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Fire, Part 1: Growing Up in Flames

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble.

In early August of this year, I lost my home to fire. But it wasn’t the first time. Fire has welcomed me into its mystery since early childhood, and I’ve lost homes and other treasures to a variety of natural as well as human catastrophes. In weekly hikes, I’ve been studying how natural habitats and wildlife adapt to wildfire, and for the past two decades I’ve been planning to summarize my experiences with natural disasters in a series of thematic essays. So in the wake of the latest loss, here’s the first Dispatch on my life with fire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Pyromaniac

Anthropologists who study mobile subsistence cultures – human communities that use open fires for heating and cooking – often observe that many adults have burn scars dating to their childhood, when getting burned was a routine part of living around fire and learning about its dangers.

I was born into a very different society: the suburban United States of the early 1950s. Only a few years before I was born, the U.S. had joined other imperial powers in a war that spanned the entire planet, and our victory in that war, and the industrial development that enabled it, had made us the richest and most powerful nation on earth, one of two new global superpowers.

The Good War. The Greatest Generation. Scientific discovery, technological innovation, industrialization, an orgy of violence and killing on a scale never seen before.

Almost overnight we had a worldwide military empire. And now: continuous, unending shows of force against our counterpart, in what was being called a Cold War.

Always hyper-competitive, we mobilized our scientists and engineers against the enemy in an Arms Race – stockpiling nuclear weapons – and a Space Race, rushing to conquer and dominate the skies overhead with rockets, satellites, and eventually “astronauts.”

But all our newfound wealth, power, and technological progress had a price: hanging over all of us was the threat of The Bomb, a wartime miracle product of our most advanced science – nuclear physics – that threatened to destroy all life on earth. At school, class was interrupted regularly by terrifying air raid sirens, and our teachers would hustle us out into the sterile hallways to hunch down in rows against cinderblock walls, arms crossed over our heads, eyes clamped shut, haunted by visions of a nuclear firestorm.

In contrast to our technological advances, fear made us socially conservative and conformist. My family lived outside a small college town, a center of high-tech industry, in a proto-suburb of modest, modern homes laid out in a row along one side of a road running up the narrow valley of a small creek, with forested ridges rising to each side. Each home sheltered another modern innovation, the nuclear family: our professional dads drove off to work early in the morning, then the kids got up and left for school, while the stay-at-home moms kept house, did the shopping, and cooked the meals. Smaller and more standardized consumer units, isolated from each other, resulted in needs that could be better commodified, improving efficiency and increasing profits for the shareholders.

It’s likely that I first became familiar with fire in our living room. My dad, a research scientist, wasn’t around much – he went straight to the bar after work, and came home late after I was already in bed – so he compensated each year in late autumn by conducting a little family ritual: collecting walnuts from under the trees alongside our house, building a fire in the fireplace in our small living room, and recruiting my mom and me to shell nuts in front of the fire.

Our house at the upper end of the row of houses, with the elementary school at the lower end. When I turned 7, a new family moved into the house next door, with a boy my age. We’d all been indoctrinated with the fever of space exploration, and he’d been given a working model of a multi-stage rocket ship like the ones being used to launch satellites into orbit. It looked realistic, but it stood only a couple feet tall and used water and compressed air for propulsion. It lacked much of the drama of the real thing.

All of our houses stood on terraces above the creek, with the front on the top level facing the road, and the back one story lower, with a basement opening onto a big concrete patio on the bank of the creek. Prosperity, conformity and predictability made society safe, and outside of school, kids were allowed to spend their days without adult supervision. My neighbor and I were sometimes left alone at the same time – our fathers at work, our mothers out running errands or visiting friends. On one of those days, bored with his water-powered rocket, the neighbor boy got the idea of collecting everything we could find labeled “flammable,” dumping it into an empty coffee can on his patio, and setting the mixture on fire, to simulate a real rocket launch.

We disappeared into our vacant basements and emerged a few minutes later carrying cans of gasoline, paint thinner, lighter fluid, and the like. My neighbor placed the coffee can out in the middle of the concrete slab, we poured a little of everything in, and he stirred it up with a stick. I stood back a few yards as he lit a match, tossed it in the can, and dashed back to join me. There was a subdued whoosh, a brief burst of flame, and that was it. Bad idea. Sheepishly, we returned all the ingredients to their proper places and moved on to something different.

Unfortunately for us, a lady in the next house over happened to be looking out a back window at the time. As soon as my neighbor’s mom got home, our spectator ran over to tell her. She interrogated her son, and he blamed everything on me.

My dad got the news at work, and rushed home early for a change. Our phone was ringing off the hook – all the neighbors in a state of hysteria, labeling me a pyromaniac, an arsonist, a dangerous juvenile offender.

I was undersize, and terrified of my dad’s temper. Obese, with a deep, bellowing voice, he always seemed like a giant. He interrogated me, but that only frightened me more, and I denied having anything to do with the backyard fire.

The other parents had chosen a dad from the lower end of our road as a representative, and he called my dad to announce their verdict. My dad angrily defended me, but the decision was final. Why? I’ll never know – over time, our family has lost all contact with that community.

Henceforth, I was not to be seen or heard socializing or communicating with any other kids on our road. And additionally: I was not allowed to set foot on their properties, which meant that I would have to cross the road in front of our house and walk to school on the far side, where there was no sidewalk.

Fire had made me an exile in my own neighborhood. I’d lied to my parents and felt terrible. I’m sure the neighbor kid was suffering too. I lost my playmates, and every weekday I carefully crossed the busy road and walked alone through the weeds on the other side, all the way down the valley to school, trying to avoid looking at my neighbors’ forbidden properties. It wasn’t until decades later, after our nuclear family had fragmented and dispersed across the continent, that the mother of the neighbor boy approached my paternal grandmother in a local supermarket and apologized, saying her son had finally admitted to starting that silly little fire.

Fanning the Flames

I was only an outcast for a year. In 1960, when I turned 8, my parents decided to separate, and my mom moved me and my new baby brother to her own hometown in the next state to the west.

A new decade and a different environment. The Russians hadn’t bombed us into oblivion yet, so it was possible to start ignoring the threat of those growing nuclear stockpiles. And my mom’s hometown was a small farming community in the midst of flat, sprawling cropfields, almost an hour’s drive from the nearest city. Little industry, life had a slower pace, and progress and the wider world now seemed far away. Plus, instead of the “modern, progressive” nuclear family, I was now in the bosom of my mom’s traditional extended family.

My mom’s parents – my grandparents – operated a neighborhood grocery, and initially, we moved into their house, a short walk from the center of town in a tree-shaded neighborhood of small business owners and tradespeople. It was a modest two-story, three-bedroom wood-frame house probably built between the 1930s and the 40s, but it wasn’t really designed for all of us. After a year or two of this cramped arrangement, our grandparents moved around the corner into our great-grandparents’ house, and we spread out.

Our mom slept downstairs in the small parlor-like room off the kitchen, with a tiny half bath. I took the larger upstairs bedroom and my brother the smaller, and we all shared the only full bath, which was across a tiny landing between the bedrooms at the top of the stairs.

I was still an undersize child and was being bullied regularly by my new classmates and teachers, so if anything, I was even more fearful than before. My dad’s parents, back in our previous hometown, were insurance agents, and on some birthday or holiday they gave me a big book published by an insurance company, sensationalizing famous fires from history, with garish paintings showing people jumping out of the burning windows of big-city apartment buildings, and firemen running from burning houses with babies in their arms. I had developed a habit of reading in bed at night, and this book “fired” my imagination to the point where I was afraid of going to sleep and having the house catch fire with us unconscious inside.

I had only a rudimentary notion of how house fires got started. A spark or some source of heat in contact with something flammable? The only sources I could think of were the steam-heat furnace downstairs in the back kitchen, the electrical outlets and appliances, and the radiators and steam pipes located in every room. Every night, after my mom and brother had gone to sleep, I got up and prowled the house checking for hot spots. When I was sure everything was okay, I went back to bed and eventually fell asleep.

It took me another couple of years to get over my fear of fire in the night, but I finally did. Meanwhile, real fires were a regular spectacle in our town. The fire station had a horn that was so loud it could be heard all over town, and they divided the town into sectors. Whenever a fire was called in, they blew the horn from one to four times to indicate the sector, so spectators would know where to go to watch the fire. I’ll never forget the night the big grain elevator behind the courthouse caught fire. It was almost as tall as the courthouse itself, and much of the town’s population gathered on the courthouse lawn to watch the tower of flames and sparks collapsing into the criss-crossing arcs of water from the fire engines.

Midwestern summers can get really hot and muggy, and my brother’s room only had one small window, whereas my larger room had a couple of dormer windows next to my double bed and a taller sash window in the gable at the opposite end of the room, so I had a lot more airflow. Our grandpa had installed a big window fan in the lower part of that gable window, and on really hot summer nights, my brother left his room and joined me. On one such night, we had the fan going full blast, blowing directly at the bed, and it helped us both fall asleep.

The next thing I knew, I woke up to a roaring, crackling sound, and a wall of flame facing me across the room. I grabbed my little brother and dragged him out to the landing, where I yelled that my room was on fire. He bounded down to join our mom at the bottom of the stairs, and she rushed him out the front door, then dashed to the phone and called the fire department.

I followed my brother down, but my whole life was up in that burning room. I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. I ran back to the kitchen, grabbing a big sauce pan and filling it with water, which I lugged back up the stairs, into a growing cloud of smoke. Choking and coughing in the heavy smoke, I could now barely see the fire, but I trudged forward anyway and threw the pan of water toward where I knew the window had to be.

Of course, that added a rush of steam to the smoke, and I was driven back down the stairs, where our mom was waiting for me, and we both ran outside, across the porch into the front yard where we joined my little brother under the big maple tree. Flames were climbing out my window toward the peak of the roof, and thick smoke was pouring out of the door and all the open windows, both upstairs and down. The fire station’s horn was blowing, a siren was howling up the street, and the fire engine was just turning into our alley. They stopped short of the house, ran a ladder up to the window, and a fireman began climbing it with a hose.

It only took a short blast from the high-pressure hose to put out the flames, and meanwhile, other uniformed firemen were tramping through our house, making sure the fire was truly out and all the windows and doors were open to let out the smoke.

Our grandparents accompanied us back to their house, around the corner. Our great-grandparents had both passed away by that time, so there was now a spare bedroom where the three of us could temporarily shelter. Our first order of business: to get clean. The window fan had had a plastic housing, which had apparently been flammable, generating black smoke full of molten soot and ashes that had coated everything in the house, including us, and my brother and I had been breathing it.

We were too filthy for the upstairs bathroom, which had only an old clawfoot tub, so we took turns showering in the unfinished basement, where our grandparents had their furnace and laundry room with a shower in the low ceiling. I remember coughing up long strands of black phlegm and watching them trail away to the drain in the concrete floor, seemingly endlessly, until finally the water cleared and I felt I could breath freely again. Decades later, a chest x-ray would show a scar in my lungs which may date to that fire.

The next day, we learned that the only actual fire damage was to the wall immediately around the window. But as always happens, our house was uninhabitable, because everything inside it was covered with that black soot, and the odor, the off-gassing, was toxic. Everything exposed – all our furniture, appliances, bedding, clothing, hobbies, toys, pictures – would have to be cleaned, and much of it would be unsalvageable. All the ceilings, walls, and floors would need to be cleaned, painted or refinished.

It was only a few years after the trauma of an entire neighborhood turning against me, but what a different experience this fire was! My mom’s hometown came together generously to support us, and all the cleaning and repairs were completed quickly. In my memory it was no more than three weeks before I was back in my upstairs bedroom, where the previous greenish wallpaper had been replaced with white paint, and the tongue-and-groove hardwood floor had a shiny new finish.

My clothes, bedding, books, and model cars had been cleaned, and it was great to be back in my own room, but I couldn’t get that wall of flame out of my imagination, and my nighttime fear of fire returned with a vengeance. Once again, I waited every night for the others to fall asleep, so I could prowl the house looking for hot spots. Only when I was sure everything was safe would I return to bed, but even then it was hard to sleep. So for a little more peace of mind, I arranged to spend one night a week in the spare bedroom at our grandparents’ house. Fire was redirecting my life.

Slow-Burning Cave

To people who live close to the earth, fire and flames are a mystical embodiment of spirit itself, and even in our advanced, civilized culture, we regularly use fire as a metaphor. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, the protagonist speaks of “carrying the fire” – the seeds of civilization itself – referring to our popular stereotype of cultural evolution: “man’s discovery of fire.” That civilization went through huge changes in the decades after my bedroom fire: the civil rights and environmental movements, Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the youth culture revolution of the 1960s and the Counterculture of the 1970s. And I finally had a growth spurt and gained confidence, and a small support group of kindred spirits, through my achievements in art and academics.

Beginning in the 1960s, candles became an icon of the new hippie generation, and in my high school art class, I made a big rainbow-colored candle in the shape of a long slab, like a little stone wall, with half a dozen wicks in a row. Growing out of my early timidity, I’d begun taking on the role of an organizer and leader both in our neighborhood and at school, and at night, I’d set the big candle in the middle of my bedroom floor at night, invite friends over, and chant lines from ancient Anglo-Saxon poems – Beowolf, The Seafarer, and The Wanderer – as we sat in a circle gazing at the flames. On the eve of my departure for college, my experimental folk-rock band peformed its final concert on the open porch of a farmhouse way out in the country, surrounded by fifty flickering candles.

Our parents had split up when we moved to Indiana, but during our visits to his new home in California, our dad took my brother and me camping. His approach was incredibly stressful, planning months in advance, with multi-page checklists and tons of expensive gear that had to be kept spotless and meticulously maintained, but he always said that nature was his church, and after I eventually transcended the uptightness and inhibitions of his style of camping, the love and respect remained, along with many essential lessons, including how to safely and effectively build and manage a campfire.

When I left the small town for college in the big city, I remained dependent on my extended family in many ways – a sort of prolonged adolescence, seemingly destined for the sort of “normal” adulthood my father had hoped for, with a professional career, wife, home, and children. It wasn’t until I finally came out the other end, degrees in hand, that I began to rebel.

Attracted by the bohemian lifestyle, I became an apprentice to my best friend Mark, a fellow artist, who practiced a casual, minimalist style of camping. You always carried a sleeping bag and slept wherever you found yourself – in somebody’s living room, yard, or under a bush in a park. Anything else you needed, you scrounged or mooched from others at the last minute. We spent years making road trips together, all over the west and into Mexico, huddling around campfires, surrounded by six packs of cold beer, passing handrolled joints, dreaming up art projects, making up songs and phantasmagorical banter.

When I graduated from Mark’s teachings and created my own arts community in a loft in San Francisco, we were hit by the coldest winter on record, and I bought and installed a wood stove which became the center of our home on cold nights. We started out poor, burning castoff softwood lumber we scavenged late at night from the streets of our industrial neighborhood. But then we got better day jobs, and I found a firewood lot in a distant suburb that offered delivery, and henceforth we kept a woodpile on one side of the big front hall, fed the stove with oak and avocado, and learned how to safely and effectively heat a large, high-ceilinged urban space with wood fires, warming up unforgettable jam sessions, parties, and late-night confessions.

In the meantime, Mark had introduced me to the Mojave Desert, where he camped occasionally in a “cave” – a hollow under a granite boulder in a beautiful basin next to a remote dirt road. Through him, I eventually met Katie, who would become my partner in life and music for a while. She’d come from a family with at least as much trauma as mine – she and her siblings had been condemned by their childhood community for “setting a swamp on fire” – accidentally burning off the dried vegetation of a large wetland that provided habitat for wildlife.

But Katie was an experienced outdoorswoman who taught me how as bohemian artists, we didn’t need to stress over preparations for camping, nor did we need high technology, but with a little work and creativity, we could have all the comforts of home while deep in the wilderness.

I took Katie out to the desert, where we discovered our own, larger shelter in a pile of boulders near Mark’s cave. But it needed cleaning up. The gravel floor was covered with cholla cactus joints – the spine-covered branches that littered the ground around wide-branching buckhorn cholla and were always getting stuck to our shoes, ankles, and the occasional careless limb.

We drove the 80 miles to the nearest town and came back with a cheap garden rake, but a little raking only revealed a much bigger challenge: the ancient woodrat midden in the back. At that early stage of our desert apprenticeship we were ecologically ignorant and didn’t realize our cave had been the home of woodrats for centuries, if not millenia.

The midden was a resinous mass at the back of our cave – where our heads would lie at night – stinking of woodrat urine, thoroughly embedded with cactus spines. We tried to break it up with a shovel, but it was too dense and hard. So we came up with the bright idea of setting it on fire and burning it out. I guess my coal-mining uncle had never told me about coal seam fires, which can burn underground for thousands of years, because that’s what we ended up with.

The woodrat midden generated a massive stream of dense white smoke that poured out of the cave and spread across the basin. We used all our limited supply of bottled water on it with no effect, and there we were in the desert, a half mile from our car and 80 miles from civilization, so we had to leave it burning, deep in the cave, while we hiked to the car and drove back to Twentynine Palms. There, we bought a fire extinguisher and more jugs of drinking water, and took showers in the public park. Then we drove the 80 miles back to our cave.

After all those hours of driving and hiking back and forth from the road, the little fire extinguisher was exhausted in about 30 seconds and likewise had no effect. We were driven out of our cave by yet another cloud of smoke, coughing and weeping, heartsick and desolate, feeling like history’s biggest fools. All Katie could think of was that burning swamp from her childhood. What had we started, and what would happen next? We couldn’t just drive away and leave it to burn – this was a beautiful wilderness, on public land.

For whatever reason, the one thing we hadn’t tried yet was to bury the fire, smother it with the sand and gravel that we still had an unlimited supply of in and around our cave. We still had my little folding shovel, so working in shifts to recover from breathing smoke, we began slowly burying the midden fire, and it eventually went out, and we cleaned up our cave, which, under Katie’s direction, we finally turned into a comfortable home in the wilderness. We built a little dry-stone wall around the charred midden, and there at the back of the cave, right next to where we slept, it became a permanent reminder of that early disaster.

Tossing the Coal

Our San Francisco loft was crumbling, decrepit, and illegal – not zoned for residential, developed in violation of building codes – and we were all sure it wouldn’t survive a major earthquake. But as artists and musicians, we found beauty in ruins, and in capitalist society, we had no other options.

The building next to us on the south was a tenement whose upper floor sheltered a long series of troubled tenants, desperate people whose problems couldn’t always be confined to their apartment. Their back door opened onto a lower roof below the window of my bedroom and art studio. I was working there one afternoon when I heard kids outside. A Vietnamese family were our newest neighbors, and when I opened the window, the kids were setting fire to an old mattress on the tarred roof just below my window. I screamed at them and ran to the phone in the hall. Fortunately a fire station was just around the corner.

My roommates were together enough to talk me into getting a fire extinguisher for our kitchen, and John, whose room had a path to a side alley via another low roof outside his window, set up a rope ladder we could access from the roof, via our many skylights and roof hatches, to escape in an emergency. But our place was still a fire trap, like the Ghost Ship artist community in Oakland that became a terrible tragedy and a prolonged scandal in the 2010s. We were lucky; they weren’t.

It wasn’t fire, but an earthquake that brought my San Francisco loft community to an end in October 1989, leaving me homeless yet again. As described elsewhere, the quake caught me at work across the Bay in Berkeley, and it was hours before I could return to my damaged home. At a friend’s house in Oakland, “We watched Mike’s TV in silence as they showed the same helicopter footage over and over, of a blacked-out city lit only by raging fires in my South of Market neighborhood and in the Marina District to the north.”

Later, returning to the crippled loft, “It was about 2am when I rolled down darkened Folsom Street, driving slow and swerving to avoid trash can fires and homeless people staggering like zombies through the rubble.” It was literally post-apocalyptic, beyond any movie, and I’ll never forget those fires and the human shadows crossing in front of them.

Despite all those decades of experience and that long, diverse series of teachers, my knowledge of fire didn’t truly mature until I joined an aboriginal skills field course at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School in 1990. There, I learned to make fire the ancient way, by assembling and crafting a fire-starting kit from local, natural materials. It takes a lot of practice, but once you master it, it’s no more difficult than any of our routine domestic chores.

That course gave me something priceless I’d only dreamed about: the firsthand understanding of how indigenous people – the ancestors of all of us – thrived in harmony with nature. There in the high desert wilderness of Utah’s Colorado Plateau, I assembled a fire drill and a stash of firemaking materials, all of which were destroyed in this year’s house fire. Those things were sacred to me, and their loss adds to so many others I will always grieve.

But I didn’t just learn how to make fire from scratch. I also learned to make an effective cooking fire with sticks no thicker than my thumb, so the coals would burn down to ash that could be mixed into the soil, obliterating any record of the fire when we left the site. Leave no trace.

And at night, sitting around the campfire, after eating our dinner of hand-caught trout from a nearby stream, we learned the game of tossing the coal – something so counter-intuitive to our civilized, risk-averse lifestyle that it seems impossible. Tom, our instructor, reached into the embers, grabbed a red-hot coal, and began tossing it from hand to hand while he grinned at each of us novices in turn.

“Never tried tossing the coal?” He glanced at Cody, the apprentice at his side, and passed the coal to him. “One of the oldest games known to man. You’d never think it, but all you need is to keep it moving, bouncing around in your palm, tossing it back and forth between your hands.”

Tom looked at me. “Go ahead, grab yourself a coal!”

The universal attraction of fire is far older than our species. Early humans didn’t “discover” fire, kick-starting our cultural progress toward the conquest of outer space, any more than Columbus “discovered” the New World. Once we stop trying to “conquer” nature, it has much to teach us. Fire taught me that mice are omnivorous: alone on my desert land one cold night, I watched moths drawn to the campfire, and a deer mouse leaping into the air to catch them.

It’s ironic – white do-gooders are always trying to wean brown-skinned villagers in the Global South from their traditional wood fires – but my civilized friends and I are all happiest living in the wilderness around a primitive campfire.

Next: Discovering Wildfire

  1. Miichael says:

    What did you say -your home burned down???????

  2. norman salant says:

    Max this is wonderful. Looking forward to the next installment.

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