Boy on Fire: Williamsburg County, 1971
I set fires for my dad when I was twelve. Back then, he was a forester for the state, and one of his jobs was to start and supervise controlled, prescribed burnings for big landowners—small, low-roaming fires that burned off the underbrush from a spring and summer of growth and needle-fall. It was always winter when I set fires. I remember too many layers of clothes and breath-clouds I could see in the truck lights. The sun had to be down, and the wind had to be low. When you are a boy and you are twelve, starting fires is the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.
My father would scout the tract of timber beforehand. He would check the amount of fuel on the ground. He’d make sure the soil wasn’t too mossy. “I know a fire that burned for six months, underground,” he told me once. There might be one or two other men with him, men who brought a tractor, a yellow crawler with a blade to plow a quick fire line if we needed it. These men were farmers who worked fires on the side. When they spoke, you heard tinges of Gullah pronunciations from the coast and swamp rhythms from the Black River backwater. They deferred to my father, but they liked him. They didn’t talk behind his back. I watched for that. Together, they planned where to drop the fires, which way they would more than likely burn.
One of the men who always seemed to come was named John J.—never simply John. Everyone added the ‘j.’ John J. was the largest man I had ever seen. His clothes draped him like an old pup tent. When he grabbed my hand to shake it—and he always shook my hand—his fingers touched my elbow. My dad said no one ever worried about the crawler getting stuck when John J. was around. He could pull it out of a bog all by himself.
The weekend after Thanksgiving. We sit in the dark, in the back of a pickup on a sandy road that cuts Mr. Cox’s tree farm in half. His pines are high and healthy, planted about the time I was born, perfectly spaced because they were planted with a machine. They only need to be cleaned out at the base of their trunks with a prescribed burn. My father picks out a landmark down the road, just where the glow from the pickup’s headlights evaporate. He points out a leafless widow-maker oak that somehow survived the summer without being blown down.
He hands me the backfire torch. A backfire torch is a long, narrow cylinder—like a scuba tank—filled with a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline. A curved, beak-like pipe attaches to the end of the tank, and a wick plugs the end of the long pipe. The tank has a thick strap, so you can sling it around your shoulder and take some of the weight off your arms.
When I set fires, somebody—my father or John J.—always fills the tank only half full of fuel, so I can handle it. I’m only twelve.
Tonight, John J. pulls a Zippo from his overall pocket and flips the top open. (I learn years later what a Zippo is. That night, in the woods, is the first time I hear the thin clank of a Zippo cover snapping open, a metallic signature I would hear later, in college, when I bought a silver one of my own.)
John J. leans toward my face. His bottom lip looks like he’s been in a fight. But it’s a dip of snuff that has his lip swollen. He tucks it with his tongue before he says anything. “Fire it up, little man,” he says and touches the Zippo flame to the wick. John J. gives me a nudge down the neat row of pines.
At this point, it is all about walking in a straight line. I keep the torch flame at a safe distance, cocking the pipe up, toward the sky, until I’m ready to drip fire. I feel the heat from the wick, crackling as it burns in the crisp air. I look at my dad, and he grins widely, like a man who knows someone’s about to unwrap a nice Christmas gift.
With my first step, I tilt the tank down slightly and feel the fuel slosh in a wave against the side. A small dot of flame falls to the ground and immediately ignites the dry pine straw below it. I walk and leave balls of flame dripping behind me. I worry about landing fireballs on my boots, so I perch the tank on my hip and keep the pipe pointing straight out, like an extra arm. The fuel is noisy inside the tank when I walk, splashing in rhythm with my steps. I get to my landmark quickly, it seems, tilt the tank upright and look back where I’ve been.
I see that I can’t walk a straight line. A drunken-sailor path of flames snakes behind me, wavering among the straw and undergrowth. But perfection isn’t important. With the dirt road on my left and the slight breeze blowing into the dark, the flames have no choice but to back toward more fuel, toward the inside of the forty-acre patch of pines. The spots of fire have begun to organize themselves into a solid line, like soldiers, and advance into the dark. I retrace my steps back to the beginning of the line I strung.
All that’s left to do is watch the fire back its way into the woods. Tomorrow morning, the floor of the acreage will be black, crunchy with a fresh crust of ash, still smoking and warm to the touch. We won’t stay until dawn. We’ll sit on the tailgate of the trunk just long enough to see the right kind of movement beginning.
This is my favorite part, the beginning of the fire. We surprise the woods. What is supposed to be dark is suddenly filled with light and heat. Animals that have bedded down or roosted for the night are shook from sleep. Confused shadows begin to run across the road just at the edge of the truck lights. John J. might walk back to the pickup and say he just saw a buck big as a racehorse jump the road. The worst are the skunks. They break the fire line with an attitude, spraying wildly at whatever it is that turns their night into a too-early dawn.
John J. chinks his Zippo open again and holds it in front of his face for a cigarette. Before he can light it, the flame dances wildly in his palm and almost goes out. “Damn, you see that?” he asks.
“I felt it a few minutes ago,” my father says. He releases a sigh. “I don’t know.”
I don’t know either. I don’t know what they’re talking about. The two of them glance at the tops of the trees, straining to see something in the dark. The light is only strong enough to make out shapes halfway up the length of the pines. The trunks seem to be moving together, synchronized like dancers. I realize then what has happened. The wind is suddenly up. And it’s blowing a different direction, different for this time of year and this time of night. Now, it’s feeding the fire, pushing it too fast across the fuel on the forest floor, creating too much heat too quickly.
“It’ll stop for sure,” John J. says. He lights his cigarette.
My father reminds himself aloud that he checked the weather service that afternoon; nothing was supposed to be moving in, no fronts sweeping up from the coast, no pressure dropping.
“Got to,” John J. says around his cigarette, still gazing up into shadows above the flames.
But my father, he isn’t saying anything now. He’s just moving his line of sight from the tops of the trees to the fire at their bases. It’s no longer a slow-moving string of flames. It has grown. The flames would probably be knee-high on me if I were among them.
He says finally, “I can still see stars.”
I can see them, too, high above the dirt road where the sky opens up. The whole sky is empty of clouds. Occasionally, a ragged remnant might blow in front of the stars, but there’s no storm coming. No way.
“You want me to dig one?” John J. asks. He flips his cigarette into the road, rises and hitches his overalls, then stomps the ember out.
“Let’s just see what happens,” my dad says. He’s not confused. He just knows what he can and cannot control. Wind direction fits into the latter category. “Let’s just wait a second.”
We hear Mr. Cox’s car before we see it. It rumbles in the dark. The headlights bleed into view, and in only a few seconds, he throws his Lincoln into park just in front of us. A Lincoln Continental looks out of place in the woods at night. So does Mr. Cox. He’s wearing a stiff white shirt and fancy hunting pants with leather patches on the legs where briars might grab at him.
“Boys,” he says. He walks like a man who owns things. Behind us, the sound builds, the wall of noise being whipped up by the wind. Mr. Cox doesn’t notice it. He isn’t used to control burns, to what’s normal and what isn’t. The breeze continues to swirl the tops of the pines, and the sound rises on the forest floor. Mr. Cox rests his eyes on me. “Your daddy said you were gonna start a fire? You do all this?” He smiles when he asks this. He still doesn’t notice the noise. I don’t want to admit to anything yet.
Then, from inside the darkness of the trees, I hear an engine shift to a higher gear. Or maybe a train pulling away from a station. It’s a sound I’ve never heard before. It only sounds like something I know. It is loud and sudden, an explosion that whines and echoes. In a second, I see the sight that goes with the sound. It is fire racing up the trunk of a young pine tree to eat the drape-fuel in the crown, flames climbing with the speed and wildness of a treed animal. The bark snaps in the instant heat, the pine needles—the live ones and the dead—almost screaming when they are torched.
Now, Mr. Cox realizes something is wrong. He sniffs the air like a dog. He looks at my father. “The wind got up,” my dad says, anticipating his question. “You might lose a few tonight.”
Mr. Cox wants to know why, but he doesn’t seem angry. Behind us, another shot of flame screams up a pine, exploding at the top like cheap fireworks.
“It was a surprise. It happens sometimes,” Dad says.
“Out of nowhere,” John J. says, thinking he’s helping. Mr. Cox doesn’t even acknowledge that John J. is in the same zip code.
“We’ll do what we can,” my dad assures him. He nods at John J. and points toward the flames. John J. heads for his crawler. We watch him crank it—more noise that seems out of place—and put it into a lumbering motion toward the darkness inside the forty acres, where there’s no fire break to protect the rest of the trees.
Mr. Cox gazes up. “Will it jump the road on the other side?”
“I doubt it,” my dad says. “It’ll just get hotter than we’d like. Like I said, you might lose a few. And some might look gone tomorrow morning, but they’ll be back in spring.”
The crawler idles loudly in the darkness. The pines begin to crackle like a campfire. Mr. Cox moves toward me. He leans in. Half of his face is orange from the fire to my right, half is dark. I smell tobacco on his breath. Not dip like John J.’s, but real chewing tobacco that smells sweet, like Applejack. He grins and the smell flicks at my nose. More pines are sucked up in the flames. I can hear them burning over my shoulder.
“So,” he says through his teeth. “You’re the boy what burned down my trees?”
I can’t tell if he’s kidding. I’m too young to know about these kinds of jokes. Up to that point, I hadn’t thought about the fire that way. Before Mr. Cox came up, no one laid blame. It was wind. Just wind. You can’t see wind. You can’t blame it. Now, it’s me, me and the wind. I strung a fire that grew until it began to eat pines. More screams in the dark behind me. John J. guns the crawler. More shadows that aren’t shadows in the road above Mr. Cox’s head. More waves of Applejack in my eyes. Mr. Cox laughs, and my father pulls me away, herding me toward the truck before I cry.
We watched the trees burn until after midnight. I slept off and on in the bed of the pickup, in the folds of a tarp that smelled like bird dogs and diesel fuel. Each time I raised my head, the flames were still eating pines. Mr. Cox was long gone. He didn’t care much. He had plenty of other things to keep an eye on. This burn that got away just meant a little less quail land to hunt next year.
I still remember feeling heat rise and watching flames climb the sides of perfect pines, a fire that grew from a few dozen balls of flame at my feet. I know now that I didn’t cause anything, but for a second, while he breathed on my face, I felt like a caught criminal. And I couldn’t run. That was the last time I strung a fire for my father. But sometimes I want to find Mr. Cox and tell him that night in his woods wasn’t the last time I started something that got out of control, something I waited on, until it burned itself out.
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