My Little Town 20110414: The Day I Set Myself on Fire

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you that read this irregular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile of so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

I never write about living people except with their express permission, but since the topic is me, I hereby give myself permission to tell this story.  I am guessing that it happened either in 1961 or 1962, when I when I was either four or five years old.  I know that it was before I started school.

We lived in North Little Rock in 1962, because my father got transferred.  Interestingly, we lived across the street and three houses up from the Fischer Honey plant, quite a thing, but a topic for another time.

I am sorry to post after 9:00 PM, but worked outside until almost dark, and then Elmer and I resat our mailboxes that ground heave had loosened during the winter.  It was after dark then, and there there connectivity problems.  Not an excuse, just the reasons.

What I remember for sure is that is was in the springtime.  It could have been any weekend in 1961, but if it were 1962 it would most likely have been Easter weekend since we would not normally make the 220 mile trip every weekend.  I also remember that my Aunt Joanne and Uncle David were there, and of course my parents.  We were at my grandmum’s house, about a quarter of a mile up the street from my house.

Ma was big on spring cleaning, and the adults had pitched in to work on her yard.  They cut vines, picked up sticks, trimmed (long before line trimmers existed, so they used hand shears or slings), and generally got her yard in shape for the warm weather to come.  Of course, all of that debris had to go somewhere, so they stacked a pile and set it alit.  They all stayed around until it burnt down enough to be safe, and as I recall, we went inside and had lunch (“dinner”, in that part of the country).

Being just little, I did not have to do much as far as cleanup went, so I went back outside.  It was cool, not cold, but I do remember that I was wearing a pair of corduroy pants, brown ones.  They were too long for me, so my mum had rolled up the cuffs so that I was not stepping on them.  I played here and there for a while, and then went to look at the burn pile.

For those of you who have read my posts, not in this series, but on Pique the Geek, you likely have noticed that I have a large interest in combustion of all types.  A few of you know that I used to work for the Army, directing a pyrotechnics development facility (I loved that job!).  This interest in combustion is, I guess, innate for me, because I loved watching that burn pile.  I stood there for what now seem to be hours (probably only a few minutes for a little kid), watching the colors of the coals change, the smoke rise, and it shifting as the fuel towards the bottom turned to ash thus allowing the material on top to settle, then flare up once again.

I was mesmerized!  The look of the fire, the scent of the smell (all plant material, no trash, so it was sweet), and the sheer fascination with how the fire consumed the pile completely enveloped me.  That may be part of the reason why I became a scientist.  Perhaps I was born a scientist, and that it was a manifestation of that which generated my interest in combustion.  Who can say what the causality was?

In any event, I was so absorbed watching the burn pile that I did not notice that some of it had shifted and was impinging onto one of my legs (I do not remember which one).  Even though my mum had rolled up the cuffs, they were still low enough to provide thermal insulation so that I did not feel the heat on my shoe.  After a while, I did notice something hot, and looked down to see my pant cuff on fire!

It was actually not aflame, but it WAS smoldering and glowing.  If I had been thinking (a tall order for a little kid), I would have gone to the house and asked for help.  But I panicked, in fear of both being burnt to death and also for getting in trouble for being around the burn pile.  While I do not remember explicitly any directive from my family to stay away from it, in retrospect I am sure that Ma, the worrying type, had admonished me to keep away from it.  That makes sense for my sense of panic about “being caught” disobeying an elder.

So I did what most panicked little kids did.  I started running and screaming!  But not towards the house.  Generally, it was just undirected running and screaming, hither and yon.  It was cool enough that the doors and windows in the house were closed, so they could not hear me screaming.

I do not know how long that I continued this fruitless process, but before long Uncle David ran over to me and caught me.  I can only assume that he had seen me running, screaming, and my pant leg smoking from a window.  By that time, the cotton in the pants had become ablaze due to the oxygen supply from the running.  He quickly pushed me to the ground and smothered the flames with earth.  We got up, and it was still smoldering, but by that time the others had come to my rescue with water, and they snuffed the embers with alacrity.

Physically, I had an extremely minor first degree burn (about two inches long and half an inch wide) just above my ankle, so minor that Carbolated Vaseline was good enough a treatment.   I shall talk about this product a bit more later, but first the rest of the tale.

The burn hurt a little, but the “talking to” that I got hurt more.  Everyone scolded me for not coming to them when I realized that I was in trouble.  I tried to explain that I was scared to do so, but they were adamant that my real mistake was not to come to them.  Of course, they were right.  I have always had a bit of rebelliousness in me, and I guess that it manifested itself early.  But I did learn from it, and other times when I was hurt or otherwise in a difficult place, I most often did come to them.

The pants were ruined, because the burn went above the rolled up cuffs (it was the single layer of cloth smoldering that burnt me), and I caught heck for that, too.  My parents were not poor, but part of the reason for them not being poor was that they never wasted anything, and considered the damage to those trousers as a waste.  I remember that lesson better than most.

All in all, it was really pretty much of a nonevent, but it was really frightening for me at the time.  I was banned from the burn pile unless an adult was with me, but they realized how much I enjoyed watching it combust that I was able to see it a couple of more times until it finally consumed itself, with one or more of them being an escort.

This is the most traumatic of my very early memories, but looking back to it as an adult, it was not really something that major.  However, events like these in early life have long lasting consequences, and even though I have always loved the combustion process, I became much more careful in dealing with it.

Now about Carbolated Vaseline, which was (and might still be, although I have not seen it in years), a marvelous product.  My understanding is that is no longer produced by the original manufacturer, but that knockoffs are available.  The original formulation was regular Vaseline with about 1.5% phenol added.  Phenol is an excellent antiseptic, and also has a fairly profound local anesthetic action.  Once that material goes onto a superficial burn, the pain stops in just a few minutes.  Now, phenol is fairly toxic, but at 1.5% on only a small area is safe.  If you were to rub it all over your body, that might be different.

I believe that there was a later product, called Medicated Vaseline, that used a chlorinated derivative of phenol that did essentially the same thing.  Neither really helped healing that much, except to kill germs where it was applied, but the local anesthetic properties certainly helped to ease the pain.  That brings me to my last subject of the night, because this is getting too Geeky.

Some sore throat remedies, notably the Chloroseptic brand (and some store brands) contain phenol, or its sodium salt, sodium phenolate, as the local anesthetic.  You have to look at the label.  I would recommend the phenol containing products for both sore throats and for minor burns, since the phenol actually does act as a fair antiseptic, as well as easing the pain.  Just limit it to small amounts of skin.

If you have memories of early memories growing up, please post them in the comments.  Please do not tell us what you did today, unless it directly relates and produces a piece about what you remember from when you were 16 years old, give of take.

I am seriously thinking about making this a regular series, with the day of the week yet to be determined.  I have written one per week for the last several, so I just need to settle on the day.  Any suggestions?  Friday and Sunday are out, because they are occupied by Popular Culture and Pique the Geek, respectively.  I also disfavor Monday, because that is Review Time for Pique the Geek.  Lots also has to do with my fellows it several sites.

Tomorrow evening, Popular Culture will focus on TeeVee, in particular on the show Freaks and Geeks.  Those of who who read many of my series might suspect that I used that title as a model for my scientific one.  I did not, but will not deny that I was a bit influenced by it. That was a wonderful program.

Warmest regards,



  1. relatives saving you?

    Warmest regards,


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