My absolute favorite place on my property is a large natural bowl formed by a long past sink hole. Three of the sides are steep (but not too steep to walk down) and the fourth is more of a gentle slope. They all provide the best sledding when it snows enough. It covers almost an acre of land and the bottom is more than twenty feet below the top. In the summer, it’s always several degrees cooler at the bottom and I always enjoy the feel of the cooling air when I walk down it. One end is completely shaded by black walnut trees and a small thicket on the steepest slope. The sight and sound of the road doesn’t reach down and it feels almost as if the middle of nowhere. It’s my favorite spot on our land, but it wasn’t always.
When we first moved into our house when I was almost four, the sink hole (as we call it) was nigh impenetrable, especially for a small child like me. It was full of brambles, scrubby trees, broom sage, and weeds. I never ventured in to it because it always seemed ready to swallow a little boy whole and leave no trace of him. Dad never mowed it and it was basically a wild no man’s land untouched by our hands. Shortly before my sixth birthday in February my brother and I touched it, though not with our hands. Not at first anyway.
Pappy and Grandmommy (Dad’s parents) came to visit. They brought gifts from what was my favorite store in the entire world at the time: Reeve’s Boomland in Charleston, Missouri. It was where my brother and I always begged to stop as we passed through on our way to our grandparents’ home in East Prairie. As you might guess from the name, the gifts they brought were fireworks and I tingled with the excitement that only lit fuses and black powder could bring.
They brought quite the assortment. We had firecrackers, tanks, blooming roses, snakes (the lamest firework ever, but one I still like), and bottle rockets, including my favorite type: parachutes. Since this was long before the city limits enveloped our land and our address still began with Rural Route, we began shooting them almost immediately.
My brother and I shared one lit punk and took turns shooting the bottle rockets off a homemade saddle stand turned on its side. Imagine an elongated sawhorse laid on the ground and you’ll have an idea. We shot them from near the house out over the sink hole. It was exhilarating. We started with the small, plain bottle rockets that just went a short distance before exploding with a sharp report. Then we prepared to launch a parachute. A parachute bottle rocket that would completely transform the day and our property.
Though we were both there, my brother and I still argue about who actually lit the fuse (it was totally him) on that fateful parachute. It really doesn’t matter who, since I doubt the outcome would have changed (though again, he lit it. I’m just saying). When the fuse burned down into the cardboard tube of the rocket, it shot off in a similar trajectory to all those before it. The only problem was, it was heavier than the smaller popping ones and flew more into the sink hole than over it. It exploded slightly and expelled its small parachute. The green flare suspended under the flimsy tissue chute lazily drifted into the brush of the sink hole and out of sight.
At the time, even while I greatly enjoyed fireworks, I was terrified of open flames. That’s probably why I got intensely nervous.
“We need to get Mom and Dad,” I said.
“No we don’t.” I listened because he was older.
A small tendril of smoke snaked up from the spot we last saw the parachute.
“We need to get Mom and Dad,” I said, again.
“It’s fine. The parachute’s just burning out, that’s all.” Again, he was older and I assumed wiser.
Then the tendril became a rapidly expanding column of smoke. It thickened from translucent to completely opaque. I felt the tears coming and was about to yet again repeat my previous statement when the tips of orange flames flicked into view above the brush.
“I’m getting Mom and Dad,” I think my brother said. I was too busy as the tears came full force and I seemed rooted to the spot by the power of my sobs.
It had been a mostly dry winter so by the time Dad and Pappy grabbed old quilts and covers to attack the blaze, it was raging. The flames quickly raced up the hillside closet to the house, but slowed when it hit the mown grass. The gravel drive managed to stop the flames on that side (fortunately is was a perfectly windless day) and the road would probably stop the other. The problem was the neighboring filed full of dry broom sage after the winter harvest. Dad and Pappy raced to that side and beat at the flames with their quilts.
My brother, though just nine, fought with some of the smaller flames. It was all still too big for me and I watched from near the house as my grandmother extinguished the languishing flames with a garden hose and I stomped on the others (after I ran inside the house to put on shoes). Often, I looked up from my small contribution to the effort to watch Dad and Pappy. I still vividly see their silhouettes as they battled the impossibly huge flames that nearly twice the height of those two men. I don’t know if I imagine it or remember it, but I clearly remember the sound of the quilts smacking the ground. WHUMP! A small section of flames squashed. WHUMP! Another. WHUMP! Could they possibly win?
Yes, they could. In what seemed like hours to my young mind, but was most likely a matter of minutes, all but the smallest flames were out. I continued stomping on the small flames out of the hose’s reach until they, too, were out. My mom thanked me for my efforts and chastised me for using my good shoes.
Dad and Pappy patrolled the smoking ground, but it did not flare up again. Eventually, I felt safe again. When it was all over, I saw the sink hole, really saw it, for the first time. The brambles, weeds, and scrubby little tress were gone. The land was cleared and I saw it was deeper than I thought. The yard seemed suddenly quite bigger and later, in the summer, the blackened ground yielded grass and clover. Dad started mowing it and the brush did not return. It soon became my favorite place to be.
I often think of that day when I’m down in the sink hole having a bonfire or just enjoying my favorite spot. I shudder to think how it would be if my brother and I hadn’t accidentally cleared the land. I also think about that day when my life get difficult, when the flames burn brightly and threaten to consume me. I think about it because it reminds me that sometimes the fire, though painful, is cleansing. That though the most difficult moments in our lives may leave us scarred for months or even years, hope remains. Maybe we just needed the brush cleared out so we could truly heal even though it might take longer than we like.
When we’re in the midst of the flames, we usually can’t see it. We can’t see that moment after the flames. The moment the land is healed, when new and better life grows in place of worthless brambles that only scratched and cut at us anyway. The moment we have a cool place, free of thorns, to lay our heads and rest in the heat of the day.