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Fire: Seducer, Destroyer

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Like many children I was fascinated with fire. We didn’t have many opportunities to see it in all its chaotic glory: our house had no fireplace and my mother rarely lit candles. The exception was at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was the central candelabra and four candles that spelled out NOEL, shaped like either snowmen or reindeer (I actually can’t remember). Each kid had one that also was a letter in their name. We all had N and E in our names. My sister and I only had L and I was the only O so it was m letter. These were reverently lit every Christmas but preserved for many years.

The only other time we would see a live fire was when camping in the summer, which we did pretty much every year as that’s an affordable vacation for lower middle class families with not a lot of spare cash. Marshmallow roasts and s’mores and of course, staring into the flames, watching all those fire sprites dance and caper about.

Perhaps it was these tantalizingly slim glimpses that tempted my brother and me to more dangerous games. My parents hadn’t separated yet, which meant that matches were readily available because my father smoked.

It might have started with finding a stub of a candle. I was probably eight or nine and my brother six or seven. We would come home from school for lunch and sneak downstairs to play before going back. Obviously my mother was otherwise occupied or we would have received a good whooping just for lighting the candle. But hiding out in the cement playground, the rumpus room, we would light up the candle, then take the papers straws absconded from the kitchen and light the ends. Ah, the role models of smokers. That’s what we did. We pretended we were smoking those paper straws, always putting out the fire when we were done. This was the more guilty of the two activities that involved fire, but one we were never caught at.

On the weekends we would get up early, as kids are wont to do, and go down to the rumpus room to play with dolls and trucks. There was a spare bed in there that we would sit on and dress the dolls. One morning we dropped a piece of doll’s clothing below the bed. Of course we had the candle lit because we could. My brother took that stub of a candle and looked under the bed for the clothing. The flame licked at the under structure of the bed and before we knew it, things were beginning to smolder. We could see the smoke rising and kept running to the bathroom filling cups of water and pouring them on the mattress. But the smoke grew thicker…and thicker.

Finally, realizing this was getting out of control, my brother and I did the walk of doom, up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. We had a right to fear because her punishments were often harsh and heavy with wooden spoons and leather straps. I awoke my mother and said, “We were just playing… and all of a sudden the bed caught on fire.”

She was up in moments, and had awakened my older brother downstairs (he would have been about 16/17) He got to haul the mattress outside and house it down. Surprisingly, my mother soundly scolded us but didn’t beat us, laying the blame at my feet, saying, “You should have known better. You’re older.”

I was so ashamed for years about this incident that I didn’t tell anyone until I was in my later twenties. That scold was way more effective than a spanking would have been. My brother and I never repeated our firebug ways and got off light, in terms of punishment and destruction. I have candles now, have had other dangerous dances with fire but I’m very careful about candles.

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Being Cool in School

It’s been a while since high school, which I attended in Calgary and included grades 10-12. We had junior high schools for grades 7-9, and I attended grades 1-12 in one very large city block. In some cases I saw the same kids for twelve years, even if we weren’t friends. The schools were large and there were hundreds of kids.

It was common to know your homeroom classmates and some of the students from other classes, especially if you took an elective that mixed the classes. And sometimes friends were in different homerooms so you’d know maybe half of your year to some degree and the rest of the students barely entered the zone of friends or classmates.

There were times in high school when everyone hung out, during breaks between classes and at lunch. Our high school had a major entrance (for students) that had been named the Pit. There was one to either side of the main entrance on the south side, which also had names. The actual grand entrance to the school faced the west and very few students ever seemed to use it, partly because it faced a shopping center and most of the homes were on the south and east sides. The east side also had a couple of entrances and one faced into the school field. We called this one Apple Crisp I believe. Another one was called Numbers and I think one was called Colors. I forget the rest of the names.

I’m not sure who named them and it could well have been the group we hung around with. Everyone knew of the Pit because it was the entrance used by almost everyone, open in both directions (as opposed to the side entrances, which were usually only exits) and where the students were allowed to stand and smoke. So it was always stinky and overcrowded. I never really picked up smoking. For awhile my girlfriends and I tried smoking wine tip cigarillos, more for the flavor and the look than for actually smoking. When everyone started to get into smoking I tried but had to be drunk to do it. (Shhh, yes we actually drank [without our parents knowing] during those high school days.) I don’t think I ever bought a pack of cigarettes and gave it up rather quickly.

Now the Pit, the center of our universe in many ways, was where everyone could socialize, smoke and hang out. It was known as the place where the jocks and cheerleaders gathered, a collection of the studly and maturing boys and the girls with bodies and legs and pompoms that they knew how to move. So we, who thought we weren’t the cool kids, tended to go to the quieter entrances and hang out. They were far less crowded and brighter, especially Apple Crisp, which faced the field. And if you happened to be skipping a class teachers wouldn’t find you there. In fact they probably would only find you in the Pit.

And of course, should you be skipping school (but not able to go home because a parent might find you) and still hiding in an entrance, it was a place to drink elicit alcohol, smoke pot or even try something like acid. Though the more hallucinogenic the drug, the more quiet and out of the way you wanted the entrance. Numbers I believe was the favorite for such activities.

We never thought we were cool. We weren’t the geeky studious ones, nor were we the jocks. We were also not the deadbeat losers that missed so many classes they failed. Fighting and knives and guns were still pretty much unheard of while I was in school except maybe for one or two boy on boy fights, though I never saw one. So we were a bit like nomads, flowing through, not quite part of any group.

Or so we thought. Of course we had formed our own group. But when you were in class, no one was a group. You were an individual under the watchful eye of the teacher. We were required to do a mandatory counseling class in high school. The girls would gather or the guys and it obviously wasn’t everyone because it was at the counselor’s office. Maybe it was 12-20 girls total.

I vaguely remember one session where there were a number of the cool cheerleader girls and then my friends and me. We ended up talking about belonging and being cool and we said how we knew they were the cool ones. And they said, but it’s you guys who are the cool ones. I don’t remember the exact details but I remember the feeling to this day.

Never had I felt cool, in control, the one people looked to for fun or leadership. And yet, that was my perception, not the perception of others. It was a very eye-opening experience for all of us. I wondered how many other people were either faking it or didn’t think they “were the ones” whatever being the one might be. I wrote about my experiments in changing myself in “You are Who You Pretend to Be” and in fact I was changing before this in high school. But it attributed to my change and I think the counselor who got us together from different cliques was very wise in letting us see how the other half lived, or acted. It truly didn’t put us all on a more even level. I sometimes wonder how much impact it made on my other classmates.

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Memories: Firebugs

Everyone makes mistakes in their lives or does things innocently without considering the consequences. We learn sometimes in a trial by fire. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or smarter or at least thinking, I sure won’t do that again.

My first true experience with fire was when I was about eight and my brother six.  We weren’t in the habit of burning candles around the house. Still, there were matches to be found because my father smoked. My little brother and I would come home from school at lunch hours and light paper straws and smoke them, or pretended to. I guess no one was home at the time because we surely wouldn’t have got away with this if my mother was around.

This was all well in our enactment of adult activities, but then we proceeded to candles (there were a few around the house). On Saturday mornings when all the older folk were asleep my brother and I would get up to play in our unfinished (cement floor and that fake wood paneling on the walls) “rumpus room.” Since we couldn’t make too loud a rumpus at that time, we’d play with my dolls or his cars. There was an old bed in there, an ideal place to play. At one point I dropped a piece of doll’s clothing under the bed, so my brother went to look for it, where it was dark, with a candle.

Yep, before we knew it the bed was starting to smolder. We ran back and forth from the bathroom downstairs filling glasses of water and tossing it on the bed. But the fire was underneath and happily consuming the dry interior. After some minutes of our futile attempts and the house slowly filling with smoke, we made the hard decision and trucked upstairs to my mother’s bedroom to wake her. And of course we said, “We were just playing and all of a sudden this fire started.”

My mother got my older brother up who took the mattress out to the yard to hose it down. No real harm done, thankfully. Surprisingly, we didn’t get the living daylights beat out of us but instead were chastised soundly, me especially, because I was older and should have known better. The chastisement worked. I was so ashamed that I didn’t tell my firebug tale until I was in my late twenties.

My second run-in was at a comedy dinner show. I believe it was a Fawlty Towers theme which worked well through the dinner. After we ate, half the table had to turn to see the stage. The tables had tealights all over and I had hair nearly to my waist at the time. I heard this shout behind me and someone batted at my head. Apparently my hair was flaming from the tealight and I hadn’t heard anything…yet. Someone else was about to pour a pitcher of water on my hair but they got it out before I knew what was happening. The whole restaurant smelled of burned hair, which the actors used to say their next show would be “Hair.”

And my hair? The burned part was mostly indiscernible. It had only burned a surface layer. There was that one purely stupid move one time, where I lit a pillar candle on my mantle. But then I wanted to see if it was scented and what scent it was so I picked up the candle and looked underneath, with the flame burning. And I burned my bangs.  Duh, that was a smart one.

What have I learned from all this? Don’t play with fire. Be cautious and know your surroundings when fire is present. Don’t do stupid things near fire. Pretty simple really. There is one last fire tale, which is long but I’ll try to shorten it.

At one point I was in Pennsylvania camping with a very large group of  people (very very large group) enough that we wandered from campsite to campsite partying. On the last night, it was raining hard enough that we were pretty wet, but it was a warm rain. There was mud everywhere so we left our shoes in the campground because they were getting destroyed, and we wandered, with alcohol.

I was actually not drunk yet when I decided to bellydance around one fire. I was ankle deep in mud and I ended up slipping on the slimy surface and going down on my right knee and both hands into the fire. Luckily two guys pulled me out immediately. My hands weren’t burned and I decided it was a sign from the gods to quit.

As we wandered away in the dark, I pulled up my still wet (from the rain) pant leg, touched my leg below the knee and said, yeah, I burned myself. Then I proceeded to drink the night away and ignored the burn for another 12 hours. When I eventually, the next day, looked at my leg, it was black and crusty. The medics on site tried to clean, which put me into shock.

When I flew home I had to go to the hospital for burn treatment, which put me in shock again. I also needed antibiotics for a bacteria that can set in after 24 hours and be very serious. And I needed burn treatment (cleaning, burn cream and rewrapping every day) for two weeks. Luckily the burn was below the knee as opposed to be on the joint, and I was in Calgary where their walk-in clinics were equipped for such things.

I figured out what had happened that night was that my cotton clothing was wet from the rain. My hands didn’t burn because I wasn’t in the fire long enough. My pants weren’t burned because they were wet, but there had been a bar (for roasting meat) in the fire and I had been steam burned that night, receiving a third degree burn and a permanent scar. The only good thing about a third degree burn is that it doesn’t hurt much because the nerves have been killed.

To this day, I have no feeling in that one spot on my leg. The scar is relatively small and I have a stupidity award. I don’t drink tequila anymore. Even if I wasn’t drunk when I slipped up, I figure why tempt fate with more. What did I learn that last time? Don’t play with fire, don’t dance in the mud, don’t fall into fires. I really do hope that’s my last life’s lesson with fire.

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Belfast to Ballycastle

 

Ireland 2007–Belfast to Ballycastle

In honor of St. Patty’s day tomorrow, here is another excerpt from my trip to Ireland in the fall of 2007.

Here we are still on Sunday Sept. 30, going from the Newgrange area to Belfast. We gassed up before Northern Ireland (as opposed to the republic) as they use pounds and that’s even more expensive (at least $2 CDN to the pound). It was the first time gassing up and we couldn’t get the gas flap open on the VW Polo or whatever that piece of crap was. No levers, no buttons and the gas jockey was stymied too. Finally he asked one of the other guys and it turns out you just give it a good push and it pops open. Duh.

The only difference crossing the border, which was indiscernible, was that the speed limits changed from kilometers to miles, much like driving from Canada to the US. However, the speedometer did not show miles, not that it mattered. If it said 60, people went 120, no matter whether km/h. I just flowed with the flow.

There are fairly major highways between Dublin and Belfast so it was smooth sailing and little getting lost though my sister would laugh her head off every time we saw a sign that said Heavy Plant Crossing. This usually wasn’t on the main highways but we later found out it meant lumber trucks crossing, so in a sense, heavy plants. Our three maps of Ireland were deficient in different ways. The one from CAA only showed major routes and everything is a minor route in Ireland. The best map had roads going where they didn’t, roads missing, and sites not exactly where they really were. You cannot have too detailed of a map for Ireland, even if it is a small country.

So, we drove into Belfast with no city map, a scary prospect after the maze of Dublin. But we found downtown (reminded me of Edmonton with the type of streets and construction going on), drove in circles for a bit and then parked, by sheer luck, across from the tourist information center (a large “i”) so we did some internet posting, then got a map and yes, you guessed it, it was not accurate for Belfast. The woman drew lines to the Crown Liquor Saloon, the only place we were going to see as we were now shy of hanging around in the big cities. But of course she said go this way on a street that turned out to be a one way the other way. And you know what one ways are like when you’re lost. You’re always going the wrong direction. And we drove around and around and around and couldn’t find this world famous Victorian saloon.

Finally I stopped by a taxi and told my sister to ask him. He was so nice that he actually just led us there and then pointed. And still we drove back and forth, because the saloon was under renovations and we couldn’t see it for the scaffolding. Arrrghh! But we found it and it was truly beautiful, with warm wood booths and pillars. The pillars had little carved lions and griffins holding shields and in all, there were only about six booths with lovely wooden doors and stained glass. Each booth had a metal plate that said Matches. We were talking to this man and woman and he said that at the turn of the century that was where people struck their matches when smoking. Ireland (both republic and north) are smoke free environments inside establishments, just like BC.

This guy also regaled us with politics and told us the only reason Dublin was considered dirty was because the tourists litter, not the locals. I kept my mouth shut but later saw what the Irish college crowd is like in Kilkenny and the streets were littered. Belfast itself was very modern in the downtown core. We got lost (of course) getting out and the area we were in was a little rougher, but no sign at all of all the chaos of recent years gone by.

We then drove through to Ballycastle. Bally means “bay,” so we passed many a place name Bally this and Bally that. It is a resort town and we did the usual, park and go into a pub for a drink. This was very much a sports bar and rugby is on every screen (or is it soccer–I mix them up). There was a man at the bar could have been my friend Terri Fleming’s brother; similar hair and skin color, and looks. The Flemings (once Flemish of course) ended up in Ireland by way of many routes and the Scots.

On the outskirts of the town, right beside a golf course are the ruins of Bonamargy Friary. Built around the early 1500s it houses many graves of the MacDonnells, the past chieftains of Ulster and Antrim and is still in the same family to this day. The most famous was Sorley Boy (an Anglicization) and his brothers who ruled and repelled the English. The MacDonnells married the MacQuillans to quell the past Lords of the Route. Turns out the one headstone I took a picture of is rumoured to be the Black Nun of Bonamargy’s resting place, Julie MacQuillan who was said to have made seven prophesies.

From the pictures you can tell it was dusk and we weren’t having any luck with finding the B&B the pub recommended. We went back and tried to call three places but duh, you dial first, then stick the money in and if you’re not fast enough, it cuts you off. And then you have to keep adding coins to keep talking. We goofed so bad the pub owner helped us, and one B&B just called back because we got cut off. Eventually in full darkness we found Clare house, after having to knock on someone’s door and scare them in the dark. We unpacked and went back to town for dinner. Some pubs have restaurants upstairs and I don’t know the name of the place we ate at but it was very modern in design and high end. It was a Sunday so there weren’t a lot of places open. A bit pricey but very good.

It was late and we were tired so we drove back after eating and hit the sack.

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