Who doesn’t love a good fire, either in a fireplace or in a pit in the backyard, or, in the case of my family, melting your brand new nylon carpet?
The Talbert/Mayo clan has always had a problem with making a flame, either employing too little fire power or too much. When the Big Kat and I were married, we coined the phrase the “Talbert Log”, which was what we called those fire starter logs you can buy at the grocery store. Our genius, if you want to call it that, was that we never got past the fake log, depending on it to sustain our fire in its entirety. Some cold evenings we would go through two or three of those suckers, with some shine but very little warmth.
As my three children grew into adolescence, I now believe our problems with fires had more to do with my weak parenting skills than with large emotional issues. I’m proud to say there’s not a pyromaniac anywhere in the group, just a passel of dumb-asses.
Melissa, my oldest, was the one who set the carpet on fire in the middle of our new house celebratory dinner as she decided that passing her paper napkin through a candle flame was actually a good idea. I guess she just wasn’t all that used to candlelit dinners. As soon as the napkin caught on fire, she then decided to try to make her way to the kitchen to drop it in the sink. It doesn’t take a great storyteller (or even me) to paint the picture of what happened next, with parts of the flaming paper landing in the little plastic carpet fibers. I guess I should have been happy the rug was made of cheap man-made products that melted instead of burning.
Billy, my most cautious child, had another problem with fire. He thought it was stupid. I remember being at my parents’ house down by the coast where my father was overseeing a weenie roast. At some point, Billy came into the house complaining because the fire had heated the coat hanger to the point that it had burned his fingers. However, his major complaint had to do with how ridiculous it was to have to stand outside and hold a coat hanger with a hot dog stuck on the end when you could just throw it in the microwave and be done with it.
Molly and her fourteen-year-old friends caused our most exciting scorch story, and the only one involving an actual fire truck. One Saturday night, she had some girls over to spend the night and, when I was ready to go to bed, I made them come in from the front yard where they were hanging out in that particularly irritating manner only fourteen-year-old girls can carry off. They, of course, skulked upstairs so my nose wouldn’t be in their business, but just as soon as I turned out my light in my downstairs bedroom, there was a loud banging on my front door. When I opened it, two young men were standing there yelling “fire!” and pointing at the bush next to my porch, which was, indeed, ablaze. After the young men, who, it turned out, rented a house across the street, extinguished the fire with my garden hose, they offered, “Well, the good news is we put it out. The bad news is we called the fire department before we ran over.”
As soon as the firemen, in a veritable aurora borealis of flashing lights on what had to be the county's biggest reddest truck, had given the newly truly sorry girls a stern sermon on the dangers of smoking, they drove away, leaving me with two extra kids to worry about, since the young men, whom I ended up calling The Puppies, somehow sort of adopted Molly and me. I think it was because they felt responsible for us after saving our lives.
I'm pretty confident my kids are going to demand that I come clean as to my own issues with spontaneous combustion, so here's my first story. One cold and rainy February night in 1996, I entered the dining/break room in the College of Education building at the University of Georgia, excited about the Chick-fil-A sandwich I’d picked up hours before as I’d driven into Athens for my Thursday night graduate class. Now, like all good Southerners, I not only know the Supreme Yumminess of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, I also know the bag, with its aluminum innards designed to keep the sandwich warm, should never be put in the microwave. But the class was long and the night was bitter, and my sandwich, in spite of itself, was cold.
The dining hall was crowded with graduate students and professors as I entered, so I had to wait in line to heat up my dinner. As soon as I queued up, dropped my bagged sandwich in the microwave, and started pushing buttons, I was horrified to see sparks and then flames. The only thing I could think to do was to put the fire out with my shoe but, alas, it was the mid nineties and zippered boots were in vogue.
I did manage to save the day that night and keep my enlightenment-seeking, and therefore hungry, colleagues from being evacuated into the February sleet by putting the fire out in the shoulder-high-situated government-issued-and-maintained microwave with my boot, which was, by the way, still zipped to my foot. In retrospect, the university should have gone ahead and given me my terminal degree that very evening just for the common good.
My second story has to do with The Puppies. Because they had adopted Molly and me and they were away from home serving our country in the Air Force and I was grateful they had saved our lives, I decided to invite them over for Christmas dinner. Because I'm a terrible cook, I have no idea why I thought this would be a good way to thank them but apparently I did. Being in a festive mood and probably trying to cover up something I'd most likely burned in the oven, I also made the decision to light some candles (especially since Melissa was twenty-five hundred miles away from my dining room carpet).
Lighting candles for Christmas dinner isn't that unusual, but, for some reason, I also decided to fire up some tapers in my bathroom, which was not a guest bathroom but my personal bathroom that no one other than me would be entering. In a continued quest to commit the unthinkably stupid, I placed the bare candles on a planked wooden table that not only held grooming tools but also offered a slatted roof for the wicker basket where I threw my dirty underwear.
Midway through our festive Christmas meal, one of The Puppies said he smelled something burning.
I just want to make sure to set the record straight. I was not wearing the underwear that caught on fire during the company dinner I hosted on Christmas Day 1999.