Stylized line drawing of mark playing the flute

Growing Up Pyro

Some of you may be shocked, others will nod knowingly, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that boys love fire.


I was no exception.

My little circle of friends started simply enough with magnifying glasses. This was 4th grade. We'd spend hours aiming our focused beams of light at sticks, leaves, & piles of dried moss (it was generally accepted that frying bugs was lame, though there were some budding sociopaths in our midst who disagreed). But sunlight proved dissatisfying. We'd occasionally see small puffs of smoke from our targets but more common was a hole or a small black scorch make. Actual flames were pretty much unheard of.

Middle school is when things got exciting. We were old enough to start riding off our street to various gas stations and strange little shopping centers nearby which meant that we now had easy access to lighters, hairspray, and Binaca&tm; breath spray. Binaca was perfect for making a mini-blowtorch by lighting your lighter and spraying the open flame. One enterprising individual discovered that it was possible to set a puddle of water on fire by spraying the surface of the puddle until a film had formed, then lighting it on fire.

In 7th grade, I was assigned a group project where we had to come up with a creative way to make toast. Our solution was to spray hairspray on a piece of bread, light the bread on fire, and continually spray the bread with more hairspray until it was nice and crisp. I'm pretty sure we failed since our toast was inedible but it made for a spectacular video presentation to our class.

8th grade marked the beginning of early morning bus stop fires. Most of these were small piles of leaves and sticks in the gutter where we all stood to wait for the bus. The small size of the fires and the clear vantage point made it easy to stomp out the fires when the roof of the bus first came into view.

Of course there is always escalation.

The pinnacle came when one kid brought a soda can full of gasoline, siphoned from his dad's lawn mower. The bus stop was at the top of a hill so, when the gas was poured and lit, it quickly turned into a river of flame running down the street. With flames leaping several feet into the air, this fire was not quite so easy to stomp out. Like all good friends, we stood watching and laughing hysterically as this poor bastard danced through the flames trying to put out the fire as the bus rolled ominously down the street. There was a 10ft. black stain on the road for years after.

The bus stop fires ended on a day when I had the good fortune not to be there. I don't know many details beyond the fact that it was another gasoline fire and they didn't manage to put it out before the bus came. The bus driver was less than amused and I believe meetings with the principal and various parents that followed.

My pyromania waned in high school. The only major experiment during that period was an attempt to boil Sterno. This had the neat result of little beads of Sterno forming that whizzed around the pot in circles like ball bearings. The not-so-neat result was the vapor cloud which we promptly managed to ignite into a giant fireball that burned off most of the hair on the backs of my hands.

In all, I think we were damn lucky that no one got hurt over the years. We were at least marginally smarter than some kids, in that we never set fires out in the woods and thus avoided starting any thousand-acre brush fires.

I have mixed feelings now that I have boys of my own and they are already showing the signs. They always want to watch me light the grill and are enthralled when I spray cooking-spray onto the fire. I can remember what their joy feels like but I fear for their flammable little bodies.

I suppose I can only hope that they make out as well as I did.