It smelled wonderful. The fire was burning well seasoned oak and had a good base of coals. The big stainless steel kettle sat over it on top of cast iron andirons, the contents rolling in a slow boil. Six of us kids at the New Hampshire boarding school had spent the last three weeks drilling sugar maple trees, installing spigots and hanging buckets to catch the sap. The March air was still crisp with the remnants of winter, leaves were a potential thought with most trees hinting tiny buds among the skeletal branches. The grasses of the fields were smears of gray and beige, dead and dry from winter’s harsh cold. It was warm by the fire where it was my turn to guard the operation, keeping the fire stoked and the reducing sap stirred as we boiled away the water. In a day or so we would have five precious gallons of delicious maple syrup and about ten pounds of maple candy. I raised my cup of cocoa and realized it was empty.
I glanced at the fire and the roiling sap and decided it would be fine for the time it would take me to walk the three hundred feet to the dorm house to refill my cup with hot chocolate. In the kitchen, the house parent asked me how it was going as she poured my mug full of the cocoa. “It’s looking good!” I replied. “I think we might get even more than five gallons of syrup.” She ruffled my hair and scooted me back to my task. I strolled through the house, sipping the cocoa and paused in the living room. Rocky and his Friends was on the television, a circle of fellow students watching. I stopped for a minute to watch. I loved the show about the flying squirrel and his friend Bullwinkle moose. I leaned against the door to the living room, engrossed with Dudley Do Right of the Royal Canadian Mounties as he saved Nell once again from Snidely Whiplash, enjoyed an episode of Mr. Peabody and his Way Back Machine, a Fractured Fairy Tales story. Then one of the kids, looking out the front window yelled “Oh my gosh!”
With a sinking feeling, I ran to the front door to see the entire field, some two acres so far, blazing away on fire. Having left the fire unattended too long, a spark had jumped from the coal bed and ignited the dry grass. I ran to where the garden hose was reeled up beside the house and turned on the faucet. Nothing happened, of course. The water had been shut off to prevent the pipes from freezing during the sub-zero winter cold. I ran to the fire pit and stood looking in horror at the fire as it moved across the grass, leaving a wake of blackened earth behind it. The fire finally reached the trees of the National Forest land that abutted the property. It was like an explosion; when the fire hit the trees, a mix of evergreens, birch, maple and oak, the evergreens whooshed into giant fireballs. The fire was loud too. It sounded like a continuous roll of thunder as it crept through the trees, eating more and more of the woods.
The house parent had called the fire department, and within twenty minutes the local volunteers had three small engines pumping water. The forestry department showed up, the men wearing backpack ‘Indian Pumps’ and moved through the forest doing what they could. More fire engines from neighboring departments showed up, dragging their hoses into the woods to spray the flames. I wanted desperately to help, to do something, to try to redeem myself. But I was told to go to the house with the other children. Stay out of the way. They told me I’d done more than enough for one day. The combined efforts finally managed to control the fire and then subdue it. Men picked through what was a lush and thick New England wood with shovels and rakes, killing the last of the hot spots. The forest was now a random sea of blackness with dark and limbless spires jutting up from the ground. The fire had destroyed a mile wide and quarter mile deep segment of the forest and laid waste to seven acres of grassland. The air was thick with the smell of quenched fire, a stink that got into and onto everything and lasted for months.
I was a pariah. I brought an end to years and years of tradition, there would be no more harvesting of sap to make maple syrup and sugar candy. It was impossible to lay in the fields, black soot and charcoal would sully the clothes and exposed skin for three months. Finally, new grass, fed by the ashes of the fire slowly erased the huge blackened earth with green. But little could hide the ugly scar that had been a vibrant woods teeming with wildlife. I’d displaced squirrels, chipmunks, deer, raccoons and even birds, and no doubt countless other woodland creatures. My fellow students shunned me and I could not blame them. It was a mistake, but a stupid one and it cost them all so much. Children despise with a certain dedication, immovable in their disdain, and I was a victim of their venom. In truth I was not that popular with the faculty either. At a boarding school there is never any respite from the pool of negative emotion that oozed from those around the outcast, and so it was for me. Even I was angry at me.
With a maddening glacial pace, June and the end of classes for the year finally arrived. Cheered at release, the student body was happy, and finally their pleasure overcame their dislike and I was no longer a target of opportunity. The last day of school arrived and I sat and watched as car after car came up the drive, guided by parents who embraced and then drove away with their seedlings for summer vacation. When the last one finally left, I went back to my room to wait for dinner time. I would not be taking summer vacation. It was my duty to remain at the school and spend my summer swatting mosquitoes and enduring the scrapes and scratches of juniper and the rashes of poison oak as I pawed the hills to pick blueberries. There was a bill to pay for the resources consumed in fighting the fire I’d caused by my negligence. $122.00 was a lot of money in 1960, especially for a thirteen year old kid. But through that summer and the one that followed, I picked blueberries and sold them to earn the money I owed.
It’s true, I did generate a dislike for blueberries that lasted me deep into adulthood. They still aren’t a particulate favorite. At least I don’t shudder and curse at their mention anymore. But I did take a sense of pride from it all. My self-worth rising like a Phoenix from the ashes I created in meeting and besting my responsibility for the damage. At the end of the three years I spent at the school it was difficult to see where the fire had so ravaged the woods and fields. An occasional blackened and weathered sentinel stood guard between the returned greenery, but nature is forgiving and I’m thankful for that.
I’m also very careful with fire.