Department of English

Fall 2005 Edition

Fire

Ben Fellmeth
Expressive 2010 1st Place

As a child and young adult, I was deeply involved in science, mostly in the area of pyrotechnics, which, in definition, or at least in my definition, is the creation and governing of fire and explosive devices.  Involved also in this field is the study of the varied human reactions when exposed to the operation of such devices.  To many, fire can be enjoyable, dangerous, or even frightening.  For me, fire produces all these emotions and much, much more. 

I was introduced to fire at a very young age, and unlike most children, was encouraged to explore its possibilities.  I remember my elder brother calling my name from our backyard on a cool summer evening. In the garage I was scrambling to find something, anything that could help us in our little experiment.  “It’s going out, it’s going out!” he cried repeatedly with desperation in his voice.  I dug, searched, and prayed that I would find it in time, and as though inspired from heaven, spotted it in the corner, just behind the lawn mower.  There it was, beautiful, beaming, and bright red.  Luckily, Dad had filled up the gas can that morning, so it was still mostly full.  Although I was only seven years old and a little over 50 pounds in weight, the excitement of the event filled my little body with energy beyond its natural strength, and I carried the five-gallon gas can out into the backyard with relative ease. 

Walter, my brother, was still calling my name and barking commands to come quicker.  When I approached him, I found him to be dancing around a small pile of plastic and wooden toys that we had gathered together and ignited.  I saw in his eyes something that I will always remember, something that I have seen countless times since.  It was as though there was a fire within his eyes, a look of pure delight and satisfaction.  He came over to me and ripped the gas can from my hands.  The flames erupted as he poured the gasoline over the fire.  I begged him to let me take a turn pouring.  We both yelled and screamed with delight as the flames roared dangerously close to the side of our house.  There was a strange smell emanating from the fire.  It was that of melting plastic, burning wood, and what I later found out to be the strange aroma of singed human hair. 

To this day, I’m not sure exactly how our neighbor, Mrs. Carol, discovered us in our experiment.  Perhaps it was the black smoke that rose from behind our house, or maybe it was our prepubescent screams of glee that alerted her to our presence.  At any rate, she did not find our little fire to be as amusing as Walter and I did.  In fact, she wasn’t amused at all.  Her reaction to the fire was similar to ours only in intensity.  We raged with joy.  She raged with worry for our well being, as any gentle, kind hearted, elderly women would.  My dad would later rage as well but not out of concern for our safety.

As I grew, my fascination with the flammable increased.  In scouts we were instructed on how to ignite a fire by striking two stones together.  I tried, and after five minutes of boredom and what looked like the beginning of a rather large blister, I abandoned my efforts and went to retrieve my “special canteen” from the tent.  The other scouts continued in their efforts to ignite their fires using the stones.  When I returned, what I saw before me was saddening. It was a group of young boys wasting valuable time and energy trying to make fire using a method  that I had proven to be futile only minutes before.  Even our steadfast scouting leader was frustrated in his attempts to ignite the little pile of pine needles that lay before him. Then there was me and my little canteen full of gasoline.  After all, scouts are supposed to be prepared at all times.  I went to my pile of pine needles and soaked it with the gas.

I decided to give the stones one more chance.  Surprisingly, the fire ignited with relative ease on my second attempt.  In fact, it lit with so much intensity, that I was taken back a little by the initial flame. Never have I gained popularity so fast in my entire life.  The other scouts raced to my aid, and after realizing that I was still alive, praised me for my genius.  Some of them were jealous, but most were happy and eager to ignite their own fires using the same method.  My scout leader, much like Mrs. Carol, was not impressed with my fire, but with love, assured me that my eyebrows would grow back in time.   One observation I made on this and on previous occasions is that the age of a person and their reaction to fire have a strong correlation; the older a person gets, the less intrigued by fire they become.  I, however, was an exception to this rule.

In my seventeenth year, my desire to experiment with fire had grown into a healthy obsession.  The internet was full of information which enabled me to exploit fire to its full potential.  On one occasion, I decided to experiment with something called a cocktail bomb, one of the world’s simplest explosive devices.  A cocktail bomb consists of a simple glass bottle filled with gas with a rag running from the inside of the bottle to the outside through a small hole in the lid.   To detonate the bomb, one must simply light the rag on fire and then throw the bottle.  When the bottle shatters, a small explosion occurs as the rising fumes from the gas ignite simultaneously. 

On this occasion, I was staying in the mountains of Southeast Utah with a friend.  Near his house, were a series of old, abandoned mine shafts reaching thousands of feet below the ground.  I saw an opportunity to use a simple cocktail bomb to create a very large explosion.  I figured that if we could throw the glass bottle at a higher velocity, the explosion would somehow be amplified.  We decided that gravity, combined with the half mile drop the mine provided, would allow us to reach our desired velocity.  After filling up our two gallon glass jar with gasoline, we drove to the mines where we would conduct our experiment.

At this particular mine, there were two separate mine shafts surrounded by a chain link fence. One of them was designed to transport men, and the other served to transport the mined resources.  The two shafts were about twenty feet apart from each other.  As I stared down the   larger of the two mines, my heart began to race. There were about six of us there that night, and  we were as giddy as a bunch of twelve year old girls at a Backstreet Boys concert. 

I consider myself a courageous person, but having a two gallon jug of gasoline in my hands with a flaming rag protruding out of the lid, was a little disconcerting.  I held the jar over what I thought was the middle of the shaft and released.  The flaming rag lit the shaft as it plummeted towards the bottom.  It seemed like an eternity before the jar finally hit the bottom.  We expected to hear a huge explosion and see the flames rise part way up the tunnel, but what we experienced was far from it.  When the jar hit the bottom, there was a quick flash of light followed by a roar that would rival a jet engine.   My friends and I quickly gathered around the shaft and listened as the roar came nearer.  It was coming, and it was coming fast.   After a few seconds of confusion, wondering where the fire had gone and what the noise was, we were all suddenly lifted off the ground and sent hurling away from the entrance of the mine by winds that must have exceeded 100 mph. 

My eyes were stinging when I finally got up and looked around.  Some of my friends were laughing, some were silent, and some were moaning, not out of pain, but of terror.  I was one of the former.  Explosions never scared me.  After all, I was a teenager, hence immortal. 

After the laughs and the cries ceased, my scientific nature set in; satisfaction was turned to curiosity.   Using my vast knowledge and experience with explosives, I formed a hypothesis explaining the phenomenon that we had just witnessed.  The reason I believe the bomb produced only a small burst of light, is that there was not a sufficient amount of oxygen in the bottom of the mine as to allow the gasoline to combust entirely. When the gas combusted, it created a vacuum effect as it sucked oxygen from the many underground tunnels, causing extremely high speed winds to come racing up the mine shaft.  This hypothesis was never tested, for I had not the time or  know how to perform the tests required.  I did, however, make other useful observations on this occasion.  I learned that fire, as well as being dangerous, is also very unpredictable when exposed to different variables, and that people’s reactions can be equally unpredictable. 

In my life, as shown in just a few short stories, I have seen fire produce many types of reactions, both good and bad, all of them providing me with much satisfaction. Fire is a magnificent force, and I encourage all to disregard their parents’ warning not to play with matches and to experience the wonder and excitement that comes when you make fire a part of your own life.