In the year I was born, my brothers, eight and ten years older, still gathered the discarded trees of Christmas. They scoured our College Park neighborhood and beyond to drag trees, tinsel and all, into a huge pile in our backyard. A Herculean task, it is easier imaged taking place back in those days, when the yards had no fences and the spaces were vast and open without sheds or swimming pools, tall trees or chained dogs. Those days, the Camp Hill borough code and civic sensibility still allowed more of the frivolous and the insane, such as live chickens, helicopters, lions, and the assemblage of a fifteen foot high playground tinderbox. So David and Donald and their friends carried hundreds of scotch pines, white pines, Douglas furs and stocked them five, six, ten high in pillars and walls, arches, tunnels and secret entrances till the whole backyard and more was consumed in a tree fortress.
When the citadel’s walls inevitably browned, shed needles, and dried to tinder touch, my father would start the disassembling, removing the driest trees and placing them in a small clearing. It was the start of the Great Annual Christmas Tree burning. The ritual fire lasted days, fueled by hundreds of holiday celebrations just past and tended to by my brothers, my neighbors and mostly by my father. Throughout his lifetime, Pop burned a lot of things: construction scraps, garden debris, and even wood. I remember him on summer afternoons, with the temperatures reaching into the high nineties, and Pop shirtless and contently raking over a smoldering pile of ashes, scanning the yard for something more, something more to burn. So, although I never witnessed the great Christmas inferno, fire formed a basic element of my life.
The Camp Hill school district celebrated all our great athletic moments with massive bonfires in the sloping grass field behind Hoover Elementary. The opening of football season was traditionally marked with the tossing of a torch onto summer remnants and stacks of newsprint, while cheerleaders in those blue and white heavy-wool, pleated skirts danced in front of a deep orange flickering, and with the ironic touch of the Camp Hill Volunteer Fire Department watching flames jump twenty feet or more into the crisp darkness, watching in their equally crisp uniforms, watching with their arms professionally-folded across their medaled chests. The volunteers patiently stood out for their time, while the whole town sang fight songs to familiar college tunes. Someone from the pep club tossed an effigy of our first opponent onto the heat. We all watched the fire fade finally away to the solemn refrains of the Alma Mater, in our hearts will every echo, memories that we share.. Only then out came the hose, the Camp Hill hook and ladder truck #14 extending its platform over the center of the chards, and the water pressed into steam.
High school bonfires were a familiar tradition, but I never thought of them as characteristically Pennsylvanian until driving home one fall weekend from New York. As we swung up Route 22 past the Easton S-turn, Judy pointed out a huge crimson ball on the hill behind a school. She asked if we were witnessing a book burning. This happened still early in our relationship and I didn’t want to burst out laughing, so, disarmed, for the briefest moment I entertained that thought. I was gut-swept back to all that grainy, flared footage of Nazis rallies and Beatle albums piled in oily stacks, awaiting matches or Zippo lighters. Could a football rally be equally as sinister? In the passing fleeting seconds from the highway, I thought I could see the pleated skirts of cheerleaders dancing.
I had a brief career in fire myself as a young teen, as an acolyte dressed in red and white at Trinity Lutheran Church, every occasional Sunday. Cued by a nod from the Reverend, we’d move in coordinated pairs, lighting the candles out, then flipping the device over to later snuff out the wicks. I was the acolyte for my brother David’s wedding when his bride’s veil burst in flames. Now queued by a nod from me, the Rev quickly extinguished that personal inferno with a flicking swipe of his hand. It occurred to me that the whole acolyte ritual seemed as much about putting out fires as creating them.
I knew a lot about making fires. From the quiet shelves of the West Shore Library, I once took out a beautiful book, bound in a brilliant blue rough-grained canvas with its title impressed in soft, silvery letters: The Book of Pyrotechnics. When my brothers alerted mom that it was a cookbook for homemade fireworks, I had to return it to library, but I am sure I must have made a watch list of some sort.
Even without this guidance and scholarship, I came up with my own fire-based recipes. Inspired by the evening war and its televised ingredients of horror, I determined to make my own neighborhood napalm. As kids, we all knew it was jellied gasoline, nasty sticky stuff. So my first attempt involved pouring a discrete amount of gas into a bowl of lime Jello® my mom had made for dessert. The gas broke down the wiggly consistency to a soup that was neither sticky nor flammable. Nor edible.
On my next attempt, Steve Sellers saved my life. I had realized my mistake was in pouring the gas into an already completed mixture. Instead, I would substitute gasoline for the water and otherwise follow the recipe on the back of the carton step-by-step. I got a sauce pan, poured in a cup of gasoline, and was ready to bring it to boil when Steve walked in the side door, cocked his head to the side with a dangerous, puzzled expression and simply suggested that this was not the best of ideas. He turned off the stove and we went out to a discarded stretch below Route 581 and poured the gas onto a puddle of stale waters collected in an industrial drum, just to prove it could float. Then we torched the gas. Almost set the field and highway on fire.
Burn baby burn: a sixties anthem. I never burned anything down, never really set fire to “a thing,” but I understood the pain of fire’s retreat when, one night, we got news that the high school had caught on fire. My mom, a secretary at the school, rushed to survey the damage. It was minor blaze, a few file cabinets in the central office area really, but just the thought of it shook my mom to tears. She never said so much but she must have felt it as an attack on something dear. Later, when the police investigation pointed to arson set by a Camp Hill Eagle Scout, mom cried again, torn for the soul’s torture that felt compelled to set the high school afire.
I have fire most terrifying or weird, like cars deep in fireball, consumed in a rage, and you watch frozen thinking why doesn’t this thing explode like what you see on the movies? And then thinking I don’t want to be here if it does. Even quieter flames can drag out a wolfian wildness, such when the gentle campfires at our sixth grade class trip to Tanalo infused a half-naked Bob Kehew to crazed ranting, over and over, “Arnold Ziffiel lost his pants! Arnold Ziffiel lost his pants!” Otherwise stoic Miss McHale had to pulled Bob aside to restore his sanity. Older and quieter still were the beach fires of Assateague, with the day’s heat and delirium lost to counting shooting stars and drinking cheap MadDog wine with good friends the likes of Steve Urban, Alex Moyle, Gerry Negley, Stu Bailey and even John Judge took a slug or two. Madness, John. Madness.
Other fires, sky fires: those unforgettable, silent pinpoint flames embedded in the pitched blanket overhead the Explorer’s camp. Deep and isolated up along the Susquehanna, this untouchable canvas rendered the Milky Way as complete and as silky wonder as it must have appeared even to the ancient Greeks. The place was other worldly. Whispered stories had it that the Explorer’s leader Karl Heckert could fly through this ink darkness by magic or will, appearing to one group of hiker at to the top of the mountain and then surprise another group of terrified souls seconds later at the base trailhead. I too had shown up here unannounced in a desperate attempt to reclaim a lost heart. But, after a short, fruitless conversation in the cold air, I was left alone there only to stare up at those far suns with the knowledge that deep attachments could surely be lost forever. And the air was cold.
Years later, the sirens broke our laughter over dinner. Chuck Kolonauski had invited a small crew—Dave Dietz, Mike Petrillo, myself and Judy--over for dinner at his new apartment. We were celebrating triumph during what was a transitional time for all of us. Some of us were shortly out of college and some of us already into our first real jobs, still within the thrill of a earning a paycheck and before the drag of careers. And here was Charles, in his own place. Dinner—I don’t remember the exact menu—was simple and excellent and we talked over beers and awed at our collective maturity and Chuck’s complete living room, accomplished without a single cinderblock or torn fabric. Then there were the sirens.
You couldn’t really see anything out the windows and we kept drinking and there was so much to laugh at and all but soon we could feel the whole buzz growing outside. People rushed out onto the summit lawn and a great crowd had assembled. The apartment complex grouped duplex units into small clusters, four or five down a row, each unit separated by red rust brick walls, each apartment identical, with the same second story set back slightly to create a slanting, tiered effect. It was a giant Aztec village and tonight the apartment across from Chuck’s lit like a Tiki torch. Already flames flowed over both floors and the heat had forced the fire trucks to wetting down the adjacent homes. We wondered how long till the fire forced outward and we wondered if could it possibly reach Chuck’s collection of Ted Nugget albums.
Contained within the walls, however, the fire only spread upward and inward, generating a huge intensity that stripped away the apartment’s façade. Suddenly, before us all, through this cutaway, we could see clearly into a stranger’s life, all the pieces—a couch, the fridge, a kitchen table with a couple of chairs—all of it illuminated, a glowing lifeline. Looking back, to see our faces, we must have looked like children without tragedy. Judy took my hand and the summer air around us felt warm and comforting. This, I knew, this and Chuck’s record collection would be safe for all future.