Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Playing With Matches

I could not have been more than six-years-old when my friend Jeff and I "borrowed" a book of matches from his mother, took them to an undeveloped lot in our suburban neighborhood, a place we called "the woods," and practiced first lighting the matches, then setting small fires. We did this over the course of several days, going through many books of matches. We never discussed it with one another, but we obviously knew that it was somehow wrong, hence the hiding amidst the trees and underbrush. These were tiny fires, ones we would only let burn for a minute or two before putting them out. One day, as was inevitable, however, our fire got out of control. Some stray pine needles carried the blaze to larger clumps of tinder and before we knew it we were desperately stamping. It took everything we had to finally catch up with the fire we had started.

I'm inclined to say it was a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but looking back now from the perch of a half-century later, I recognize it simply as a six-year-old thing to do. "Stupid and dangerous" is an adult framing. If you had asked my younger self, I'd have said, "We were playing," which is to say, asking and answering our own questions. Jeff's mother was a smoker and he had learned to strike matches by watching her, a skill he passed on to me. He showed me how to tear one of those cardboard matches from the case, then flick the sulfured tip across the striking surface. When I'd struggled, I figured out how to fold the matchbook cover backwards, allowing me to pinch the match head against the striking surface. Then all it took was a quick jerk and I had a flame. I already knew how to blow a flame out, having done so on candles, but we also found that a quick wave would also do the trick, as would depriving it of air by stepping on it, or, as Jeff had seen his mother do, bravely pinching it out with our bare fingers. We had practiced these things and more for weeks before heading off into the woods to set our fires.

And we definitely learned something about the dangers of fire that day, something far more profound than adult warnings. Indeed, for years, that lesson almost incapacitated me as I recalled the flames spreading beyond our control; the surge of sweaty panic that filled me, the vision of every house in the neighborhood being burned to the ground. It was to the point that one could almost say I had developed a phobia, one that given the experience, could be considered a healthy one. I never "played" with matches again. Even today, more than a half-century removed from that moment, I can still summon up a flash of that terrifying day: I still run spent matches under water for far longer than necessary, I make double, triple, and quadruply sure that my campfires are out, and I can't relax at dinner when my companion uses the table candle light to read the menu.

It's tempting to say we were "lucky" that we didn't burn the neighborhood down, but that wouldn't be entirely true. We had slowly built our skills up over days and weeks, learning how matches worked, how we could control them. When we went to the woods, we were clearly seeking to take our knowledge to the next level and it was our previously developed skills that allowed us to prevent disaster. That day in the woods still stands out as one of the most traumatic of my early life: indeed, I remember it precisely because of the trauma and it is why I can today "document" my learning.

I'm not suggesting, of course, that we turn our preschoolers loose with books of matches, but I do think this story illustrates the sometimes dangerous, even hazardous balance, that we all must find in our quest for knowledge. The children we are raising today will spend virtually their entire existence under the supervision of adults, with little chance of getting their hands on a book of matches, let alone access to the privacy within which to play with them, and that is probably a good thing, but what else won't they get try as we keep them under our forever watchful eyes? It's something worth thinking about.

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