struck against bone.
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