My brother Tom had a thing for matches. I remember standing in the kitchen of our home in rural northwest Ohio watching him climb up on the cupboard and steal a books of matches. That was when we still burned our trash in a barrel behind the house, and mom and dad would keep a few books of matches in a bowl beside the sink. He would take them outside and light them one at a time. It seemed to bring him a thrill. He used to carry a book of matches around in his pocket, I think, just to feel grown up.
One particular afternoon like any other summer day, we got an idea to start a fire. I honestly don’t remember what our logic was. Logic very seldom entered into our decisions. My twin brother Kim and I were the ones with the fire idea. Tom was just an innocent bystander, at least at first. We knew that Tom would have matches or at the very least could get them for us. He did have some matches in his pocket.
The barn that we played in was built for livestock and was perfect as a giant playhouse. We thought it was a big toy. The haymow was about ten feet off the ground and was our sanctuary. It was secluded enough to keep the adults out yet visible enough that we didn’t draw undo attention when we were up there.
Standing in the middle of the haymow, Kim grabbed the matches from Tom and went over to northeast corner where we had meticulously stacked some loose straw thinking that would be the best combustible commodity to start a nice fire.
When matches are in a little boy’s pocket for a while, they draw moisture from the sweat of the day and don’t ignite very easily. Kim gave a valiant effort but couldn’t get the paper matches to light. Tom said with authority, “Give them here, I’ll show you.” Tom was an expert at these kinds of things, and he had lots of experience. He tore out a match and struck it on the igniter strip on the back. That was when the striker was on the front of the folded piece of cardboard that held the row of matches in place. At first, he couldn’t get it to light either, but with persistence, he got one to light.
“You see” He said with pride, “it isn’t that hard”. So Kim took the matches back to give it another try. This time he got one to light and held it under a portion of the pile of combustibles. Sure enough, in a matter of seconds, we had a nice fire going. Of course it didn’t take long too see that this thing was burning more than we thought that it should. The fire began to spread slowly, probably because the straw was wet. It was getting too big for us to manage and we thought that we needed to slow it down. We had seen dad smother small fires with a blanket and agreed that smothering it was the best way to keep it under control. There was a stack of old boards conveniently sitting there, we said “throw the boards on it and put it out.”
While Kim and I were feverishly working to smother the fire with board, Tom had completely disappeared. He knew that we were in deep trouble. My mother and grandfather were sitting on the back porch of the house “visiting” when Tom slowly walked up to mom and said. “Mom, can I have a bucket of water?” She asked calmly, “Why do you need a bucket of water?” To which Tom replied, “Well, those kids have a fire going in the barn.”
I wasn’t there to see the reaction of my mom and grandfather but I can imagine there was that little hesitation that everyone has, it only lasts a second, until the reality of what was said hits you.
I don’t remember much of anything after that. I do remember my mom and grandfather coming up the ladder to the haymow and very hurriedly making us get out of the barn. They put the fire out luckily, and no one was seriously hurt. My two brothers and I were standing in the barnyard laughing at the chaos and confusion that we had caused not realizing the seriousness of the situation.
We very seldom saw our mother truly angry. We saw her disappointed in us or disgusted with us at times but not truly angry. When she came out of the barn door, we knew that we were in deep trouble. My mother didn’t spank us very often, she left that to our dad. But that day was special. We not only got spanked by our mother in the middle of the barnyard but, we had to stay in our rooms all afternoon, anticipating our father coming home from work, and we got spanked by our dad when he got home.
Life’s lessons are often sparked by something stupid. Some event that we simply make choices that are destructive and don’t make much since. I learned a lot that day. I’m grateful that no one was injured and that no real damage was done. Chalk it up as wisdom gained.
Several years later the old barn did burn down because of an electrical fire.