The Summer of 1979 saw my life begin a slow sickening spiral into much worse drug use, and much more alcohol abuse. In July, I was searched by the Sheriff’s Department because the sister of a friend of me ratted on a drug sale I was making. I came within minutes of getting caught with a pound of pot, but they did find me with the money and realized they had just missed. Sarge was beginning to drift away from me because he had finally realized I was truly never sober, and likely stoned. Oddly, he and I got together at his house and played chess once a week, and I always won. No one at work could believe it. This was a mystery that no one could ever unravel. My relationship with my father had always been contentious but after the near drug bust it became downright combative. The only good thing that came of this is I began to mistrust nearly everyone in my life. I isolated myself from my drug buddies and drank more and did more speed.
One of the tasks we were given by my father was to burn off the windrows, those long lines of dead trees pushed up when the paper mill was clearing land. I liked the fire. I liked the heat. There was something about fire that I understood at a fundamental level. It was alive. It spoke to me. It reached up for heaven and only reached higher when it was dying faster. Sarge was cautious by nature and calm, and once, when we lit one end of a very long windrow, we discovered the other end stretched over a hill and into the woods.
“Oh goddam” I said.
“Please do not blasphemy the name of the lord when we are about to burn down half of Clay County Georgia” Sarge said very calmly. It took everything we had, and then some to create a fire break in the windrow and as we were setting a backfire, we noticed the wind had shifted, and the fire that was once heading towards us, had backed up on itself, and had gone out.
There were old houses, sometimes, and we found odds and ends from another era. They pushed down one old house, and part of the side of the house was caught amongst some trees that had been piled up. There was a doll trapped between a piece of wood siding and a tree limb. I couldn’t pull it free, and as the fire came closer I watched the doll burn. I had learned to stay away from the fire, for burning wood can create much heat, but I had also learned my body would adjust. My eyes began to tear up as the face of the doll burst into flames, and fire burned out of the empty sockets. I will remember that image until the day I die.
It was August, and so hot we almost called off the burn. But it was a different day, a day when the sky was nearly white from humidity and the air so still that even the rising sun seemed to be stuck in place by it. We used firepots to start out fires, and they were metal containers of gas and diesel missed together, and they had a spout that would drip flaming liquid on a meshed in piece of asbestos. There was a crook in the spout to prevent the fire from backing into the container and causing it to explode, and the mixture we used was mostly diesel which does not explode easily. Sarge began walking down the lee side of a windrow, and I was to walk down the lee of another as to not allow the wind to catch the fire and push it too quickly. We usually set two on fire, waited to see what happened, and then set more as the others burned down. But this was a different day.
I moved downwind from Sarge, to keep the fire off of him, and I ran as fast as I could down the windward side of a row, spreading the fire as quickly as I could. I was panting when I got to the end, a half a mile away, but the fire had caught, and the still air carried the fire and smoke straight up, but there was an ever so slight breeze. I hit the next row windward, and as fast as I could. The heat from the other fire stoked the second, and created wind of itself. It sucked in air, and as I set the third windrow on its windward side, I could hear the fire as it began to breathe. Fire, when it begins to live, really live, begins to generate air movement. It’s a buzzing, rushing sound that is low like a growl but heavy like a long surf sound. You move, you hear me? You move away from that sound ever you hear it, for that means the fire isn’t of this world anymore, but of its own. You own nothing, not anymore you don’t, for this is fire that isn’t going to stop until it is done with what it is doing.
I fed it another row, and watched it grow.
Sarge got to the end of his row, and I am speculating on this, and stopped long enough to see the smoke and flame next to his. He had to realize what I had done, instantly, but just as quickly realized there was nothing he could do. We had talked about doing this, under ideal conditions, and this was nearly what we needed, but he likely stood there and watched, not knowing I was already setting another row, and then another. Finally, Sarge had to realize if I didn’t stop, we truly risked a fire that might not stop.
The last two rows I lit were raging. Fire will create tornadoes, small spirals of burning air that dancer be between hot spots, and fling burning embers into the air. We had seen these before, but never like the gyres that leapt in the air now. I began the walk between the two rows and realized that there would be a point that I might not be able to go forward, or back. Fire pulled against my skin, and I couldn’t see. I felt my way between the two walls of flame and heard the screaming of wood being torn apart by steam created by the heat. A fire gyre danced in front of me but I could not evade it. The two sides were too close. I felt to the ground and felt fire wash over me, felt the hair on my arms shrivel and die. I stumbled to my feet, and moved down the hallway of fire, trying not to breathe deeply.
I couldn’t hear anything but the roar. I could not feel anything but hell on either side of me. But for the first time in my life, for the first time ever, I was free. Here, in the inferno, was nothing. Nothing! There were no expectations, no demands, no outside world at all, and I, me, the person I was, that was all I had, and all I would ever have, and that moment, if I did not move, if I did not lower my smoking arms which were raised to the invisible and orange flickered sky, and move forward, now, I would not, and it was good, and it was incredible, and I moved forward, with the slight and wispy hair on my face turning to ash.
I opened my eyes and saw Sarge. He was standing at the end of the rows and he was screaming. The heat held him back, the fear stopped him, and he could not believe I was walking down the hallway. I emerged from the fire, and he screamed at me. He took my firepot away from me and just stood there staring. The hair on my arms was gone and my clothes were smoking, but I felt no pain. I felt more alive than I ever had before. I knew they would never let me burn again, and they didn’t. I knew Sarge and I were done, and we were. I knew my father would explode and he did. But I also knew that whatever else may happen, I could, and I would, survive. And I could do it alone, and if I had to do it alone, I would do that too, if that was what it took to survive.