I was a bit of a pyromaniac when I was in High School.
Not the “I’m going to burn down my house because it would be prettier on fire” kind of pyromaniac. I was smart enough to know that while the house would be warmer during the fire, it would eventually get cold when I had to start sleeping outside. Or in prison for arson. I just liked to light inconsequential things on fire. Sticks, paper, bugs, my hands… Things that no one would miss.
I was pretty good at it too. I never accidentally caught something I didn’t intend to on fire. If the fire spread, there was definite thought put into it. Except for the time that I lit myself on fire after my first assembly as a new sophomore on the theatre crew.
Someone had decided that the assembly’s theme was going to be The Wizard of Oz. Something to do with how Dorothy made it back home and then had a Homecoming dance. I wasn’t really paying attention to the story because, let’s face it, every high school assembly is the same, regardless of plot. I’m actually somewhat ashamed that our school tried to put a plot on a damned assembly in the first place.
I was very excited for the tornado scene. We obviously couldn’t bring an actual tornado inside, but laws of physics be damned, this was a theatre! We would find a way!
Our solution, in hindsight, was somewhat ill-conceived. It consisted of a spinning tube of fire. Not exaggerating. Fire, spinning, tube.
To elaborate, the mechanism was a wooden box with a motor inside of it. On top, attached to the motor, was a metal bowl, about 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. There was also about 3 feet of chicken wire surrounding the bowl.
To get the effect, we would fill the bowl halfway with lighter fluid, drop a match to ignite it, and then start the motor. The spinning caused the fire to rise up in a tube-like shape.
Trusting high school students with this thing? That’s just bad judgment if you ask me.
The morning of the assembly was the first time we had a chance to practice with the contraption. After putting it together and depositing the lighter fluid, we decided to give it a spin without igniting it. Turns out that was a good idea, because if we had lit it, all of the curtains on the stage would be gone now.
As the junior member of the backstage crew, it was my responsibility to be in the dangerous position of flipping the switch. Once I had done so, the bowl containing the lighter fluid came off balance and tipped on its side. Combined with the spinning motion, everything within three feet, which consisted of me and the curtains, got soaked. It smelled fantastic.
We figured out how to work the thing without this happening again, but I didn’t have time to change out of my increasingly flammable clothes before curtains rose. Everything went off without a hitch, except for the fact that no one could tell that the flaming tornado of death was supposed to be a tornado. All that work and no one appreciated it? Yep, that’s a normal day for a techie.
After everything wrapped up and the theatre cleared, the senior stagehand told me that we needed to “stick around and clean up.” This, of course, was code for “playing with fire.” My day was officially made.
Playing with the spinning fire toy got boring after a few cycles, so I suggested one of my favorite fire games: cover my hand with hairspray or any other rubbing alcohol-based product, and light it on fire. Both of us being short-haired males, we didn’t have readily-available hairspray. The senior, being the wise, learned pyromaniac that I thought he was, suggested using the plentiful supply of lighter fluid instead.
Just so you know, the human skin absorbs lighter fluid a lot faster than rubbing alcohol. Due to that, my hand was stubbornly staying unlit. “Well, that sucks,” I said to the senior.
“I know just the thing! Let’s soak a Kleenex in lighter fluid, and use that as a wick to light your hand!”
“Why, that’s a superb idea! I assume you know what you’re talking about because you’re older than me and thus have more experience lighting things on fire!”
That wasn’t the exact conversation, but it’s close enough for my purposes.
Let this be a lesson to all of you aspiring pyromaniacs or theatre students: Just because someone has been lighting things on fire longer than you, it doesn’t mean that they know the best way to do so.
The Kleenex just sat there on my hand, burning. It was a rather uncomfortable feeling. I decided that I didn’t like it anymore, and that it wasn’t going to work. Logically, the best thing to do would be to use my other hand to lift it off of my hand and throw it into a metal container.
As is usually the case with 15 year-olds, my logic was faulty. In order to lift the Kleenex, I had to grab the corner opposite of the fire, lest my fingers get burned. Then, gravity decided that this was not going to be its day off, so the end of the Kleenex that I wasn’t holding got pulled downwards, placing the fiery end lower than the rest.
Time for a physics lesson that I could have done with remembering that day: Heat, and thus fire, rises. Fire going towards something that is soaked in a flammable liquid generally results in said item being on fire. Fairly quickly, I might add.
Survival instinct kicked in, and I dropped it. Makes sense, right? If you don’t want to be lit on fire, don’t hold a flaming Kleenex. Then I made a realization check, and decided that a flaming tissue on the stage of the high school auditorium would probably be a bad thing.
I stomped on the infernal tissue that was threatening my stage. Rather than be snuffed by my valiant efforts, it clung to the bottom of my shoe. Flames were licking the side of my pants as I started to riverdance to try and extinguish them.
I remembered something important at this moment: My clothes were covered in lighter fluid from the earlier mishap.
My pants went up in flames.
I started running to try and get away from the fire, but sadly enough, my pants were kind of attached to me at the time. I started river dancing again, thinking that if I stomped out the tissue, the rest of the flames would go out as well. I even went as far as to try and blow it out like a birthday candle. My birthday wish? To not be on fire anymore!
Eventually, my kindergarten training came back. I stopped what I was doing, fell to the floor like a rag doll, and rolled from one end of the stage to the other as fast as I could. My epic battle was over in a move that was as clichéd as how Obi-Wan defeated Annakin (High ground? Really?).
I regained my senses, and realized that there was someone laughing hysterically. The senior stagehand had been sitting on his little stool the whole time, laughing. I didn’t think it was funny at first, but as I replayed the scene in my mind, I couldn’t help but join the laughter.
We finally caught our breath, and another friend walked onto the stage. She asked us, “What’s so funny?”
“James just set himself on fire!”
“Do it again! I have a camera!”
So I did it again.