When I was about four or five, the woods behind the house caught on fire. Now these were mature woods, mostly pines, and the forest floor was covered in straw. Really, this was all that was on fire – the pine straw. The forest giants, their bases rooted in flames, really didn’t seem to care. But it was up to us – the whole neighborhood – to go into the forest to put this fire out.

It must have been a really big thing, because my mom came in and got me and my brother, dragging us into the smoky woods to fight this thing – and as I mentioned, I was only about four or five, and my brother six or seven. Everybody was out there, and I remember in the middle of this fire was a really big burning haystack of pine straw. Of course, being a little kid I’m sure it appeared much bigger than it actually was. And I – my brother and I, that is – were instructed to go around stomping out the little fires that kept appearing as drifting embers from the blaze settled across the woods; to go over the burned spots, and stomping on the dancing flames, put the fires out. Meanwhile the grownups are running around, pretty much doing the same thing.

We had tennis shoes on, my brother and I, and it didn’t take long for our feet to start getting a little hot. The gray smoke drifted through the woods like a wafting fog; choking you sometimes, then letting you go free, your eyes stinging from its touch. Some of the grownups had brooms and shovels, and were beating frantically at the worst of the fire, going into flames we dared not touch – they were taller than my waist in some places. So I ran around like a little frog, dancing on the flames, feeling my feet grow hotter and hotter, and occasionally smelling the scent of burnt rubber. I didn’t dare stop – this was an obvious emergency, plus my mother had told me to do this. You didn’t tell momma no, not for anything – not if you valued your life. Literally. (Okay, there’s a reason for that – but that’s another story altogether!)

Anyway, here I am playing ‘duck’ (we call it ‘duck’ now, based on the old joke about why ducks and elephants have flat feet – to stamp out forest fires) – and I glance up to see my brother whaling away at a fan of flames with a pine branch. Only the end he’s flailing is covered in pine needles, and they are catching fire. Noticing the bursting flames, Bro’ throws the branch to the ground (setting another fire), goes and picks up another branch, and begins flailing away again. Stomping on the little flames, I make my way over to him and TRY to tell him (as he slings the flaming branch to the ground, starting another fire) that he’s making a mistake; that he’s doing no good; that he’s only making things worse.

But he’s my older brother. Do older brothers ever take anything their younger brothers say seriously? (He still doesn’t.) Do they ever listen to reason?

Hell no.

He just pushes me away, harshly tells me to leave him alone, finds another branch, and begins beating at the fire again. And of course it eventually bursts into flames, he throws it aside (starting another little fire, which I go rushing to put out), picks up another branch . . . and continues on.

Suddenly this heavyset black lady emerges from the choking fog. Her eyes are red-rimmed – and not just from smoke. There’s a fire in them that has nothing to do with the fire in front of us. She storms over to my brother like a big old bowling ball, snatches him by the shoulder (mid-stroke, branch still flaming) and asks him, “What are you doing?!”

He looks at her with this smirk of contempt, and turning back to beat at the flames, snidely tells her, “I’m putting out the fire.”

She watches him as he slings the now blazing branch aside and goes and picks up another one.

“You can’t put out the fire with that!” she hollers as he begins flaying at the ground again. “Look what you are doing!” She points to where the branch he’d thrown down has now sprouted into a semi-minor blaze. I’m dancing around, trying to put it out and keep my wary eyes on this big woman. She’d dressed in one of those flowing cotton print dresses with the red stripes and white squares; somewhat faded and threadworn. Typical Southern dress.

My brother looks over at where I’m dancing, a sort of languid, who-gives-a-poop gaze, looks back up at her, shrugs, and goes back to beating at the flames. The needle covered branch, bursting into flames is thrown aside, and as he bends down and reaches for another –

She bends down and snatches him up by the back of her shirt, and as I’m watching (okay, smirking a little bit), begins beating his behind with a big beefy hand. The ‘twacks!’, much louder than the crackle of flames or yelling of men, are punctuated by his yelps, and she beats him until he cries, then drops him back down onto his feet with a stern look.

“Now you get yo’ ass over there and stomp out that fire like a good boy!” she thunders, then with a red-rimmed look at me, she rolls off – presumably looking for another victim.

As for me – well, I had a hard time not laughing. A really hard time.

After all, you didn’t want to laugh at my brother. He had a temper nearly as bad as mine – and my mom’s.

Only his turned out to be more deadly in the end.

But that’s another story altogether.

 

Lesson?

I reckon its an example of “it takes a village to raise a child” – along with “it takes a village to put out a forest fire.” Even if you have to call on the children.

And whale on them a few times.

 

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