So Many Secrets, part 5: Playing with Fire
If you were to ask my mom when was the first moment she worried that I might be headed down the wrong path, maybe to a life of crime, she would have a couple events to choose from. She might tell you about the time in the summer before I entered 3rd grade when I decided to play with fire.
We had recently moved from a trailer court on the edge of town to a new house in the city of Minot. It was a modest 1 ½ story house just blocks from my grandparents’ house, and to a family less-fortunate, it would be considered a little slice of heaven. The boundary to our backyard was the right field corner of a baseball diamond, and us kids could sit on top of my parents’ garage and watch the baseball games. Across the street from our house was the expansive front lawn of Roosevelt Park, the city’s most impressive public park, and we played football and frisbee there often. At night we were often lulled to sleep by the roaring of lions from the Roosevelt Park Zoo, and when we were bored, we would go swimming at the pool with the affordable season passes our parents bought us every summer.
We were relatively new to the neighborhood as residents, but our new house was so close to my grandparents’ house that I knew a few kids already when we moved in. It was on a summer day in the middle of a dry spell that I ended up hanging out with a friend named Jeff who was a year older than me and we had a book of matches. I don’t remember where we got them, if they were mine or his, but we shouldn’t have had them since we were too young to have any legitimate use for matches, and we certainly shouldn’t have been playing with them.
Our adventure that day took us to an area up the block from my house, in the spot between the center field wall of the baseball diamond–Corbett Field–and a house perched atop the hill overlooking it. The slope from the base of the wall to the house on the hill was covered in dry grass and weed growth, a dangerous place to play with matches. I remember taking a match from the book and striking it. I dropped it in the grass and watched as a small circle of fire spread through the brush, but before it got too big, I did a little dance on it and stomped it out with my sneakers.
“Let me try,” Jeff said, and I handed him the matches.
He did the same thing I had, and after the fire burned for about 5 seconds, we both did the fire dance and stomped it out.
“Okay,” I said, and took the book of matches back from Jeff. “Let’s let this one get bigger,” I said, with no thought of the consequences.
I took a match from the book, struck it and tossed it in the grass. We let it burn for 5 seconds, then 10, and just as we were about to stomp like crazy and put it out, a light gust of wind blew across the slope and the one small spot of fire was suddenly a large circle of black with 5 or 6 small fires burning around its edge. Jeff and I stomped like mad, but each time we put out a small spot of fire, three more spots had popped up, and the flames had grown. The fire we had so easily stomped out moments earlier under our tennis shoes was now knee-high and licked up around our pant legs. When the flames waved in front of my face the first time and I felt the heat in my nostrils, I knew I had done a very bad thing.
“Shit!” I yelled and sprinted off the burning slope to the upwind safety of a bike path, and Jeff followed. We surveyed the burning grass, growing by the minute, and had no idea what to do, so we ran.
We were about a block down the street when we looked back and we could see flames 6 or 8 feet tall as they consumed the slope. We discussed what were were going to do next and the likelihood of whether the fire would burn itself out, and another kid from the neighborhood who had climbed a tree so he could see over the wall and watch the game going on in the baseball diamond heard us talking.
“When we get to my house, we’ll call the fire department,” I said.
We continued on our way to my house which was still another block away. In the meantime, the kid who overheard us talking climbed out of the tree and raced up the block to the scene of the fire. I would find out later that he grabbed the garden hose attached to the house at the top of the slope and tried to put the fire out. By the time Jeff and I arrived at my house, we could hear sirens approaching in the distance. The fire trucks were already on the way, so we forgot about calling 911 and continued through Roosevelt Park to Jeff’s house. We thought we would lay low there for awhile and wait for the whole thing to blow over, but about 15 minutes later there was a knock on the door. The neighborhood kid who had overheard us talking knew both of us and knew where we lived.
“I told on you guys,” he said to Jeff as I hid around the corner, out of sight. “I heard what you guys were talking about. You started that fire.” Jeff tried to deny it, but there was no way out of it. The kid had already stopped at my house and told my mom what we had done. Jeff’s parents weren’t home, but they would find out, too.
I immediately headed home, knowing I was likely in big trouble. The fire department had arrived to the scene of the fire and put it out without too much trouble, but I had come dangerously close to burning down someone’s house (ironically, it was the house of a kid who would later become my childhood best friend and whose family had just survived a house fire a few years before) and when I arrived home, my mom was just coming out of the house to look for me.
“Troy, where have you been?” she demanded.
“Me and Jeff were playing,” I said.
“Playing with what?” she yelled. “MATCHES?”
I began to cry, caught, with no way out, and I got a withering ass-chewing, a couple deserved spankings, first from my mom, and then from my dad when he got home, and I was informed I would be grounded to the yard for 6 weeks, minimum. It was the first time in my life when the man who had legally adopted me looked at me from behind his tinted brown eyeglasses with a gaze that showed confusion, disgust and fear — not fear like he was afraid of me but fear like what the fuck is wrong with this kid — like he wondered what I might do next. The next day, the Minot Fire Chief came to my house to have a talk with me about playing with fire, the danger I had caused for anyone who lived in the area, and some unintended consequences that I hadn’t thought about.
“When we’re on our way to a fire,” the chief told me, “we’re driving fast, and it’s dangerous. What if your mom or your grandma was out driving and didn’t hear us coming? There could be an accident, and someone you love could be hurt.”
He was absolutely right, of course, and I had done a terribly dangerous thing. I was absolutely ashamed and embarrassed, and I would carry a brand from the experience for years. Nobody else knew the details that I’ve just shared with you. They just knew I had started a fire, and when my mom said “He was playing with matches and it got out of control,” they likely thought it was just a mom covering up for her son. When word got out what I had done, there were whispers, from people within my family and from neighbors and strangers.
What kind of person starts fires?
I wondered myself, quite a bit actually. I hadn’t intentionally started a fire. I knew what I had a done was an accident, a stupid accident, but an accident nonetheless, but the talk from those around me made me wonder. Is there something wrong with me? How could I do something so stupid? In reality, I had a problem with impulse control and understanding the consequences of my actions that I wouldn’t comprehend until many years later. In the months that followed that summer, neighborhood parents told their kids to stay away from me, and I wasn’t allowed to play with Jeff anymore.
Maybe my mom would tell you that was the moment she started to wonder about me, whether something was seriously amiss. The fire incident of 1978. It was alarming to her, I know, but I never played with matches again after that and I’ve had a very healthy respect for fire ever since. If the fire didn’t do it, though, she would find herself wondering and worrying again about three years later when I stole money from her.
I came down from my bedroom to go to school one morning and my mom had already left for work. On the kitchen table she had fanned-out $700 cash in fifties and hundreds and weighted it down with a roll of lead solder that she used for her stained glass hobby. She had left the money for my dad to drop off at the bank. I was in the sixth grade and I had never seen so much cash in all my life.
I stood there and stared at the money, lifted the edge of one crisp bill then let it fall back flat against the table.
“They wouldn’t miss one bill,” I thought, like an idiot. I stood there for a long time, pondering all the things I could do with some of that money. I reached out and took a 50-dollar bill, stuck it in the inside pocket of my coat, and headed off to school.
That day in class, I showed the fifty to a kid sitting next to me, as if he would be impressed that I had so much money. My teacher caught a glimpse of me showing off my small fortune.
“Troy, where did you get that much money?” she questioned.
I lied and told her I had been saving up my allowance. If I’d had a brain in my head, I would have backed out right then. Somebody had seen me with the money. I should have gone home after school, handed over the money and told my parents that I found it in the grass in the back yard or something. I didn’t. Instead, I thought about all the things I wanted to do with the money and how much I wanted my friends to like me. I would be generous with the money.
After school that day I went with some of my friends to the fast food place across the street from my house, a place called Jiffy James, cashed the fifty and got a roll of quarters. For the next couple of hours we played video games in the restaurant’s arcade, and it was raining quarters. Every time one of my friends needed some more quarters, I’d give them some and we’d continue playing. We ate french fries and drank sodas and had a great time, and I paid for it all with money I would later discover my parents had earmarked for the house payment.
A couple hours later I ended up at another place, a cafe called Dusty’s that was about a block away, and we continued our party there, playing video games and munching on goodies. I went to the candy counter and bought a pack of Bubblicious, stuffed a couple blocks of the tasty gum in my mouth, and gave each of my friends a piece.
When it was time to go home, I hadn’t yet exhausted the fifty dollars I had stolen from my parents. I had 13 dollars left — a ten dollar bill, and 3 dollars in quarters — but it was getting dark and I had to go. I hopped on my bike and rode home, but when I got there, my parents had left a note that they were at my grandparents’ house, so I rode through the park to their place, dropped my bike on the lawn, and bounded up the steps two-at-a-time, running on endorphins and sugar from the great time I’d been having. Everybody was thrilled with me that day because I had been paying for everything, and I felt a rush from everybody wanting to be my friend.
I walked into the living room of my grandparents’ house and my mom and dad were sitting there, chatting with my grandparents, actually discussing the fifty dollars that had gone missing that day. Everybody seemed to be relaxed and I thought I was in the clear. I heard my dad tell my grandpa that he had been so puzzled by what had happened to the mystery fifty dollars that he had actually thrown a one dollar bill on the ground in the backyard to see if it would blow away, wondering whether he had accidentally dropped a fifty.
I stood there, listened to the conversation and chomped on my double wad of Bubblicious gum, but in hindsight, there was something about my Dad’s demeanor that makes me think he suspected me all along.
He looked over at me from the recliner in the corner of the room.
“You got gum?” he asked. “Gimme a piece.”
Without a moment’s hesitation I reached into the inside pocket of my coat to retrieve a piece of the Bubblicious gum, and when I did, the three dollars in quarters I had left jingled in my pocket. His gaze locked on me like a fighter pilot targeting a bogey and he extended one arm and made the come hither gesture with one finger.
“Come here,” he said in a stern tone.
I’m not lying when I say, I knew right at that moment that I was busted. His tone left no doubt to me that he knew what I had done and I had been caught. I approached him and he reached into my inside coat pocket and took out the money.
“Where did you get this?” he asked. “Whose money is this?” My mom and my grandparents were paying attention at that point, and I said the only thing I could think of to say.
“It’s Mark’s money,” I said. “He just asked me to hold it for him because he didn’t have pockets.” It was a horseshit excuse and I knew it, and my parents weren’t gonna let me get away with it.
“We have to go,” my dad said, and out the door we went.
The most shameful part of this story, the part that still makes me flush with embarrassment to this day, is that I didn’t just come clean right then and admit what I had done. No, like a 12-year-old who thought he could get away with something because you can’t prove it, I continued to deny it. So my parents went all the way with it.
They went to Jiffy James and Lance, the proprietor, said “Yeah, he cashed a fifty in here this afternoon.”
My mom came back out to the car and said “Troy, Lance says you cashed a fifty in there today. Is there anything you want to tell me?” Still, I denied it.
Next they went to Dusty’s and the lady who managed the place said, “Yeah, he was in here with a bunch of friends tonight, buying rolls of quarters for the video games.” Again, they gave me the chance to come clean, and again I lied.
They even went to my friend Mark’s house to ask him about it. They went in first and left me in the car, then came back to the car and called me inside. My friend Mark stood at his front door, with a look like, What kind of shit is this? and my Mom said “Troy, Mark says this isn’t his money.”
I tried to talk my way around it, thinking if I could convince Mark to claim the money, the whole thing would go away. Naturally, he wouldn’t claim the money because he knew my parents would be talking to his parents next and the truth would come out. I left there disgraced. A couple hours earlier I had been so happy because I thought Mark really liked me, and there I was a couple hours later, the wackjob friend who had brought drama to his door.
In one final confirmation of what I had done, my parents called my teacher and she confirmed that she had seen me in class that day with a 50-dollar bill.
Again, I was grounded for weeks, and my parents made me work off the fifty dollars with yard work and chores.
So, if you asked her, maybe my mom would say that was the moment when I started to worry her and make her think I was gonna grow up a sociopath, a criminal. I can tell you firsthand, it wasn’t too long before my grandpa started calling me Jimmy, the name of my uncle who spent more than 32 years in prison. Maybe it was a coincidence, just a slip of the tongue by a forgetful old man, or maybe there were some conversations behind the scenes, talk about where I was headed and if I would end up in jail like Jimmy had. The first few times he called me Jimmy, I corrected him.
“I’m Troy, grandpa,” I would say, and he would smile a big grin and apologize, but it kept happening and I stopped correcting him.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer from Fargo, North Dakota.