As my dad got older, he suffered from neuropathy in his feet. He was perfectly able to drive, but he walked precariously, like timber ready to fall with any crosswind. His mix of vehicular mobility and personal immobility was a deadly combination. He could drive a hundred miles if the mood struck him but couldn’t walk a quarter mile if something went wrong. So, of course, one day he decided it would be a fine idea to take out a whole grove of Russian olive trees. With fire. To be fair, I don’t know if the plan was his or that of the buddy he roped into its execution. I do know that my dad once talked his cousin Laird into launching a milk can into the stratosphere with dynamite, so I have my suspicions.
The trees weren’t his trees, let us be clear. They certainly weren’t on his land, but they lined the three-quarter-mile dirt road leading back to his house. They grew gray-green and uninhibited in the marshy low places that run alongside the canal there, and they drove him nuts. Again, not his trees, but he took their existence personally. They taunted him. He had spent his whole life fighting a valiant if futile battle against Russian olive encroachment, only to find in his retirement years that they were sneaking up behind him on his unprotected flank.
So, one fateful morning, without warning, he drove into town and rented a propane weed burner. He hooked it to his tractor, and he and the neighbor started lighting the world on fire. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen, but what did happen was the fire department paid him a visit just before he and his buddy took out southern Idaho. And the consequences for the mad men with the propane burner, no water and no escape plan? Not a darn thing. Dad wasn’t even cited. According to him (admittedly as unreliable a source as any to be found), the firefighters completely sympathized with the Rulon Gilbert Russian Olive Annihilation Project. That doesn’t mean he went entirely unpunished. The neighbor lady had been feeding a pride of feral cats living and multiplying in the Russian olive forest, and she was horrified when she found the trees lit up like the Fourth of July. I understand she gave Dad a taste of the Final Judgement.
Russian olives burn hot, and they burn long, so Dad’s little escapade left a scorched and smoking mess. The drive to his house for a year after was through a ghastly, black, half-burned, stumpy, hellish landscape. According to me. “Dave,” I said one day as we drove through it, “what about this looks better? I would much rather have the living trees than the dead stumps and black soot everywhere! And what would have happened to Dad if he had gotten caught up in the fire? He couldn’t even run away! This could have been a real tragedy.”
Dave looked at me like I was half crazy and said, “It looks a whole lot better than it did before your dad took care of it.”
And that is the difference between me and the men in my life. To them, fire is a solution. To me, fire – I should say specifically fire in their hands – is a threat. If the world ends in a firestorm, there’s more than a 50% chance that a member of my family will have started it. I’m not naming any names, but my father is not the only man among my relations to bring out the big red trucks.
The bond between men and fire remains a mystery to me. Few things make Dave as happy as cleaning something out by burning it to the ground. On a damp spring day when the wind is blowing right, the ditch banks and borrow pits are his playground. Of course, weeds aren’t the only flammable things he sets alight. We’ve almost ended our marriage several times over the fact that I am not allowed to have cardboard boxes. In the weeks before fruit harvest or Christmas, I have to watch him like a hawk because he’ll burn anything that I haven’t specifically threatened him over. We borrowed some really nice moving boxes from our neighbors one year while we were remodeling the house. The family was very generous and only asked that we give the boxes back when we were done. Of course, I was extremely nervous about their lifespan on Coleman’s Farm of Fire, so I fully planned to tell David that they were sacred vessels, not to be meddled with. Of course, I didn’t act quickly enough. They were ashes to ashes and dust to dust before I even knew they had been unpacked.
I just cannot outmaneuver him. Come birthdays and Christmas, about the time everyone else is sitting down for cake and ice cream or figgy pudding, where’s Dave? He’s out burning boxes and wrapping paper in the back field. I’ve given up ever returning anything. Just be warned, in this house, if you unwrap something and take it out of the box, it’s yours. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, if it’s the wrong color, or if you already have three. You can’t return it because Dave has already burned the box, the instructions, the warranty and probably some of the parts.
On the other hand, if you’re up for a hot dog roast in December, I know just the place to send you.