The Flamethrower Incident

Why do young boys always seem to have a fascination with fire? I remember learning how to make a fire in Boy Scouts. It was a great skill, and I'm glad to have it but, as time passed, I found new and exciting ways to make fire.

With my newly acquired fire-making skills, I was appointed, along with my brother, the duty of burning trash. Yes, we burned all our burnable trash to minimize the cost of trash pick up. Ultimately this exercise gave us a chance to practice "stop, drop, and roll," after learning that fire will travel backwards to the gas can even if you pour it real hard onto a burning fire--but that's another story.

I grew up in Washington state. For reasons unknown, ants would create these big tall ant hills that became a nuisance if they were in or beside a pathway.

So, on this particular day, with my newly perfected fire making skills, I determined that it was up to me to destroy a particularly large and nasty ant hill that was encroaching into our backyard. With the ant hill so large and the ground wet (it's like this a lot in Western Washington) I realized I would need to attack this problem in a more unique and proficient way.

It was at that moment that a vague memory took shape that I believed could solve my problem. I remembered my Dad using some kind of wand thing that would throw fire in a stream. I remember him making quick work of some stinging nettles and underbrush with this device.

Surely, I thought, if I could find this thing, I would make quick work of the ant hill. My parents would come home and, seeing the good works and near-miracles I performed, would proclaim me hero of the Stratton clan. Yes, I could see it in my mind. These great deeds along with my proven bike jumping and wheelie skills would secure me an honorable place in my family's history. My deeds would be talked about for generations. So, I set off to find the tool that would make me a hero.

It didn't take long to find it. The thing was propped along the side of the house at the end of our woodpile, because, you know, that's where you put flammables--right next to the woodpile. Not only was it completely intact but, BONUS, it was full of fuel. It was the coolest contraption I'd ever seen. The thing was all green with three tanks and a hose that extended out to something that looked like one of those old time machine guns from the movies. the whole thing was attached to a backpack frame.

The thing was heavy. I mean, really heavy. It probably weighed as much as me. I can't remember to this day but somehow I managed to get it on my back. and stumble toward that big ant hill.

Standing in front of the ant hill, prepared for the battle of my life, I realized, I had no idea how this thing worked. It had a lever on the left side that I assumed, had to be pumped before the thing would work, so I pumped the handle until I could pump no more.

The next task was to figure out how to operate the two triggers. One trigger was at the front and looked like a standard gun trigger. Upon closer inspection, it was confirmed that this must be the thing that made the spark. From there, it was clear that the trigger in the back was how the fuel was released.

It's funny how, as a child, one can so quickly figure out complicated contraptions when said contraption is forbidden. But given a simple math problem, said child will stare at you with a blank face for hours.

The time had come for these ants to meet their maker. I stepped forward until I was within five feet of that ant hill and, by some strange miracle, managed to do just the right thing to get that thing to fire. And, fire it did! Surprisingly, there was some recoil to this thing. The recoil knocked me back a step and raised the wand thing upwards. Some of the flames hit the ant hill but most traveled some unknown distance into the sky.

The recoil of this thing and the forceful stream of fire it created shocked me at first. I was hesitant to try again, so I watched the small portion of ant hill I managed to hit, burn and smolder. You know that little voice in your head that tells you when you've done something very bad? Yeah, I thought I heard that voice but it was quickly replaced with a voice that yelled, "Damn, that was fun. I must do this again." Don't judge me here. I mean, which voice are you listening to when you get on that roller coaster?

So, after mentally recounting the steps that made it work last time (because, honestly I probably had no idea how that thing worked) I took aim at the bottom of the ant hill and fired away. Again, the recoil pushed me back and sent a stream of flames into the unknown. Undeterred, I made a quick recovery and fire again... and again.

I was still firing the thing, sending a destructive stream of flame and hellfire into that ant hill, when I first heard the sirens. I realized later that one of our neighbors must have called the fire department when I first shot the thing.

You know that little voice I talked about earlier? It came back, It was yelling now, and this time I was listening. I just got the feeling those sirens were coming for me--call it a premonition. Oddly enough, I took some weird pleasure in the fact that the flame throwing thing was out of fuel anyway.

The fire truck arrived first. Firemen jumped out and immediately got to work, pulling out fire hoses and connecting them to the hydrant, which just happened to be within feet of the old ant hill. It was then that I first looked beyond the carnage of the ant hill and discovered that, somehow the entire tree line was ablaze.

I was transfixed by the size of the fire in the trees. I stood there, dumbfounded and in awe, still holding the wand of the flamethrower, as they went to work with their hoses. The firemen made quick work of the blaze and had it mostly out by the time the police arrived.

By some cruel twist of fate, my father arrived home right behind the police. One of the police officers walked over to me and smiled, while taking the wand from me and removing the flamethrower from my back. The other police officer walked toward my father, but he wasn't smiling.

An hour went by and I was now sitting on the front steps waiting for my father to finish his conversation with the police. Well, it wasn't really so much a conversation. The two police officers were conversing while my father sat in the back seat of their car with the window up. I remember wondering at the time why he was sitting by himself in the back of the car while the police officers talked outside. Was he that mad? I could feel that pressure building in my eyes that sent tears down my face and my chin was already starting to spasm involuntarily at the thought of the spanking that would ensue when my father finally decided to get out of that police car. The fire department was long gone and the police had put the flamethrower in the trunk of their car.

My mom arrived and went directly to the police officers to talk. I saw her occasionally look at my father in the back of the police car and at me during her conversation. When their conversation ended, my mom walked right past me and into the house without saying a word. The police got into their car and drove away... with my father still in the back seat.

My father did not come back home until the next morning. That morning, I learned that there is a difference between a spanking and an ass-whooping. Later, I learned that it is illegal to be in possession of a working military-grade flamethrower that has been modified.

The trees around my house eventually grew back but those ants never dared set feet in that spot again. I shouldn't be held entirely to blame for this incident as this would prove to not be the only time my father would be found with illegal and/or modified weapons in his possession. I remember one time he was actually carted off in a boat after being cited for having more than the legal limit of oysters, which led to the sheriff's deputy finding some kind of modified weaponry in his truck. But, that's another story.