306. Burning the Dead


When I was a kid living in the cookie cutter housing tract known as Virginia Hills, summers were hot and humid and forever. As a little kid I have vivid memories of white and yellow honey suckle vines and pink feathery mimosa blossoms beyond my barren back yard. (With four boys in one quarter acre lot, ours was the designated turfless baseball or football field.)  Lying on the ground between damp sheets under the laundry line was an early form of air conditioning.  And digging in the clay with my mother’s treasured sterling silver soup spoons was an early science camp. They turned black and blue magically when you dug into that moist orange Virginia clay. Later on we had skate boards, the home made type– a board screwed onto roller skates. And then two wheeler bikes when we were big boys.

Along the way we also did a lot of walking. The closest stores were roughly one mile away in any direction. Without a lot of other competition we’d sometimes decide to walk up to the Super Giant on Route 1 to buy a pack of gum or a five cent store brand soda. I know it’s inconceivable of a modern kid walking two miles for anything, but we did without a second thought. Many times we began the store pilgrimage penniless but relied on faith that we’d find returnable bottles along the road sides as we slogged across shaded streets. Usually our faith was rewarded by others’ litter.

My partner in lizard catching, bird boxing, turtle hunting, crawfish nabbing, snake grabbing, and any other wild life adventure was Chris Young. He had three brothers also and lived around the corner on The Parkway. Like me he was third in the male birth order, which is not such a bad slot for wanderers to inhabit. Parents don’t miss the third child as readily as the first or the baby. And this opens up unearned opportunities for adventure and risk taking… and crime.

One late summer day Chris and I decided to take the not so short shortcut across Mt. Comfort Cemetery on our way up to the Giant store. I did not like hopping strangers’ fences and cutting through their yards, but Chris reassured me it was all good, which is an incomplete translation of … “until you get caught”.  Anyhow, we experienced no troubles on the way up as we came out of the wooded back yards of a contiguous neighborhood and into the almost golf course feel of the cemetery where no vertical monuments are allowed. My Catholic faith told me to respect the dead and not walk over their graves but around them. Chris never saw the inside of a church and walked in various states of ignorance. We cut across the bone dry grass past the Last Supper Monument toward the fountain of the All Seeing Jesus for a drink of water.

 The deal with that carving was that no matter where you stood, the eyes followed you. It was both freaky and guilt inducing if you had an IQ plus a conscience. I did not suspect then that Chris lacked one or both. However, in the intervening years it has been confirmed. We took a long drink of water that was likely not too pure and walked the last half mile to the store with Jesus staring at our blissfully ignorant backsides. “Oh pride goes before a fall.”

We chilled out in the air conditioned grocery store for as long as we could without attracting too much attention. Chris also liked to shoplift on occasion. My parochial school training (i.e. institutional shame) offset my desire for immediate impulse gratification. On the way past the cigarette vending machine Chris picked up two packets of matches that customers had left behind. It seemed pretty innocent.

On our return trip across the cemetery we stopped for a second drink from the fountain of the All Seeing Jesus and then trekked slowly toward the white oak trees that curved along the perimeter of the graveyard. Chris took out a pack of matches and flicked a lit one into the dry white grass. It immediately caught fire and began to spread. He swooped his Chuck Taylor sneakers across the flames and immediately the fire was over, leaving only a small black stain in the acres of gnarly white carpet.

“That was cool. Let’s see how big we can make the fire.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Image result for fire in a field pictures

But no sooner were my words out of my mouth than the next match was igniting more dead grass at our feet. The flames spread exponentially it seemed. Every second the fire was double. This time I ran around the edge and smothered the leading edge with my Converse sneakers while Chris stomped out his side.

“That was close, man. Don’t do it again.”

“Oh come on, one more time and then we’ll get out of here.”

And again he carelessly tossed another lit match onto the pale thatch that had been green grass months ago. This time the flames must have had a little breeze aiding them. No matter how we ran and stomped, the ring of fire was faster than our tap dancing feet. Chris began to yell something incomprehensible and then he bolted for the tree line, leaving me alone with the spreading fire among the deceased safely six feet under the flames. Out of nowhere I saw a man in a Jeep come flying at the fire circle. He drove around the perimeter in a heartbeat and then jumped out with a fire extinguisher to finish off the inside flames. Amazingly the fire was out in a minute.

I was sooty, scared and shaking as the man yelled at me. I immediately ratted out Chris as I awaited a lifetime in prison for arson. For some reason the guy let me go, perhaps because I was peeing my pants with fear. I don’t know if Chris ever faced the music for his pyromania. I know that I learned un-incinerated boredom is not so bad after all.

Somehow I knew Jesus had seen it all even though He was facing the other way.

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