Playing with fire

Thank God that’s over. The temptation has passed.

This time of year reminds me of the early ‘80s in Charlottetown. I had just gotten my drivers license and was discovering mobility and sudden popularity in a province with no public transit. It was inevitable that stupid things would ensue, so mid-January weekend wee hours often included screaming through the streets of old neighbourhoods around Victoria Park, headlights off, with at least two people leaning far out the passenger window of my step-dad’s lime green ’82 Cutlass Supreme, flicking lit wooden matches at tinder dry Christmas trees that were discarded at the end of driveways.

The up side is we weren’t drunk. Honestly, I wasn’t really even aware of alcohol until I landed on the beaches of southern France for second-year university (that’s another story entirely). Tree torching was fuelled by long nights hanging with friends, drinking coffee and eating pita sandwiches with wedge fries at Cedars Eatery, which 30 years later remains Charlottetown’s best Lebanese restaurant. Back then I spent more time at Cedars than in school, yet I didn’t discover shish taouk until the mid-nineties. Shame.

As the caffeine-addled driver, it was my job to swerve close enough to the curb so that the matches would arc and drop deep into the dry needles. I’d already established myself, at least with my family, as a bit of a pyromaniac, having lit several grass fires by the tender age of twelve in the open fields behind my house in Winsloe. I used to love how neighbours would dash from their bungalows as the delicate licks of flame danced with the wind across the tips of sun-browned April field weed. One little spark could become a rapidly advancing line of fire a few hundred feet wide in a matter of seconds. Nothing brought the community out faster than a grass fire. Everyone suddenly had a flat spade beating the flames back from BBQ tanks and cedar decks. Up until that point in my life, I had felt no greater power. And I still love the smell of a good grass fire – fragrant, sweet and familiar.

Back in the Cutlass, we knew that tree torching would be sudden and violent, but we figured that needle fires would also be short. And since Christmas trees were at the end of driveways, half-buried in snow, the risk of collateral damage would be relatively low.

But we never found out. No trees burst into flame. Looking back, the fun was in the flicking. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.

A few years later, on graduation day from Colonel Gray high school, I was met in my homeroom class by two police officers. They hauled me off to the principal’s office. The plywood smoking shelter that was built to protect smokers from the cold (imagine that) had been set on fire the night before. The police had determined that the fire was started with my math scribblers.

“Why would I light a fire at school with my own scribblers?” I asked. I was released.

They never found out who did it. I really hated math.

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