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.”