The old timers on the island lived through The Great Depression, The Great War and The Great Fire. The way I heard the tales they’d been through Ragnorak and The Apocalypse all rolled in one. I sat on porches or in parlors or in kitchens and heard the tales again and again over the years.
Bar Harbor was called Eden then and the cream of the American aristocratic industrialist elite had cottages in and around the town. Cottages the rest of the nation would be happy to call mansions. After the Great Fire, close to 70 summer cottages in what was called Millionaires’ Row burned to cinders in a season of smoke and hell, a century of rusicator history gone and all the possessions of the Fords and other families of their ilk smoldering and ruined.
I remembered the stories every time the old timers looked at the sky and wondered when the hell it would rain and the woods were some damn dry and who the hell was the fool burning brush. I was always impatient to be off and doing, leave them to their telling.
I was off the island, selling lobsters at the wharf when the siren went.
“What the fuck was that?” asked Mick.
“Fire, I ‘magin,” said Old Morris.
We left our skiffs tied up at the wharf and joined the sprint for the gravel lot. Every fisherman on the wharf that afternoon headed for their truck and something to do besides salt bait and wait for the tide.
Mick peeled out of the parking lot spraying gravel from the two wheels on the ground.
“How do you know where to go?” I asked.
“It’s a fire,” said Mick. “We’ll find it.”
There was only the one road through town and every truck headed west, it wasn’t exactly a GPS moment.
Mick parked where the road ended past the dump.
Old Millard and the geezers were lined up by their trucks looking off down through the puckerbrush. The volunteer fire department had unrolled the hoses from the town trucks but the line of fire was beyond their reach.
“God damn fool, burning as dry as it’s been,” said Millard.
“Jaysus Christ,” said Mick. “It ain’t like you can talk it out. Come on Benjoy.”
Mick took off through the smoke into the fringe of brush and stunted trees. I followed.
We were both still in our hipboots and were swamped with sweat before we got anywhere close to the flames. At scatter of empty 20 gallon tanks like backpacks with hand pumps marked the edge of the burn.
Mick gave one a kick to make sure, then hacked off a couple of spruce branches with his knife and handed me one.
The branch was about 3 feet long. It reminded me more of a fan than anything.
“Don’t worry,” said Mick. “We’ll wet ’em down. Here comes JC with a tank.”
Jimmy Crow came bouncing and jouncing across the rough ground with great spouts of water shooting up out of the tank each time the truck took to the air and landed again. He got to within a couple hundred yards before he went airborne and landed his truck on a rock so that all four tires spun uselessly above the ground.
“What a fuckin’ gibrone,” said Mick.
I didn’t reply, just joined the ragged line of fire beaters there in the brushy woods.
The fire burned low and fast where it moved through the resinous juniper and grasses. Here and there it found piles of spruce branches and these burned hot and steady. When it caught the thick lower branches of a young spruce it exploded up and out into a fifteen to twenty foot wall of flame.
Mick stripped down to his T-shirt and tied his flannel shirt to cover his mouth. I watched the embers settle on his back and burn though the material. I rolled up my sleeves but left my plaid flannel shirt right where it was.
As soon as we waded into that fire everything was smoke and flame and blistering heat when the wind swirled round. The quick stinging burn of embers on forearm and neck and the smell of burning hair. The roar and crackle of ravenous flames and the wild wind through it all.
I beat the line of fire then moved on to attack the next wave, then the next. All I knew was what was in front of me.
I was beating the line in front of me to pieces when Mick grabbed my shirt and hauled me back.
“Jaysus Christ, Benjoy,” he bellowed and he pointed at the fire that had circled around and the slim gap that he’d pulled me through. We looked at each other eyes huge in grimed faces and then roared with laughter.
Laughing at what I couldn’t say, not now, 40 years later, perhaps at the exhilaration of the power around us, at the closeness of the heat, at the pure bright power of the flames, or maybe just the sheer blind foolishness of being young and taking on the world.
Danger is like that; Infernos born of a single spark and all we can do is wade into it, hipboots and all, with whatever we have at hand. The stories, they are the mile markers along the way, set like piles of stones, added to as we pass by.