Fire Deportment

Fire Deportment

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One winter evening long ago, my mom's oven gave out an oily whoosh and started spitting flames. As clouds of burnt Crisco roiled upward, my sister Cindy responded in the time-honored manner of hopping on one foot while flapping her arms and crying, "Eeek! Shall we get out? Eeek! Shall we get out?" This is the sort of thing we did in my family. We were short on common sense, but our grammar was impeccable.

My mom sprinkled salt on the fire, which had no effect whatsoever. Then my dad came to the rescue lugging a big copper fire extinguisher. "Stand clear!" he shouted. He hesitated a moment to read the directions and then turned the extinguisher upside down. It promptly shot foam in his face. As the loose end of the hose went writhing around the kitchen, it sprayed every wall and counter while my father anointed our ears with obscenities. The fire got doused, along with everything else. We surveyed the damage silently until Cindy spoke up: "Eeek . . . you've ruined the dinner! Eeek . . ."

I was not thinking about this distant episode the other night when we were all visiting at my parents' house and I asked Cindy's firstborn son, Matt, to go out and make a fire in the barbecue. Matt is 18 and a National Merit Scholar. He is an avid student of linguistics. Someday he will doubtless be the enfant terrible of the Modern Language Association. But even by my family's standards, he is devoid of common sense.

Matt made the fire in one of those metal cylinders you use to ignite charcoal with crumpled-up newspapers. Then he came back inside and tried to engage us in a conversation about literal versus figurative speech. I said, "Matt, maybe you should go dump out the charcoal now." So Matt went out in the yard, and the other children, Cindy's and mine, followed.

Matt studied the cylinder of burning charcoal. "Why do you think he wants me to dump it?" he asked the others, who all shrugged innocently. Then Matt took the cylinder by the handle, carried it to an out-of-the-way spot next to the house and dumped the charcoal on the grass, which immediately caught fire. The flames licked up toward the siding of the house.

Anna, Cindy's second-born, began to hop on one foot and ululate. Matt, with unusual presence of mind, snatched a can of soda out of her hand and emptied it onto the burning grass. The fire fizzled out. "Would that you had a brain," said Anna, a high school Latin student who has gotten in the habit of wandering around muttering, "O tempora!, O mores!" and employing the "would that" construction at every opportunity. "How did you think he was going to cook dinner on a pile of charcoal in the grass?" she said. "You'd better put it in the grill."

"Oh," said Matt, the light dawning. "Dump it in the grill." He walked to the garage, got a shovel and scooped up the burning charcoal. Then he saw the circle of scorched earth in the lawn. "Oh, my God," he said. "Grandpa's going to eviscerate us."

"Get dead grass," a sensible voice in the crowd (it must have been a neighbor's child) suggested, and children scattered in all directions tearing up clumps of dry grass and flinging them onto the burnt patch. Meanwhile, Matt carried the hot coals to the grill. But instead of putting them into the grill, he put them into the ash pan under the grill. Then he looked at what he'd done and thought about it just long enough for Anna to sigh and roll her eyes. "Oh," said Matt. "In the grill!"

It was at about this point that I decided to check on Matt's progress. The scene, when I opened the back door, was of Matt on his knees before a blazing fire in the ash pan, from which he was extracting red-hot coals one at a time with the barbecue tongs, while savage little children scurried around in all directions whooping and clutching dead grass in their hands.

"Eeek!" I cried, in the time-honored manner, arms already flapping. It is the sort of thing we do in my family.

By Richard Conniff

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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