When we lived in England in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mom liked to frequent the auctions. I have no idea where these auctions were held, but by George, she came home with quite some “finds”. Now, I suspect there were a few fairly good deals she got, but I also suspect that, for the most part, she got JUNK.
So it was that we had the occasional bonfire in the back-back yard. Yes, we had a bit of an odd yard, in that the back yard was separated into two distinct sections. The back-back yard was the location of the annual vegetable garden. The back yard was the location of the swing set and the club house (skillfully fashioned from those big wooden moving crates in which they ship household goods across the Atlantic Ocean.)
So, one fine Saturday, whilst Dad was “away” for the weekend at a Chess tournament, Mom decided it was time to purge the garage of the “no longer needed, what was I thinking, and it’s nice but it cannot fit through the door” collection. She instructed her six young pyromaniacs to start constructing the bonfire.
We set about our task, not particularly enjoying the heavy work of dragging all those things to the back-back yard, but knowing the reward of the exciting bonfire was worth the effort. We built it tall and we built it wide. We positioned it near the end of the vegetable garden.
I have no idea whether Mom inspected our construction before she lit the fire. Honestly, I do not recall the lighting at all. What I DO recall is the speed with which all those “finds” caught on fire and how high the flames shot up. I also recall the poplar trees that lined our neighbor’s yard and had the bad luck to be rather close to our choice of bonfire locations that Saturday. They weeped as their leaves curled.
I do not know at what point Mom realized we had an out of control situation on our hands, but the fire department was called and they arrived in short order. Meanwhile, we had been instructed to grab trash cans and fill them with water and throw them on the fire. How many kids know that they can only tote a trash can with about 2 inches of water in it? We sure didn’t. As the trees melted and the fire raged, we tried to drag the cans to the back-back yard. Naturally, our garden hose was too short to reach the fire.
When the firemen arrived,they took very little time to put out the fire. Their truck was able to get close enough that their fire hoses could reach, but I recall being terrified that they would NOT be able to reach and that we would be responsible for the “burning of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire!” (while Dad pondered his strategy to earn the right to state, "CHECK MATE!")
After all of the commotion subsided, as we went about our normal activities, there came a knock at the front door. Our neighbor, the owner of the singed poplars was there and, “wished to speak with your father…”
I was glad that Dad was not home at the time. I was glad that I was not the one who had to tell Dad the news when he arrived home. I was mortified, because we had managed to break one of the very most important rules Dad had impressed upon us when we moved to England. “Everything you say and do, while in a foreign country will be judged to be that of the ‘typical American.’ You represent your country when you are on foreign soil and I trust that you will represent it well.” (or something along those lines).
Dad struck a deal with our neighbor, after viewing the damage to the trees. It was his opinion that they would re-leaf in the next season and would be none the worse for wear. However, if the trees should not bounce back, Dad would pay to have them replaced. They both seemed happy enough with the agreement. And the trees did live. I learned a thing or two about preparation and thinking things through that day. I never again wanted to run the risk of destroying the Englishman’s view of the American!