When I was only five years old, my older brother, Albert, talked me into helping him burn the garbage that had been collecting in our garage. He said that it would be a great Fathers’ Day gift. We had taken it to the field on the north of our farm, right on the edge of the desert. All went okay, except for the fact that I lost my eyebrows and the front of my hair from standing too close to the fire.
We had come back from our little adventure, and, being very tired, I took a nap. I had barely fallen asleep when the roar of fire engine sirens woke me. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and went outside to join my brothers and sisters. More fire engines roared by, and I looked to the north and could see grey smoke billowing into the sky.
“Hey,” Daniel said. “Let’s climb up into the barn so we can see what’s happening.”
Everyone agreed, so we made our way there. Our barn was one of those tall ones from a previous era that was the height of a four story building. We all climbed into the loft and then climbed the ladder to the opening at the back. My brothers and sisters all sat on the opening ledge, but, since I was the youngest, I was not allowed to do something so dangerous, and had to stand on the ladder to look out.
Beyond our farm, to the north, lay miles and miles of range land covered with dry grass and sagebrush. This was what was on fire. Luckily it was an unusually windless day, and the fire was moving slowly.
We watched as truck after truck emptied their loads along the fire line, then rushed back to the ditch by our house to fill their tanks with more water. The brave firefighters were gradually encircling the fire rim, but despite their best efforts, they could not stop the fire from reaching the power line that ran across the open range.
We watched as the first power pole started to tip. Soon, others near it began to lean, and then, suddenly, a whole section of the line crashed to the ground. As the poles hit the ground, they sparked a new round of fires, and the firemen raced to head them off.
The battle continued all day, but as the sun started to approach the horizon, the firemen finished and started to wind up their hoses. The blackened land stretched out in a visible V shape.
“Look at that,” John said. “It looks like the fire started at a point in our north pasture.”
“Not only that,” I chimed in, trying to be helpful, “Albert and I are very lucky that it didn’t start until after we finished burning the garbage there, or we could have been hurt.”
Everyone turned and looked at me, and with my missing eyebrows and missing hair, they just assumed I was guilty.
“You and Albert burned garbage out there?” John asked.
Albert had told me about the fifth amendment, and I figured it was time to invoke my rights and not incriminate myself any more. When everyone turned to where Albert had been, he was gone. I barely remembered that, in the excitement, he had slipped past me, heading down the ladder.
“Where did Albert go?” Daniel asked. I just shrugged.
Until hunger drove Albert from his hiding place, he was impossible to find. That left me alone to face my parents. My father, who had helped fight the fire, was tired, covered in soot, and unhappy.
My punishment was severe. I was to spend weeks working at Grandma’s house where she could keep an eye on me so I couldn’t get into more trouble. For hours on end I had to dig grass, and every other miserable weed known to man, from her garden. It was hot and boring.
Well, I should say that it was boring until the day I discovered what a person could do with Grandma’s magnifying glass.
And thank heavens for that fifth amendment which meant I didn’t have to explain how her garden shed randomly caught on fire.