Self

A Devastating Fire Took My Entire Childhood And Turned Me Into An Adult Overnight

Photo: Artikom jumpamoon / Shutterstock
fire

The fire that eradicated most of what I owned when I was 15 years old was emancipation from things.

I became a Minimalist with one spark of a flame.

But that October day still smells burnt in my memories. It was the day my childhood ended. Walking through the smoldered blackness of my toys, comic books, dead plants, and stuffed animals, I went from being a child to a bruised, young adult.

I had been given a clean bill of health by the doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Minnesota earlier that week. The birth defect in my kidney had been removed and after six weeks of rest, I was allowed to exercise again. I hadn’t really rested, but to my teenage self, smoking weed and wandering along the banks of the Mississippi River was close enough.

After I was pronounced healthy, I celebrated by purchasing The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come.

Then I was asked by a platonic girlfriend to go to a high school Homecoming dance. She and the event weren’t really my interest, but I figured that since I wasn’t going to die or suffer dialysis for the rest of my life, I should go and have fun.

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The dance was silly with music I never needed to hear again. Dresses and tuxes none of the attendees would wear in the future and boyfriends and girlfriends who would only make out or have sex with each other for another handful of months.

I went home high, lit a candle, pressed play on my boombox, and fell asleep.

I woke up because my arm was on fire and leaped off my futon just in time to see the mattress go up in flames.

The blaze then caught my curtains over my windows and shot up the ceiling. Seconds later, those same flames were racing across the top of my head and pouring onto everything in a rainstorm of orange.

Awake but in shock, I put my arm out and shoved my boombox off the bookshelf thinking I could save it. Music was my greatest friend and ally, and I wanted to try and salvage its companionship from devastation.

As the flames gathered around me, I ran out into the hall of the old farmhouse where my family and I lived. The fire alarm was blaring and my dad was in the hallway, eyes lit up with fear.

“What’s going on!?” he breathed sharply through sleepy, shocked eyes under his full beard and long hair.

“There’s a fire,” I returned dazed and quiet, all 150 skinny pounds of me standing in nothing but my boxer shorts.

“Get downstairs!” Dad shouted and ran into my bedroom with a fire extinguisher.

Living in the country with only a landline, long before smartphones existed, the fire station felt as though it were ten thousand miles away, and when the firemen did arrive, my dad had already put out the fire. His eyebrows, beard, and long hair were fried at the edges, and he was covered in a thin layer of soot looking exhausted, wired, and sad for me. 

The firemen did nothing but shatter the windows and spray water on anything that hadn’t been destroyed by fire. They made sure nearly everything was unsalvageable, water-logged, and turning to sludge.

I don’t know how I slept but somehow I did on the couch in the living room near the upright piano. When I woke up, my parents were awake and probably had been all night. Most of my possessions were now gone, and I wanted to see what remained.

I went up the steep flight of wooden stairs to where my bedroom was. Half asleep and half shaken. The hallway at the top of the stairs had smoke damage, but no other rooms had caught fire. My seven-year-old brother and his world were spared. So were my parents and their things. Only me and my stupidity in lighting a candle the night before had caused the irreversible damage.

I walked into my bedroom and the blackness surrounded me. Burned and water-soaked. 

To my left, there was my former collection of Star Wars toys. My Death Star, Millennium Falcon, and Ewok Village were now shriveled piles of melted plastic settling on the wooden shelves my grandpa had built for me. 

Beyond that, I had a desk, a place where I crafted my Dungeons and Dragons mazes and stories. The desk was covered in water and everything on it was laying in sopping wet, black piles on the wood floor with a few smeared words still visible.

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Next to that, was a bookshelf that had housed all my childhood books. When I was a toddler, before I could read, I used to climb out of bed, pull out a book and make up stories to go with the pictures. Richard Scary collections, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are were now blackened, unreadable messes of mush.

On the bookshelf, were also my piles upon piles of comic books. The Amazing Spiderman, GI Joe, The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel, Superman, Aquaman, Batman, Star Wars, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Ms. Marvel, and all number of lesser-known heroes and villains burned to a crisp. 

Next to my smoldering comics, were my treasured D&D books: the Players’ Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Monster Manual, Fiend Folio, and Unearthed Arcana. Now all these role-playing books that provided a gateway to my community of fellow geeks in a land of Midwest hockey-playing bullies were reduced to dark waste.

I then turned to my bed. I had been in it when the fire came up and now it was a carcass.

There, somewhere in the wet ash was my ghost. An elementary school kid. A junior high nerd. A piano tie-wearing, Miami Vice-watching, candy cigarette-eating specter.

Replaced by punk rock, New Wave-haired, cigarette-smoking, bong inhaling, beer-chugging delinquent. Those who said “Yes To Drugs” now included me. There was no innocence to return to. It had all been burnt to the ground.

My many plants of all kinds were dead. Giant aloe vera plants that had grown and flourished were now an Amazon forest of deforestation. Nearest them were charred stuffed animal faces that looked at me like refugees I had left behind.

I witnessed the carnage and I left. My heart had sunk a thousand times and without knowing what anxiety was then, I know now what I experienced that day. Sorrow and nerves combined in a cyclonic flume inside me. I wanted to feel anything but the black hole I had in the center of my stomach.

I remember very closely the feeling of wanting to self-medicate.

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My parents let me leave that day and go out with my friends who came to pick me up.

Together with my punk rock, white trash friends who had half-shaved heads and bad dye jobs, all of us listened to Pink Floyd, The Cure, and The Sex Pistols blast through the car windows parked on an empty, dirt, farm road in the center of Central Minnesota. Drinking beer and smoking pot until the pain of fire was just a dim memory. The pain of all the loss hovering in a haze of high school debauchery.

I stayed that way all day that Sunday. On Monday, I went to school, then I went to look for an after-school job in my hometown. I intended to make money to replace what I’d lost.

That late afternoon, I got on the back of a friend’s moped. She took off, drove twenty feet, and lost control. I put my leg down to break our fall and compounded fractured both of the bones in my lower right leg. When I stood up, my foot drooped backward, pointing the opposite way. I went into shock and someone called an ambulance. 

In six weeks, I had surgery on my kidney for a birth defect, lost nearly everything I owned, and now would have a cast from my toes to my crotch for four months.

After those events that autumn, my life rippled out in many directions both bad and good. I won classical piano awards and learned to sing in bands.

I learned how to become attractive to girls with music and words. Criminality became a badge of honor as the local police developed a fondness for arresting me and my resilience in life was accompanied by my reliance on drugs and alcohol.

The most valuable lesson I learned from the loss on that fireball night was how important it was to travel light and live minimally.

Less than three years later, I escaped the landlocked world of the Midwest for a life on the West Coast and the ocean, leaving with just a few things.

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I see smoke floating in the air sometimes hovering at the edges of memory. It’s my own young ghost. He reminds me that all things are impermanent. I remember to be grateful for all I have today, and even though I’d still like to have some of those Spiderman comics, I know everything will be OK tomorrow.

Gentry Bronson is a writer, editor, media producer, creative consultant, and founder of the Gentry Bronson Media & Creative agency. His professional life began as a pianist, singer, DJ, songwriter, and performer. 

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