Burn­ing Bushes Out Of Con­trol


Grow­ing up in the desert of south­east­ern New Mex­ico in the 1960s pre­sented chal­lenges, at least for kids look­ing for things to do out­doors. “Hide -and-Seek” was dif­fi­cult as there were no trees, tall piles of brush, or small hills to hide be­hind. The veg­e­ta­tion con­sisted of low-ly­ing mesquite bushes, cacti, and sage brush. One could see all the way to the hori­zon prac­ti­cally any way you turned. Not a lot of places to hide. We had a chicken house, but you ran the risk of get­ting in­fested with fleas if you stayed in there too long.

You learned fairly quickly not to stand still for too long. Fire ants seemed to be ev­ery­where and could run up a leg and bite be­fore you re­al­ized it was there. Run­ning around bare­foot was un­heard of due to mesquite thorns, var­i­ous species of stick­ers, and cacti. Even flip-flops could be pierced by some of the thorns.

So, we con­fined our­selves mostly to the grassy back­yard. We had a small swim­ming pool for a while, but keep­ing it clean was dif­fi­cult due to the sand storms and windy con­di­tions. Cro­quet was fun un­til some­one started mak­ing up their own rules. The sub­se­quent ar­gu­ing would end the game usu­ally with some­one get­ting clonked with a mal­let.

My brother and I liked mak­ing “forts,” which was any­thing that could be en­closed and de­fended from other kids. No trees were big enough, but mesquite would grow in large, dense bunches that could be hacked out. The thorny branches could be trimmed to al­low one to en­ter the hol­lowed-out mid­dle of the thicket. It was hard work, us­ing lop­pers and a hatchet, but at least we had the time to work on it.

The other is­sue was the thick sage that would grow within the mesquite bushes. We used hoes and shov­els to dig it out usu­ally but one day I thought burn­ing the sage would be quicker. Now, we were about 10 or 11 years old, and would help Dad burn piles of tum­ble­weeds, so we fig­ured we knew what we were do­ing. Box of matches in hand, we went out to the back pas­ture to test our idea.

Since I was the old­est I nat­u­rally took charge. I would light a match, hold it to a clump of sage, let it burn about a minute, then stomp it out. I did it sev­eral times with no prob­lem.

My brother, how­ever, thought I was too cau­tious. “Let it burn longer,” he kept say­ing. It made me ner­vous, but I re­lented. I lit an­other bunch of sage, let it burn, then sud­denly the wind came up and pushed the flames far­ther into the mesquite bush. This made it harder to stomp the fire out. The wind got worse, and the fire got big­ger. Way big­ger! Sud­denly, fire seemed to be ev­ery­where and the two of us couldn’t keep the flames in check. My brother ran home yelling “the pas­ture’s on fire!” while I was run­ning around like a crazed jazz dancer try­ing to stamp the fire out.

Soon, my folks and a cou­ple of neigh­bors ran out with shov­els and wet burlap sacks to at­tack the flames. It prob­a­bly wasn’t as bad as I thought it was at the time, but I went home and hid in my bed­room. I knew Dad and Mom would be re­ally an­gry. What if it got re­ported in the pa­pers? I could be branded for life as a fire­bug! My fu­ture would be ru­ined!

I think my par­ents sensed that my re­morse and fear of pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion was greater than any­thing they could do to pun­ish me, so they let me off with a stern lec­ture. They prob­a­bly shared a chuckle later at my fear of life­long in­car­cer­a­tion.

Luck­ily, mov­ing to Arkansas pre­sented much more va­ri­ety as to out­door fun, plus we rarely had a dry spell such that we had to worry about a pas­ture fire. I still got ner­vous when we burned brush, but I made sure I was never the cul­prit be­hind the burn­ing.

“My brother, how­ever, thought I was too cau­tious. ‘Let it burn longer,’ he kept say­ing. It made me ner­vous, but I re­lented.”

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