That fire, like so many other fires, started as an accident.
Sitting here now, only a few feet from the southwest shore of Rangeley Lake, it seems strange that I would be thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago.
The sun has barely risen, and it cuts across the lake like a sheet of diamonds. But my thoughts remain with that cold November night and the fire that would become a defining moment of my rather unremarkable life.
Laura and the kids are still asleep, oblivious to the gentle sounds of the frantic chipmunks, some lovesick chickadees and the distant hum of an old two-stroke outboard somewhere across the lake. It is so tranquil, and now the cry of an early morning loon is all that separates me from my persistent thoughts about the fire.
The sun is now beginning to creep through the boughs of the white pines, birches and poplar trees that surround me, shield me from the reality of my normal life…the day-to-day of the real world.
Day One of our vacation and I am already anxious about returning to the rattle and hum of the mundane.
So I choose to think about the fire, especially since we are at Rangeley Lake, only a few miles north of where my uncle lived.
That fire should have changed my life, but it seems like I can never hold onto the lessons it taught me.
Burnin’ down the house
A few years ago, our family started taking a new route for our annual trek to Rangeley. That new route goes right past the house that my uncle Leonard once owned.
My uncle had already raised three boys and a daughter of his own. My older cousins were heroes to me when I was a young boy. They were hippies, rebels and the funniest people I ever met. They knew everything about small engines, Jimi Hendrix, guns and dope.
My uncle took me in after my parents’ divorce, sparing me from the chaos of that situation.
Leonard Brooks was incredibly intelligent and self-reliant. He towered over most people and had broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes and a disposition that encapsulates everything you can imagine about a grumpy, old guy.
He was a champion of common sense. He suffered fools lightly and had little use for flatlanders, rock n’ roll and anything south of Lewiston.
Unlike my father, Leonard rarely, if ever, raised his voice. He conveyed his displeasure with a silence that was pure torture. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you listened.
So it was, during my second year of living with Leonard, that the fire happened.
It was a chilly Friday night in mid November. My uncle left with a few friends for a weekend hunting trip. I was not allowed to join because of my lackluster chemistry grades and a backlog of homework.
So, there I was: stuck with my aunt and my youngest cousin, Cathy, who still lived at home and was five years older than me. The weekend certainly looked bleak, and there was a cord of firewood that needed to be stacked in the basement before my uncle’s return home on Sunday.
Cathy, however, made plans to have a much better night. With a baggie of homegrown weed and a six-pack of Budweiser, she invited one of her girlfriends over for a back yard campfire. My aunt was oblivious and already in bed.
Maybe it was because they were completely baked, or maybe it was because the wood was too green for burning. It didn’t matter, their fire was not much more than a spark and a cloud of smoke, But I wanted to impress the girl, so out I came with a one-gallon can of what I thought was kerosene.
It was not kerosene. It was gasoline. If you do not understand the significance of that distinction, there’s no point in my trying to explain it.
Sure, I stood back a few feet, but that was the only smart thing I did that night.
It was like an explosion, and I panicked. The flame traveled right up to the can of gasoline in my trembling hands. I did the only thing I could at that moment. I threw the can away from me, across the backyard and, in retrospect, far too close to the snowmobile and picnic table that were parked nearby.
Cathy was stoned beyond recognition and could not stop giggling. “Fire, fire, fire,” she chanted, before darting into the house for a glass of water.
Pouring water on a gasoline fire? Not too smart.
The damage looked much worse in the morning. The bulk of the backyard was scorched and reeked of gasoline. The picnic table was destroyed, and the snowmobile cover had melted and was now bonded to the charred remains of my uncle’s beloved Polaris sled.
Dead man walking
My uncle was going to kill me. I would never graduate high school. I would never get laid. There was nothing more to my future than the 36 hours until my uncle would release me from the mortal coil.
I don’t remember much about that weekend other than the extreme sense of dread that draped over me like a heavy blanket on a hot July afternoon.
My oldest cousin, Steve, stopped by the house to pick something up. He made no effort to hide his amusement about the damage, but he offered some sage advice:
“The only shot you have at survival is to just man up and own it without excuse,” he said before adding the most important part. “You should also wait until he has had a chance to settle down and have a couple of shots before you tell him.”
With that, Steve was gone, taking cover from the impending storm.
Finally, it was Sunday evening. I shook hands with the grim reaper as I watched my uncle’s Dodge pickup ramble up the gravel driveway in front of the house.
I followed Steve’s advice, waiting until Leonard had settled in and able to enjoy a a shot of his preferred Scotch.
I was shaking when I approached the kitchen table. Cathy hid upstairs in her bedroom, quiet as a church mouse.
He peered at me over the rim of his bifocals. “Yes, young fella?” He seemed to sense my dread and probably noted my ashen complexion and trembling limbs.
“I had an accident while you were gone, “ I said with as much courage as I could muster, my voice cracking.
He stiffened in his seat. “An accident?”
“Yeah, in the backyard,” I stammered, wondering how I was keeping my eyes open. “It was a fire.”
“Well, let’s go take a look,” he said evenly, without trace of any emotion whatsoever.
Together we stepped off the back porch, and he surveyed the damage quickly.
“Let’s go back inside,” he said softly.
I followed him back to the kitchen table, ready to vomit at any given moment. He grabbed a pen and the back of a discarded envelope, drawing a rather primitive diagram with a circle and an arrow.
I sat down and he explained the diagram. “When you build a fire, you always, always know which way the wind is blowing,” he explained. “Always keep your back to the wind. If you are going to use an accelerent, do so before you spark anything,” he emphasized. “Do you understand?”
I could only nod in the affirmative.
“Alrighty then, “ he said as stood up and headed to his favorite recliner in the living room.
I was in shock. “What is my punishment,” I inquired.
“Punishment?” he chuckled with his blue eyes sparkling. “What possible punishment could I give you that would be worse than what you have put yourself through over the past two days? Just don’t forget the lesson.”
And that was that. He never talked about the incident again.
A lesson learned?
My uncle died in 1997, four years before I met Laura, Tim and Matt.
I wrote his eulogy.
The world shrank, and my 50-year-old Starcraft boat looks exactly like the boat he owned.
I know exactly what he would say to me today. “The only thing you need is common sense,” he would say. And with that, he would sprinkle some salt in a mug of Budweiser and put his feet up on a tattered ottoman, content that all was well with the world.
And that lesson is priceless, the one I cannot seem to convey to my sons.
Leonard would have loved my boys. He would most certainly approve of Laura, her carefree spirit and her lack of airs.
He would shake his head in dismay if he found out that I cannot back a boat down a ramp or build a bookshelf.
But none of that would really matter to him because he knew, and still knows, that I know how to build a fire.
And if you can build a fire, everything else is going to be okay.
Note: this is a condensed version of a post I published in July 2013. To see the longer version go here.