i almost burned
  Bend, Oregon to the ground

  Oregon is essentially two distinctly different places: west of the Cascades you have lots ‘o green, lush rainforest, big rivers, and most of the people -- probably your stereotypical idea of what this state looks like; east of the mountains you’ve got high desert country with sage, cheatgrass, ponderosa pine, exposed volcanic rock -- think of most film westerns and you’ve got a pretty good picture. 

Bend is on the east side. In fact, it’s right at the center of the state. When I was in high school, my brother, Craig, and I would sometimes spend a few summer weeks out at our friend Errett’s house on the outskirts of Bend. Late one morning, Craig, Errett and I were lazing around on the back deck following a cut-throat match of desert croquet. The sun was beginning to beat down on us in a distinctly central Oregon way. 

I was reading something deeply intellectual (probably an old 1974 issue of Green Lantern) when a certain industry took a hold of my two compatriots. They were hunched over some mound in the desert fauna, beyond the bounds of the alien monoculture that was the small lawn. I ignored them. A little later I heard them digging around in the toolshed/greenhouse part of Errett’s cool, funky house that his mother had designed and built largely of salvaged/recycled materials. I watched them carry a can over to one of the mounds and pour some of the can contents onto it. One of them lit a match and a small flame leaped up and then died out. 

I had to check this out. 

“Hey, whattaya doing?” 

“We’re burning ants.” 

Hmm. I took a closer look at the mound -- it was crawling with ants. One small spot, where the flame had burned was vacant, but the rest of the tiny hill was abuzz with activity. Defiant bastards. Here these two guys had loosed the weapons of mankind on the tiny monsters and they hardly cared. 

Pour some more of that -- paint thinner? -- yeah, on there. O.k., you light the match. Little flame. A few ants go down, but I could swear the rest of them are just laughing. 

What? Yeah, that’s a big one. Let’s go over there. We walk over to a big conical mound about a meter high -- it’s crawling with the little fiends. Put a whole bunch on there. No, try a little more. O.k., light it. Damn. A little flame again. Jeez. The little flame gets bigger. Snap, crackle. And bigger. Whoosh! Damn! 

The enormity of what we have done hits me with frightening clarity. A tinder dry ponderosa pine stands just 3 meters away from the blaze. Sage and other desert scrub are everywhere just waiting for a spark to set them burning. The neighbor’s house is about 75 meters away (Errett’s is just 20). And the flames are burning hotter and I have no idea what fuel the fire is consuming to stay alive. Later I would learn that the high desert soil is rife with the chaff of a wicked, dry tinder called cheat grass. 

In a moment I made a decision, that had I not stupidly helped precipitate this little disaster, would earn me a spot in the good things part of this site. We could bail out, run for the phone and call the fire department, or try to cover our asses and put it out ourselves. I chose the CYA maneuver and yelled, “throw rocks around it!”. Big ‘ol chunks of igneous rock are everywhere and we’re tossing these things around the base of the conflagration like our lives depend on it. 

It keeps burning. 

“Throw rocks *on* it!!” 

All three of us are hurling rocks on top of this thing. The damn cheat grass was gonna keep burning until we snuffed it’s oxygen. The garden hose was too far away to do any good. I think Errett and Craig actually ran on top of the mound a couple of times to stomp at the flames with their feet. It’s amazing what one will do when *truly* motivated. 

Slowly, we were winning. The hail of grapefruit and lettuce sized rocks slowly choked off the mound's oxygen. We of course continued to pummel it until it was utterly vanquished. Our hearts were pounding and we each silently contemplated the ruin that we had nearly let loose on central Oregon’s largest city. 

And then we saw the fire engine’s flashing light. Oh, shit. 

The firemen drove the red behemoth up Errett’s winding blacktop driveway and pulled to a stop. I spotted the kerosene in open view and moved it about two meters away in a lame attempt to conceal the evidence of our stupidity. 

We made up some weak story about how we saw the fire start and then put it out with the rocks, but I’m pretty sure they knew we had been up to something. They thoroughly doused what was now a big, smoldering pile of rocks with some kind of foamy, watery chemical. It was supposed to sink into the ground and insure that the fire didn’t continue underground. They hung out for about twenty minutes and then took off. 

We walked back into the house, in somewhat of a state of shock, and wary of the punishment we would face from Errett’s mother. The gods were merciful to three repentant teens -- she had been on the other side of the house the entire time and hadn’t seen a thing. The neighbor had phoned the firemen. Phew. 

You know, it didn’t really occur to us that we had nuked the crap out of those ant bastards. I could probably play out a really deep arms race metaphor here, but I’m not going there. 


next stupider: Is that why they call it a crotch rocket?  stupid