Saturday, February 13, 2010

Parsippany is Burning

It all started in a quiet NJ suburb, in a time called The 70's.  And it all took place over a 2 or 3-year period.  Mother and Father told me never to play with matches, but I was fascinated with the words:  "close before striking".  I think it was the word "striking" that appealed to me.  I liked the idea of striking a match.  Maybe I just liked the idea of striking and that's why Richie and I had so many knock-down fights early on in our relationship.  Actually, he enjoyed provoking me because he knew how to get me mad and I'd jump on him; I fell for it every time.  Don't get me wrong, it was not an abusive period of our relationship and I'm not blaming him (although he would say stuff like, "What's the matter, tough guy?  You call that a punch??").  It's just that there is always that thin line.  Every fight ended us up in bed because, you know, it was the next logical step.  Just look at the popularity of the UFC.  Or Sam and Diane on Cheers.  There is a primitive psychosexual connection.

But I'm getting off track.  My childhood fascination with matches and their ability to create fire is where I was heading.  But it wasn't just fire on its own; I combined it with my interest in architecture.  No, I didn't burn down neighborhood houses.  I would build my own houses from small (usually shoe) boxes.  I would spend a few days building these homes.  Using old fabric or rags to make carpets and drapes.  Using packaging material, toothpicks, cotton and found objects for furniture.  Each house was fully furnished, with art on the walls (tiny reproductions of classic paintings, framed in toothpicks).

Once the homes were completed, then came the best part -- taking them outside on the patio and setting them on fire.  It was the construction/destruction process that intrigued me.  Sometimes the fire would start in the kitchen, sometimes in the bedroom.  But I grew a little bored with the slow and incomplete burning of the homes, until I discovered that a little of Dad's lighter fluid dabbed in a few areas of the homes made for a raging inferno of total destruction.  I needed to feel the heat of the flames.  Soon, the model homes had to be bigger.  Multiple boxes were connected and stacked to create bigger dwellings with separate rooms and multi-level residences.  The bigger the house, the bigger the fire, so I had to eventually take it from the patio to the end of the back yard near the lake.  I didn't want to burn our real house down and I didn't want Mom to know.
My birthday with Mom and Dad.  Who doesn't like a cake on fire?

This was all done during the warm summer months and I waited until Mom and Dad were not around.  I always had the garden hose on and ready for fire duty (I may have been playing with fire but I was also a boy scout, so safety came first).  Wait, I just remembered that I once did a winter fire using a Swiss ski chalet that I'd built as an art class project in school.  I created mini-mountains out of snow and placed the chalet among them.  The fire began at sunset and was over quickly.  The charred remains were buried in the snow, leaving no trace of a blaze.  It was the perfect crime.

Except for the first few, I never did the burning alone.  After I had made an art form of these events, I would always invite a friend or one of my sisters to watch with me.  One year for my birthday, one of my sisters and her friend bought me real doll house furniture so that I wouldn't have to construct all the furnishings from scratch each time.  They bought metal and plastic items so that they could hopefully be used more than once.  With a little reupholstery and some paint, I was able to reuse them a few times until the plastic pieces became too melted and misshapen.  To replace them, all I had to do was take my bike for a ride down to the end of Intervale Road where one of the best toy stores stood.  Man, this store had everything.  My favorite things to save money for were Matchbox Hot Wheels cars.  It seemed that every month they had new models out and it was such a turn-on for me to go shopping for a new vehicle.  The Saturday morning commercials would get me revved up to want the latest cars. 

Cars and trucks still get me going.  Now that I think about it, I guess it was a good thing I never sexualized the fires.  That could have become a real problem later on, right?

One of the last burning events I did was my houseboat.  I made it from balsa wood; it was quite large and contained very little furniture.  I loved that houseboat; it was a perfect burn.  I lit a birthday candle in one end of the cabin and at the other end, I placed a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol.  (Dad had hidden his lighter fluid....I'm not sure why.)   There was a trail of tissue paper that lead from the candle to the cotton ball.  The plan was that once the candle burned down, it would light the tissue paper, which would in turn lead the flame to the cotton ball and ignite the alcohol.

The houseboat moved silently through the water of the lake and once it got about 20 feet out, it burst into flames and sunk.  The small group of kids that came to watch reverently applauded.  And that was pretty much my last event.  I remember doing a few more houses with firecrackers after that but they didn't have the same destructive or emotional impact.  Those just looked like explosions had occurred in small areas of the homes.  Little by little, the lure of the flame burned out.

I found out recently, when I confessed this childhood activity to my mother, that she'd been well aware of what I was doing and had monitored my events carefully from the kitchen window, always wondering if and when she was going to have to seek professional help for me.  She says that she felt better about it once I started to invite others to watch the burnings; she was relieved that, at the very least, I wasn't retreating into a secret world of my own.

I'm going to guess that my next life's fascination was fitness magazines.  I'll save that story for another day.


  1. Nice! Is it something about NJ? I grew up in nearby Livingston, and we used to build model cars (and planes and trucks, etc.) from kits and then burn them using the glue as accelerant. The would-be architect in me likes your fully-furnished houses much more, but it's something of the same impulse.

  2. God, I loved my Matchbox cars. That is until my neighbor Tricia and I decided that they'd be better as convertibles and so we whipped them against the wall, creating some sort of JG Ballard/Crash fantasy (though we'd grown a little older by that point and so had stopped exploring each other's bodies).

  3. we want to see both of u guys naked!!

  4. Funny, I also am from Parsippany! Yes, Matchbox cars were a lot of fun - but, I was too chicken to ever think of setting anything on fire!

  5. Glue as an accelerant, now why didn't I think of that Steve?

    I did like the film Crash Ken, not sure why...

    Hello fellow Parsippanian!


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