You hear a lot of stories about the suburbs being too “cookie cutter” or lacking culture or just being downright boring. However, that’s usually talk coming from “sophisticated” adults or a college kid back from fall break. Give a latch key kid time away from Mom and Dad, a Diamondback BMX bike, and a couple of Little Debbie honeybuns and the suburbs turn into a fantasy land more akin to a town out of Stranger Things.
For me, growing up in Derwood, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC, was a blast.
Just a stones throw from the Shady Grove metro station, taking commuters to and from Washington DC, lies a series of prototypical American suburban neighborhoods. Modest homes, nice lawns, and relatively quiet streets to play on. My parents still live in my childhood home and I’m sad to report during visits, I very rarely see kids playing outside anymore. In 1991, there were enough kids around to field full basketball, soccer, hockey, or football teams. It was like summer camp year round.
Like every good suburban story, this one begins on a quiet cul-da-sac and ends with something going wrong out in the woods away from adult supervision.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you’ll know there is something prevalent in nearly every episode of the show. No, not something that begins with the letter B and rhymes with doobies. I’m talking about fire. The writers of Game of Thrones clearly have something in common with 12 year old boys, because in the early 90’s, my buddies and I were on a quest to meet the Lord of Light. For those of you who don’t see visions in a burning pile of logs, I’ll put it more simply…we were pyros.
Our neighborhood surrounded the mecca known as Blueberry Hill Park. Blueberry (you never said the Hill part) was our Camden Yards, RFK Stadium, and Wimbledon all rolled into one. It’s not the most impressive park ever built, but to a bunch of kids it provided an endless amount of possibilities. This was our land to play, talk, fight, get dehydrated, blow up stuff, and come close to the danger line, but hopefully never cross.
In addition to having a bunch of ballfields, Blueberry has a scraggly cropping of trees out past centerfield of the baseball diamond. These trees (we called them the woods) act as a divider between the park and the houses on the other side. In the middle of this very unimpressive group of pines, poplars, and understory, lies “the tree.”
“The tree” was a giant oak tree that stood high above all the others. It had perfect limbs that branched out in all directions and after climbing a couple, you could see the entire park from an eagle’s eye view (or maybe the view of a robin). Below the tree, the area had been cleared out by who we suspected were high schoolers based on the beer cans my middle school buddies and I would frequently have to clear out. We hated the trash and the general disrespect we found for our sacred tree. Funny how just a couple years later it would be us drinking beer there and tossing cans around.
While “the tree” was far from a secret to anyone who visited the park (you could see it from pretty much anywhere), to kids with active imaginations and a desire to live out our Thundercat, Spiderman, or He-Man fantasies, it was a special place. So special of a place that one day we decided to burn the whole thing down. Well, we didn’t choose to burn it down per say, but if there was ever a Fire Marshall investigation, that’s exactly what they would have concluded.
The day of reckoning began with my buddy Ben and I sitting around my house on the cul-de-sac. We were bored. Prior to smart phones, the only way to cure boredom for a couple of 12 year olds was to put your brains together and come up with a plan that would make Chester Cooperpot proud. Think we did and in a stroke of genius, Ben said, “I’ve got some lighter fluid back at my house, let’s use it.” Say no more Ben, you’re brilliant, let’s do it! (Ben now uses that genius brain to help keep our nation safe from military threats). Therefore, Dan and Ben didn’t nearly burn down millions of dollars in property, boredom did. With that, we hopped on our bikes to scoop up the lighter fluid and head to our private proving ground, “the tree.”
At this point in our pyrotechnic careers, we had been keeping things to an amateur level. Burn a Jose Canseco baseball card here, melt the head of She-Ra Princess of Power there – our fires were relatively pedestrian and never got bigger than a foot or so. Having procured a weapon with unrealized potential, we set out with Kim Jong-un levels of excitement and put our fire starter to the test. With no concept of the power we held and wanting to ensure that the “fluid worked”, we did the smart thing and sprayed the entire can around the base of “the tree.” At this point you are probably saying to yourself, “stupid fing kids.” To which I would reply, “yes, you are correct.”
Putting carpe diem to the test, Ben lit a match and threw it onto the lighter fluid. Yes Ben, I’m putting full responsibility on you, you crazy, always sunburnt, Irishman you. In a flash, we left our amateur pyro days behind and became Dragon Warriors, we had a freaking fire ball and it was glorious! That’s what it felt like for a second, but then we quickly turned into yelling and screaming little boys as we proceeded to, FREAK…THE…F#CK…OUT.
The fire was now a 7-8 foot tall raging inferno encompassing nearly the entire base of the tree. As we looked into the flames, we didn’t see the Lord of Light, we saw our lives ending before us. I can’t speak for Ben, but I think this was my first “fight or flight” moment. Fight the fire or run to the hell my parents would unleash on me after they found out? To this day, I’m thankful “fight” won and I didn’t run home.
Fight we did, but we didn’t do the sensible thing and take off our shirts to try and suffocate the flames, no, we were Iron Men and Iron Men jump into the fire and put it out with their feet! Covering our faces as the fire was much taller than us, we Mario-jumped and Double Dragon-axe-kicked the flames with veracity never before seen. It felt like hours, but in the minutes we were pummeling the fire, a power much greater than ours must have looked upon us, laughed and spared our lives. By the grace of Zeus, our maneuvers taken from such wise elders as Nintendo and Sega worked, the fire was getting smaller!
After a final furious series of stomps, the fire was reduced to ashes. “The tree”, park, and neighborhood wouldn’t be torched today! Even more incredible – we were okay!
As quickly as we had started the clusterfu#k, we hopped on our bikes and got the hell out of hell. Time to get home, take a couple hits of Sunny Delight, snack on fruit roll-ups and veg out to Saved by the Bell and calm down.
Rushing through the door, I was met by the gatekeeper, my mom. However, I had nothing to fear from this inquisitive monster, I had looked death in the eyes and won. My mom, sensing false confidence and/or smelling the smoke that was obviously infiltrated through my gray Champion shirt and shorts, looked me up and down and asked, “what happened to your legs?” In our excitement to flee the scene, neither Ben nor I had the wits to look at our legs. Those powerful pistons that had just slayed Bowser and saved Zelda were now as smooth as Cindy Crawford’s – we had burned all the hair off of them. I was caught. I’m sure I was punished, but I didn’t care, I was just thankful the neighborhood didn’t burn to the ground.
When my kids are old enough, we’ll be having “the talk” one day. Not about the birds and the bees, we’ve got Game of Thrones for that. About the beauty of golden crescent embers as they fly dangerously close to your skin. If genetics have anything to do with it, they’ll be pyros too. Don’t worry though, I’ll advise them to stick to Hatchimals and Paw Patrol toys.
Note – “The Tree” met its maker several years ago during the “Derecho” storm of 2012 and with it, several generations of childhood memories.
Photo is from our campsite outside of Flagstaff, AZ
Hat tip to Geoff T. for the post idea.