Short Stories - GB
John J. Uskert
The menacing gray plume contrasting with the azure sky was breath-taking. Physically, breath-taking. The caustic smoke was naturally irritating. Despite a late summer southerly breeze, accentuated by slivers of filtered sunlight, the four siblings were overcome by the scathing haze. This calamity resulted from mischievous conduct gone terribly wrong..
The brothers, all under the age of ten years, regularly dabbled in pyrotechnics. They were experienced in the art of burning things. This incident, however, was unforeseen, unplanned.
As the young siblings traversed the eight acres of Dad’s dried, gold colored wheat field, each possessed a red, white and blue box of Diamond kitchen matches. Not safety matches, but the unsafe matches. The match that readily bursts into flame as one strikes the tip on his zippered fly. Small “campfires” were spontaneously ignited hither and yon by each boy. Light a fire here, extinguish it by foot. Start another fire there, put it out by foot. Quite the necessity for resume-building of the “mature” camper. The siblings collectively engaged in various boyish activities. This stroll through the wheat field was no exception.
James, preferably known as “Jim,” second to the eldest, possessed a dilatory trait. His work, actions and conduct predictably took longer than the other three. It is unclear whether such delay was due to detailed study and preparation prior to actual commitment, or whether Jim was just an innate slacker. The origin of his dilatory conduct is of no moment, as Jim fell behind the group of three. The others advanced and traveled ahead relatively unconcerned with Jim’s activities. He fell appreciably behind in the golden wheat, delighted by lighting and extinguishing his own “campfires.”
The boys leading the way made a cursory inspection to the rear. Jim was yards away from the group. He was apparently engaged in extinguishing his most recent “campfire.” He appeared to be doing a hat dance of unknown origin, with hands and arms erratically flailing while simultaneously stomping the ground. With no success, his “campfire” had grown out of control. The reinforcements joined Jim in the effort to extinguish the uncontrolled burn. The wheat field, parched from lack of rain for days, was the perfect fuel. Oxygen from the southerly breeze fed and fanned the flames in wild passion. Eight little-boy feet were insufficient to minimize or halt the scorching of Dad’s field. While the sun shone and the wind gathered more force, the rising gray smoke became visible for miles. The unanticipated burn was now a huge Porter County spectacle. Dad’s retired neighbor to the north, Mr. Bennett, at least 70 years old, could not help but notice the burning wheat field as copious clouds of gray smoke and the accompanying scent of a burnt offering were blown across his four-acre chicken farm and vegetable patch.
Mr. Bennett, shovel in hand, instructed the siblings to retreat from the flames. At the necessity of defiance, the boys continued to stomp the ground in hopes of mitigating the damages. Such mitigation did not materialize. Rather, the wail of sirens preceded the arrival of two companies of Porter County Volunteer Fire Departments. Twelve adult men, together with Mr. Bennett, dug trenches and cleared dried wheat at the north edge of the field as a containment measure. Water was directed from the old, but efficient, red pumping truck, Porter County VFD No.71. After more than several hours, the trench was completed between Mr. Bennett’s property and Dad’s wheat field. The eight acres were not totally burned, merely seven acres succumbed. A once golden field is now laid waste as black, scorched earth.
Dad would be arriving from work soon. There was no way to conceal the handiwork. No way to conceal the pyrotechnics. No way to mitigate the punishment soon to be meted out by a parent, justifiably incensed. As the lingering haze hung in the air and wheat continued to smolder, the boys contemplated their fate.
More than sixty-five years after the "Great Burn," recollected events seem to have happened just yesterday.
The below is a photo of the siblings taken a few years before the great burn. However, the siblings maintained their innocent appearance, posture and attitudes as their activity culminated into a reckless event. The punishment meted out by their "justifiably incensed" Dad was severe. In fact, it will not, and cannot, be printed on this website. The boys learned a most unfortunate lesson through this experience.
There is a silver lining to this short story. The ownership of the eight acre farm remained in the family. The youngest son, subsequently born, purchased the property from Dad and transformed the since unused, undeveloped and vacant field into a beautiful homestead.