With news of the 38,000-acre fire out in Santa Clarita having been started by a 10-year-old boy playing with matches my first impulse was a desire to see the kid and his parents and even the family dog prosecuted to the full extent of the law — and if the law wasn’t severe enough then enact one that is and make it retroactive and put ’em all away and/or make restitution a monkey on their collective back for a loooooooong time.
Then I remembered back when I almost became that kid, albeit the only thing I almost burned down was a garage. And I was older by a year or two, but just as stupid. See back in that day living on Holly Drive near the base of the Hollywood Hills I was almost as much into building model planes as I was into eventually destroying them. I’d buy those Revell kits from the Hollywood Toy Store bring ’em back home and attempt to construct them as meticulously as they appeared on the boxtops. And when I’d inevitably fail to replicate such perfection I might display them for a while or hang them in a mock dogfight from the ceiling in my room, but ultimately they were destined to crash and burn in one big beautiful ball of flame.
When I’d done it in the past it had been out in the open — maybe an alleyway or a vacant lot. I’d trundle the planes outside with me and one of my mom’s lighters, set a wing or tail on fire and toss them across the sky in a wonderous smoking/flaming arc to their point of impact with the planet where they’d melt and smolder (and one time I learned the painful lesson not to stamp out burning plastic with bare feet).
But on this occasion and for a failure of logic and common sense I can only ascribe to being a dumbass kid, the location for my conflagration was going to be behind the apartment building I lived in and inside the multi-car garage — stucco on the outside but all aged open wood framing and beams on the inside.
I did have some glimmer of understanding that the resulting pire of whatever miniature legendary WWII aircraft being destroyed would be small enough not to negatively impact the structure, and sure enough after it caught a flame and made its final voyage to its crashing place on the concrete floor of the garage, it produced more fizzling smoke than fire. And that’s where the real stupidity set in. Because all of a sudden I wanted there to be a lot of fire, and dang if the nearby stack of old newspapers wouldn’t do that trick.
Now at this point if this were a “Davey & Goliath” episode, Goliath would either show up and say “WTF Davey!” or Davey himself would contemplate what Jesus might do or generally there’d be some sort of “hand of god” device that would give Davey a clue and avert disaster. But this wasn’t TV, this was just some bored afterschool latchkey idiot pre-teen with what he needed at his disposal to unwittingly burn a muzzafuzzin’ garage down.
Luckily and thankfully the fantastically mesmerizing six-foot leaping flames I fueled by feeding the fire copious crumpled pages of the L.A. Times, came up a foot or so short of being able to lick the roofbeams, and no lingering embers alighted long enough along the exposed studs or leaked-oil patches to ignite, and thus I did not burn down anything and potentially rechart the rest of my childhood by having to do a stretch in juvenile hall as a blooming firebug. Incorrigible punk? Yes. Arsonist? Please.
In my weakass defense, with the flames dancing a couple feet above my four-foot-something head and the resulting smoke getting pretty dense, there was something inside that broke through all that rampant stupidity and said “OK, that’s enough now. Stop. No, really. STOP building a fire inside a building.” And so I did and the flames died down until I tamped them out as the smoke cleared until there was nothing left but a solidifying puddle of plastic on the concrete that had once been a hastily crafted and poorly detailed P-51 Mustang or a German Folke Wulf or a Japanese Zero.
Back into the apartment I went with no one the wiser and instead of my young life taking a horrible and regrettable detour, instead I probably watched reruns of “Wild Wild West” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” until my mom got home from work later that afternoon and made dinner and then later I went to bed and the next day I went to school and life went on. To my credit, that was the last model airplane I ever destroyed.
My belabored point: I’m not at all trying to excuse the kid responsible for causing such a vast swath of destruction across Santa Clarita, I’m just trying to keep it in perspective. Us young ones don’t mean harm most of the time. What we do are senseless things with radar that isn’t yet developed enough to identify care or concern for the consequences. For every major brushfire that burns out of control there are thousands of garages that don’t. I’m trying to remember that instead of wanting this boy’s head on a platter.