At seven, I realized that arson would not be a good career choice. My best friend, Terry B., who shared my early fascination with trouble, introduced me to the delights of wooden matches. My parents didn’t smoke, and we didn’t have a gas stove, so I didn’t see many matches. The ones we used to light birthday candles were those flimsy paper ones that require a grownup type of skill to light. You had to pinch the paper stem between your thumb and middle finger, hold the match head down with your pointer, and then draw it across the striking surface. If you didn’t pull your pointer away quickly, you could burn yourself.
Wooden matches, however, are easy enough that even seven-year-olds can use them. Their small fingers can hold the end of the wooden stick, strike across the long strip on the side of the box, and create the wonder known as fire. One box provides hours of fun. Strike a match and watch it burn. Next, see how far down you can let it burn before you blow it out or drop it and step on it. Play chicken doing this. Put several matches together and light all of them from one match. And those are just a few possibilities.
But you can only watch so many matches burn before you yourself get burned out on it. The next step is to watch something else burn.
The street we lived on sat on the edge of the housing area, and the alleyway behind our house ran parallel to a drainage ditch. My sister and I took a shortcut to school through the ditch, and children often played there. Sitting in the dirt among the weeds was the perfect place to study the properties of combustion.
We began with the debris we found in the ditch, mostly paper trash. Then we moved on to dried leaves and small plants. El Paso has a dry climate so there was hardly ever water in the ditch. Any fires we started had to be small enough to stamp out with our feet or smother in dirt.
One afternoon, we experimented lighting up an entire bush. Like all of our ideas, it seemed reasonable at the time. The dry bush ignited another bush, and soon we had a small blaze that we could not control. In our eyes, it seemed we had set the whole world on fire. We threw a lot of dirt and sand at the bushes, which was very helpful in making us dirty, but not so helpful in extinguishing the fire. Had there been a wind, I would be telling an entirely different story. Something about my life at reform school.
In those heart-stopping moments watching the disobedient fire, I imagined the fire spreading to our houses, leaving our neighborhood a pile of ashes. It’s a wonder that some all-powerful grownup (one who could see through windows) didn’t notice the smoke and call the fire department. Had that happened, I knew the consequences. I would not be seeing much of the Mickey Mouse Club and my bottom would be very sore.
The fire eventually burned itself out, and so did our desire to play with matches. We never misused them again. We just used them as they were intended to be used. For cigarettes.