I got my first real job when I was a junior in high school. I was terrified of tardiness, so I always left about twenty to thirty minutes before my shift even though we lived only five minutes from the mall where I worked. I hadn’t even worked there a month the November Saturday I walked out the front door and enjoyed the unseasonably warm temperature. I thought I might actually put the top down on my way to work and looked forward to the drive. Then I saw the flames.
A huge wall of fire stretched out in a widening U shape from the house next door. At the moment, it hadn’t yet touched our property, but it raced through the high weeds of the open field. I had seen flames that large before, but never so close to our home and it scared me more than being late.
The flames rapidly consumed the overgrown weeds in the field. I quickly ran back inside and called out, “Dad, you’d better get out here!”
I went back outside just as the fire hit our fence row. There was an old horse lot between the burning field and our house. The worn wooden fence was tangled with thick blackberry bushes. The flames licked at one end of the fence and quickly caught in the dry brambles. With a “fwooomp,” the hungry fire swallowed the fence row. One moment the blackberry bushes were there, the next they were charred black by the blast of the fire.
Fortunately our grass was neatly trimmed and the flames’ progress slowed. We didn’t have a house that would reach, so I went out and began smothering the fires I could with my shoes. I wanted to keep it from the next fence row which was uncomfortably close to our house. I had too much ground to cover, but kept at it. Dad joined the fight just as the first fire truck arrived.
To our dismay, they started with the part of the fire burning away from our house toward the newly laid asphalt of what became Warfield Boulevard. There were no house in that direction. We jumped back in the fray and kept at it until an astute firefighter noticed that there was a, you know, house on the other side. They redirected the hose and made short work of the flames near our house.
The firefighters rendered the entire blaze into a soaked, smoking mess. Even though I still didn’t want to be late for work, I hung around long enough for Dad to find out what started the conflagration. Apparently, our brilliant neighbor at the time wanted to remove the weeds in his back yard. His lawn mower wouldn’t start. The obvious solution was to burn the weeds out. He didn’t consider the field and our home.
My curiosity satisfied, I left for work without going back inside. I made it just as my shift started.
“What happened to you?” asked the assistant manager.
“What do you mean?”
“Look in a mirror,” he suggested.
I went to the restroom and did. A soot streaked face stared back at me. There was ash in my hair. I did my best to clean up with the sink. Once I was presentable, I went back to the assistant manager.
“So what happened?”
“Why didn’t you just call in?”
“I didn’t want to be late. I like this job.”
“Leighton,” he explained patiently, “Fire is considered a good reason to be late.”
It seemed so obvious once he told me.