The Story of My Life Part 1: Fire Damage

A friend of mine said to me not so long ago, after we’d been reflecting on things we’d done throughout our lives, that my history would make interesting reading.  I don’t know about that; all I can do is put it out there and let people make up their own minds.  If nothing else, what follows here is a record for my kin and kindred of what their somewhat eccentric forebear was all about. Or maybe not.  Maybe writing down the story means something, maybe not: maybe it’s important, maybe not.  It is to me.

One of the hardest things about recalling distant events – and I am unquestionably now a fair distance from childhood – is recalling the sequence in which things happened.   I can recollect snippets – my mother worried about the course of an overseas war (It would have been Korea), my father reassuring her that it wouldn’t spill onto home soil; watching from a parent’s shoulder as the young Queen Elizabeth swept around the Basin Reserve in her shiny black limousine; people excited, the same day, when a fellow countryman reached the top of the world’s highest mountain.  The hullabaloo made about as much sense to me then as it does now.

Somewhere back in those early days, there’s a couple of incidents involving dogs.  The first occurred when I was a toddler: I was in a stroller and a dog – a big collie – drew blood when he took a bite of my leg.  I don’t know why he did it; I don’t think I would have done anything nasty to him, because I’ve always liked dogs.

Funnily enough, though, a dog is a factor in the most vivid of my childhood traumas, running into a cement railing full tilt when I was five or six.  They used to have a lot of cement railings spanning the public front lawn strips where I lived, structures of concrete posts and rails that stuck out at intervals across the wide grass verges separating the fronts of properties from the footpath.  We’d often wander along these verges when we were kids, using the rails as swings or gymnastic bars as we went by.

On the occasion in question my companion was Margaret Smith, the baker’s daughter, my new (and I think first) girlfriend.  I was about six years old.  It was late in the afternoon, almost dusk.  We were holding hands, when I’d turned around to check out a dog who’d barked at us as we went past.  It sounded ferocious, so we started to run, me still looking over my shoulder, as a result of which I ran straight into a rail at forehead height, and went down like a ton of bricks.

My relationship with Margaret didn’t survive the impact – or the sight of my inert body, or the blood pouring from my open head-wound.  She ran off, leaving me unconscious on the grass, and our promising liaison ended right there.  She apparently neglected to tell either of her parents what had happened, because when I woke up I had no idea where I was, and wandered around aimlessly a couple of blocks from home, until a guy on a pushbike picked me up an hour or so later.

It was the first of a number of injuries I suffered throughout my childhood.  I seemed to have a penchant for splitting my head open: there was the protruding nail incident, the recoiling-axe from-the-fruit-box icident, the tangled-skipping-rope-and-the-head-through–the-glass-door affair.  The list goes on.  I sliced open my forefinger (to the bone) once on a broken mica insulator when a friend and I were tossing rocks onto house roofs.  My mother became quite adept at sewing me up at home, with an enthusiasm that bordered on the sadistic.

The doozie, though, was when I set myself on fire.  Dad worked a lot with motors, mainly servicing and repair work, and always kept a couple of jerry-cans of petrol in the shed for fuelling and cleaning up.  Ever since I’d seen the effect of petrol on a fire, I’d been obsessed with lighting fuel-soaked bits of rag, newspapers or small tins of petrol, just to watch it burn.

On the occasion that was ultimately to expunge my fascination, I’d put a largish tin – an old fruit can – into the ground and lit a quantity of petrol inside it.  The problem was when I went to put it out, which I attempted to do by smothering it with a slightly smaller tin.  To this day I haven’t worked out the precise physics of what happened next, but a circle of burning petrol erupted from the space between the two tins, catching me fair in the face, neck and shoulders.

My younger brother – the only one home at the time – proved absolutely useless, running around the backyard like headless chook shrieking: “Me brother’s gonna die, me brother’s gonna die!”  This might well have come to pass were it not for the intervention of one of the neighbour’s boys, a high school friend of one of my older brothers, who smothered the flames and rang Mum. She seemed to appear there instantly.

I don’t have much recollection of what happened for a few hours after that, waking up in a bed in hospital with my face feeling like it was still on fire.  For the next few days, I drifted in and out of awareness, until the pain slowly started to subside.  For a while there was talk of skin grafts; but three weeks later I was released relatively unscathed.

[I say ‘relatively’, because a long-lasting effect of the burns was to turn the scars – otherwise invisible – bright red whenever I became hot, embarrassed, angry, guilty or scared.   My face, on such occasions, took on the appearance of a world map, with the British Commonwealth appropriately coloured.  This effect made me uncharacteristically shy around people, particularly girls, in whom I’d begun to develop a keen curiosity. I was still a bit young to be crushed by feminine rejection, though; the scarlet flush gradually faded, and by the time advancing adolescence made rejection critical, it was almost indiscernible.]

I can still recollect the smell of burning wool from my school jumper that day.  I don’t think having my parents or older brothers around would have made much difference anyway – the neighbour’s intervention had been swift – but the event taught me something that shifted the focus of my life: that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) rely on my family to look after me. I had to look after myself.

The suburb we lived in was pretty typical of urban working-class New Zealand in the 1950’s and ‘Sixties.  The gasworks was just down the street, a blackened landscape of massive coal heaps and the pipe-bound refinery.  There were two massive expandable gas tanks in among the coal-heaps.  For neighbourhood kids, the “Gasworks” was the heartland of the territory, along with the “Flax Hill” that adjoined it.  We often held mock battles there among the endless piles of coal and coke.  We could trot expertly the length of the high brick-topped wall that surrounded the works, and float on makeshift rafts among the piles when the rain pooled into shallow lakes between the coal heaps.

Our ‘wars’, as we called them, were for the most part affable affairs, with sides being picked by progressive selection, but the weapons we used – chunks of coal, steel bearings and large rusty washers -would have been enough to kill someone if they’d landed with precise accuracy, which fortunately they never did.  The closest we came to that was an occasion when, having declared a truce, the two sides were sharing cigarettes in one of the hollows when my younger brother, having not heard the amnesty declared, crept up the side of the coal-pile and dropped an enormous piece of coal on the head of one of his former antagonists.  Fortunately, the boulder broke open on impact, leaving the target dazed and disoriented with an impressive cut to his scalp that required a few more home-stitched sutures.

It was to this blackened landscape that I increasingly turned in adolescence, blending with my peers to form what we thought of as an exclusive brotherhood, although in reality it had quite fluid borders.  When the movie West Side Story came out, we morphed into a gang, more to imitate the costumes and choreography than anything else.  Our most serious crimes were a bit of petty shoplifting (organising ‘raids’ on the local milk bar), a bit of minor vandalism (breaking windows in a local deserted warehouse) and back-chatting the local police sergeant (a big burly bloke who packed six of us into his baby Austin, drove us to the local police station and rang our parents to come and pick us up).

It was like that until I was fifteen, when my parents made what I still believe was an ill-considered decision to move to a satellite town about fifty k’s from the city.  Public transport to this area was patchy at best, and gradually my connection with the old neighborhood frayed, until by the time I left high school the old ‘hood’ had become just a fond memory.  When I go back there, which isn’t very often, the ‘hood seems smaller and slightly seedier.  I’m not sure whether that’s because it’s actually changed or whether, as a kid growing up there, I just didn’t see it that way.

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Categories: My Story

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