I was fascinated by fire, as are most kids, but my fascination bordered on obsession. Among the various and sundry things to be found in my pockets would always be a handful of "Ohio Blue Tip" stick matches, swiped from a box next to my mother's kitchen stove. They could be struck aflame almost anywhere, and almost anywhere was where I liked to light my fires.
Usually I'd control them, as much as a boy of seven could control anything, and put them out when I'd had my fire fascination fix for the day. But once I started a dry-grass fire in a vacant field and a sudden wind whipped it wildly out of control... Someone called the fire department. I stood innocently nearby, watching the firemen doing their thing, having already done mine... I suppose I could still get arrested for that, but I'm hoping the statute of limitations has run out for this sort of thing by now.
I met my Fire-Bug Waterloo at Franklin School. Having been excused from Miss Ehlers' 2nd Grade to go to the Boy's Room, I came upon an irresistable pyro-opportunity -- a waste barrel in the basement next to the Boy's Room was chock full of papers, just begging to be burned...I surveyed the area for the conbustibility of nearby building surfaces (being a serious fire-bug I'd actually learned about these things!) It seemed safe -- concrete floor, concrete block walls, concrete ceiling, and the "fire-barrel" itself was steel -- all non-combustible!.. I scanned for humans: Boy's Room empty, the janitor upstairs, no one else in sight -- let the fire begin!..
It was a glorious blaze, right up to the (non-combustible, mind you) ceiling!.. Then Davie Pearly suddenly appeared, also excused to the Boy's Room, and he was frightened by my fire. Not sharing my knowledge of combustibilities, he ran right back upstairs to the Principal's office and shouted "Carl Baumann is trying to burn the school down!"
The fire soon died (no damage done) and so nearly did my Mom when she was called in to take me home, EXPELLED from school...
The next day Mom and I met with the principal, Mrs Sugden. She and my mother were both members of the same Bergenfield Women's Club, Bridge Club and Choral Society, so my Mom's embarassment was no doubt excruciating... In the interrogation which ensued they made short shrift of my "knowledge of combustibles," and made certain I saw the error of my ways. I apparently convinced them though, that I hadn't really intended to torch the school, and heard myself say, with something less than total honesty, "I didn't realize what I was doing!" That was the first time in my young life that I'd ever used the words "didn't realize." I'd entered into the "age of reason," it seemed, right on schedule at age seven.
My "expulsion" lasted three days, two of them being the week-end. It was good to be forgiven, and back in Miss Ehlers' 2nd grade on Monday morning. I really liked school, and especially Miss Ehlers, although she seemed to view me with suspicion for a while thereafter.
My schoolmates regarded me with a mixture of apprenhension and awe... On the one hand I was a dangerous dope -- on the other hand I had supposedly tried to burn the school down, and that cast me somewhat in the role of HERO, especially to those in the super-strict Mrs. Romaine's 4th grade.
An appropriate punishment for my major mis-deed came as a consequence of its exquisite timing, just a day before my seventh birthday, for which a party had been planned. At the appointed party hour it was my painful duty to stand by the front door of our home, and one-by-one turn away the arriving invitees, each bearing nicely wrapped gift packages, the contents of which I'd never know...
Not long thereafter, my obsession with raw fire was sublimated by a budding fascination with what controlled fire could do, converted to POWER in the steam and gas engines which drove my beloved trains, cars and airplanes. Now there was FIRE-POWER with a Noble Purpose!.. The new interest saved me from being consumed, like a moth, in the flames.
Carl Baumann - 1993