By Tim Clancy
When I was a kid, my friends and I often played with matches and, by extension, fire. We had ready access to everything we needed. The adults made that easy. Many of them smoked, so matches were easily found, and taken, from most kitchen cupboards. And the garages in our suburban Detroit neighborhood contained all kinds of flammable liquids, like cans of gasoline, kerosene, or paint thinner, not to mention actual lighter fluid. In those days, the mid-1960s, most parents were comfortably oblivious about what their kids were up to. “Go outside and play,” they’d say. So we did—with matches and things that would burn.
Our teachers, mostly nuns, lived up to their reputations for order and discipline, but when school got out for the summer, the fear of getting smacked or made to kneel on the floor in the back of the room at St. Bede School dissipated like so much incense at a high mass. Goodbye good boys—hello heathens.
Besides little league baseball or scouting, adult-supervised summer activities were limited to swimming at the high school pool. Or you could make an ashtray, a potholder, or a plastic key chain at the local public elementary school arts and crafts room—not exactly exciting, compared to lighting one of those key chains on fire and watching it drip in spattering balls of molten plastic into a stagnant pond or turning a can of hairspray into a blowtorch.
A quarter mile from my house, there were two gas stations: a Marathon and a Sunoco. Both had books of free matches on the counter near the cash register. If someone asked why you were taking some, all you had to say was, “Oh these are for my mom.” Next door to the Sunoco was Wendel’s Barbershop and, next to that, Roos Drugs. They had free matches, too, but the guys at the gas stations were more laissez faire about it, and most of the time they were either working on a car or pumping gas, so they wouldn’t even notice.
My friends and I would wrap potatoes or apples in aluminum foil (or as my dad used to call it, “aluminum tinfoil”) and roast them in little campfires we’d build, out in the middle of a nearby vacant field. The adults never seemed to care about those little fires. We figured out that, when rolled between your palms, paper sleeves that straws came in made perfect fuses for lighting things that you needed a few minutes to run away from before they caught fire, like a rag soaked in rubbing alcohol, inside a tire, while you were on a hike with your Boy Scout troop. There was one adult who actually did care about that particular fire, and he summarily banished me from the troop. One time we placed an open book of matches in a pile of dry field grass along with a strategically angled magnifying glass that someone got as a prize in box of Cracker Jacks. We fled the scene, waited until a fire truck arrived, then rode up on our bikes and asked the firemen if we could be of assistance.
Had we seen anyone around there playing with matches?
Who us? Did we see anyone? Around here? No, we didn’t see anyone.
That was not a lie, by the way. No matches were involved. And we hadn’t lit anything on fire—the sun did that.
One summer day a couple of my pals and I were walking by one of the ubiquitous new-house construction sites in our neighborhood. The nails and scraps of plywood, tar paper, and two-by-fours we routinely “found” at these sites had turned out to be perfect for building forts. But on this day, at this particular site, we found a discarded five-gallon metal can that still had a small amount of gasoline in it. We knew gasoline was flammable, so we had the perfect opportunity to find out if, according to our hypothesis, it might explode if someone were to drop a match into it. Being only ten-years-old, we didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which gasoline vapors, when trapped inside a container, could be dangerously explosive.
The can was a tin rectangular cube with a small metal handle in the center of the top and a screw-on cap in the corner, designed for hand-held emptying into a backhoe or a cement mixer. There couldn’t have been more than a quarter-inch of gasoline sloshing around in the bottom, which made carrying the can quite easy. We could have hauled it to any of several vacant lots in the neighborhood or maybe to one of the spots in the surrounding fields where we often hung out. One of those was a place we called the Sand Camp, a clearing near a huge old poplar tree. We spent countless hours there, climbing that tree, digging bunker-size holes in the ground, building forts, and hiding from rivals, parents, and The Guy in the Yellow Car—the local real estate developer who drove a yellow Cadillac and frequently chased us away from his building sites. A rope and pulley that we installed in the poplar tree allowed us to haul things up to a platform we’d built up there, thirty feet off the ground. One time we were afraid of losing a big stray dog we’d adopted, so we hoisted him up there and then ran home for lunch. Of course, when we came back, we brought him some water and lots of filched meat snacks. But for the lighting of the can, instead of the Sand Camp, we chose the weedy empty lot that lay directly across the street from my friend Paul’s house—a good thing, because Paul’s mother was a nurse.
For some dumb reason, I had agreed to light the match. I loosened the cap on the can, and we heard a loud hiss, pressure generated by trapped vapors. Paul and my other friend, Dan, instinctively started walking backwards, away from me and the can. I had enough sense to know that what I was about to do was risky but not enough to resist the urge to take that risk. In the front of my mind was a vague promise of a spectacular event, easily accomplished by just following through. “Okay,” I said, “here goes nothin.’
Which it wasn’t.
I lit a match and dropped it into the hole. A second later, a super-heated column of air, hit me in the face, the force knocking me back on my heels. I stumbled around in deep field grass, screaming and clutching my face. Paul’s older brother, Jim, completely unaware and about a hundred feet away, walked behind a lawnmower, the roar of its two-cycle engine drowning out both the boom of the explosion and my screams. Paul sprinted home and returned with his mom, who ushered me into their house and onto a couch, where she immediately applied a bag of ice cubes to my face, her quick action saving me from what might have otherwise been horribly blistered skin––the difference between a bad sunburn and a really bad sunburn.
Because of the physics involved, most of the explosive force had gone sideways. Were it not for this fact, I might have been blinded by shrapnel and spent a long time recovering. My pre-blast head of thick brown, sun-lightened hair was now less than an inch of charred stubble. A few hours later, after my dad had buzzed off the char with the electric clippers, I looked in the mirror and started to cry. I was nearly bald, I had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and my face glowed like a ripe tomato. In the millisecond that had passed between lighting the match and dropping it into the hole, I had instinctively squinted hard, which saved my vision but left behind little white crow’s feet, radiating from the corners of my eyes. I felt like I was wearing an uncomfortable mask, one that would surely attract the wrong kind of attention.
The first day of fifth grade was only a few days away. Through tears, I asked my dad, “What am I going to tell people?”
“Tell them you have a really smart dog that beat you two out of three times in checkers, and then you had to let him cut your hair.”
“Dad, that’s funny, but it makes no sense. I can’t say that.”
“Don’t say anything, then. Just act like everything’s normal.”
Then he tacked on his often go-to advice: “You shouldn’t worry about what other people think.”
I remember a time when he was in the backyard, yelling at one of my siblings about some laziness or half-ass job issue, and I said to him, “Dad, you’re making a scene. The neighbors can hear you.” In a voice that would have been loud enough to hear at least a half-block away he responded, “I don’t give a damn if the neighbors hear me! I don’t care what the neighbors think!”
The next day my friends and I went back to the spot where it happened and found the mangled remains of the can. The sides were split open, the top and bottom, miraculously, still intact. That summer, along with matches and fire, swearing was high on our list of ways to entertain ourselves when adults weren’t around. Dan held up the can and, between spasms of laughter, roared, “Holy shit! Look at this damn thing!” Paul patted me on the back and said, “Tim, you did it. You blew the damn hell out of that can!” But I wasn’t feeling any glory, only humiliation and dread.
I told them to eat shit and go to hell.
Copyright Clancy 2023