I hate to admit it, but this happened to me way back in 1980–
A few years after graduating from college, I returned to my folks home to
retrieve a considerable number of storage boxes that I had left with them.
These boxes were filled with books, course notes, old homework projects,
etc that I had kept. I decided to weed throught them and eliminate as much
junk as I could.
Not having the heart to dump all that hard work into the garbage, I decided
to grab a six-pack, settle down in front of the downstairs fire place and
ceremoniously burn four years worth of college memorabilia. I managed to
get through about five of the 15 or so boxes piled around me when I realized
I could not possibly sort through each box page-by-page. In the interest
of time, I decided to do a cursory scan of the contents to determine if
anything ‘jumped out’ as worth saving. Well, box number six appeared to be
loaded with Psychology and Logic 101 junk so I took the short cut and tossed
the whole box on the funeral pyre before me.
I popped open beer number four and watched the box smolder. Raising the
can, I gave one last salute to those two unmemorable courses as the box
erupted into a roaring inferno.
The papers were consumed rapidly.
So were the ancient contents of the dresser drawer that I had hastily
dropped into the bottom of that box when packing two years earlier. Dang,
I had forgotten all about that stuff. The toothbrush and hairbrush went
up rather well…..also that packet of disposable plastic razors, dental
floss and contact lense case and a bunch of junk I don’t even remember. Of
course, I didn’t even know that stuff was going up in smoke as I sat there.
Just chugged the beer and watched. It burned great…right down to that full
can of deodorant that was in there with it all.
I had gotten about half the beer down when that deodorant can finally
decided it had had enough. What happened next I can only compare to the
scene from “2001” where that Dave Bowman guy is falling through all those
lights with that ‘o shit’ look on his face. I heard a BOOM so loud that my
brain only registered it as a high-pitched squeal. The contents of the
fireplace right down to the last ash were propelled out with such velocity
that all I could see were a multitude of bright streaks emanating from a
point about three feet in front of me (ala 2001). Big blue shock wave
knocked me back. Spill the beer? You bet. Caught me off guard? He–
yes. Felt like I jumped on a live grenade? Guess so. One second I was
watching that inferno burn from the outside, the next second I was watching
it from the inside.
The human brain reverts to ‘primordial slime’ mode when thrown into a
situation like this. All higher-order functions vaporize. Guess it’s all
those endorphines and endomorphines hitting it at once. It took a couple
of seconds to get the ‘reasoning’ capability of my brain back online. I
jumped up, looked at my hands and feet, touched my face and realized that
I was indeed intact. Holy Cow, I was completely untouched. Not even a soot
mark on me. Although I might possibly qualify as a human cannon ball, there
would be no Richard Pryor imitation tonight, folks.
I looked throught the thick smoke toward the fireplace. What WAS a 6-inch
deep accumulation of one winter’s ashes was now squeaky clean. Blasted it
right out. All those burning embers were now sitting on the deep-pile
carpet behind me. ALL over the room. I grabbed the little shovel from the
fireplace set and scooped as fast as I could. As soon as I filled the
shovel, I’d run to the fireplace, empty it and run back. Some embers were
30 feet down the hall. I guess I set the Guiness World Record for “Hot
ember pickup with a little shovel” in those next few minutes. I did manage
to avoid setting my folks house on fire, and the carpet only had one or two
real serious melted spots on it. I DID find the deodorant can too- it had
left the fireplace at some ungodly serious velocity, hit the wall at the
far end of the room and come to rest directly behind where I was sitting.
Dang thing was split wide open along the weld and peeled back almost flat.
Burned black, too. Looked like re-entry junk.
After I got the Fire Marshal Bill stuff under control, I grabbed beer number
five, popped the top and thought about how I was gonna get the remaining
mess cleaned up. Close examination revealed that everything was coated with
a heavy layer of ash. Heck, a vacuum cleaner will get this stuff up no
Gee, how lucky could I be? I didn’t get decapitated, the house is still on
its foundation, I got a GREAT story for the grandkids and the cleanup is
gonna be a cinch. I grabbed my mom’s upright out of the closet and started
Ever have one of those split-seconds of consciousness when you realize you
survived something really bad but you sense that it’s not quite over yet?
Well, I never have, but I wish I had felt that way at this point. Would
have clued me in as to what was about to happen.
There I was, sucking up ashes with an upright vacuum. Too bad not all of
them were cold. That upright vacuum swallowed ONE LITTLE ITTY BITTY HOT
EMBER that was sitting there on the carpet. It flew right up inside it and
sat on that big ol’ pile of carpet lint way up in that bag. Heck, that bag
hadn’t been emptied in a long time. And all that air rushing in there made
that little bitty hot ember REAL happy. Next thing I know, the side of that
vacuum is glowing red hot. By the time I figured out what was happening,
there was a two foot flame blowing out a hole in the side. It really looked
and sounded sorta pretty, like a fighter jet on full afterburner. Diamond
shock pattern and all.
Again, my brain reverted to primordial slime mode. All higher-order
functions ceased and all I remember thinking was “T-h-r-o-w v-a-c-u-u-m”.
I pitched it as hard as I could towards the open basement door, hoping it
would make it to the patio outside. The distance was about 20 feet. In
slowmotion it looked like one of those old NASA films where the rocket goes
psycho right off the launch pad. There it was, sailing brush end first with
a nice slow roll…fire belching out the side. As the unbilical pulled out
of the wall, the flame settled into a long trail of sparks. The vehicle
had plenty of initial velocity and it looked like a good downrange
trajectory……..right up to the point it passed throught the plate glass
window to the right side of the door.
Yep, I swear this happened as written.