I used to laugh at my friend Sid, who nearly set the house on fire one morning while his mother was away.
Sid’s father had left under mysterious circumstances some years previously. His mother had chosen to keep up the family farm, and was frequently away during seeding and harvest time while Sid was in school.
Sid was totally maladroit in the kitchen. His mother always cooked for him. When she was away he relied on sandwiches, and he often went to a nearby fast-food outlet for a burger and fries.
One morning he decided to make himself a proper breakfast. He couldn’t fry an egg, or even make coffee, but he thought he could handle a plate of bacon. He opened a package he found in the fridge and put the entire contents in a frying pan, which he turned on high. He then went to have a shower.
When he returned, of course, the pan was on fire. With unexpected presence of mind, he put a lid on the pan, smothering the flames. Then he opened a window.
A neighbour, seeing billows of smoke escaping from the house, called the fire department. When they arrived, they found Sid at the kitchen table, eating a pound of charred bacon and washing it down with Coke.
It made a good story during shop class that morning, and it has remained with me ever since. I had cause to think of it in a new way a few months ago.
I had the flu and was not at my brightest one afternoon when I decided to make some tea and toast. My head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool and my sinuses were completely blocked. I filled the kettle and put it on the burner, which I turned on high. I got out some bread and put it in the toaster.
The trouble was, it was an electric kettle with a plastic bottom. There was a merry blaze on the stovetop by the time I turned again to make the tea. I removed the ruined kettle and put it in the sink, but its bottom stayed behind on the burner.
There was a saucepan on the stove, Remembering Sid’s example, I turned the pot upside-down over the fire, intending to smother it. Unfortunately, the handle of the pot lifted it slightly off the horizontal, creating a nice little wind at the base of the fire, effectively creating a miniature blast furnace.
Thanks to a firefighter friend who had long ago convinced us to keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, there was one handy. Such was my state of mind, however, that I couldn’t figure out how to work it.
The stove is one of those flat-topped ceramic types with the burners beneath the surface, and the fire was rapidly spreading. Black smoke billowed upward toward the ceiling, staining everything it touched. The wall beside the stove turned in seconds from white to grey.
No doubt I would have burnt the house down had my daughter not entered the kitchen at that moment. Brigid took the fire extinguisher and rapidly put out the blaze, spraying fire retardant across the stovetop.
By this time the smoke alarms were ringing shrilly, not only the one in the kitchen hallway but the one upstairs outside the bedrooms. The phone rang. It was the security company, checking in as they always do when one of the smoke alarms goes off. I assured them, through my clogged sinuses, that things were under control.
We opened the windows to clear the air, and Brigid proceeded to clean up the mess. I was banished from the kitchen. I eventually hired a professional cleaning company to wipe down the walls and cupboards. I have bought a new fire extinguisher, and the new kettle is kept on the far side of the kitchen.
I have had occasion to thank God for daughters before, but never has the occasion been so obvious and immediate. Indeed, thank God for daughters, and thank God for firefighters who convince you to keep an extinguisher in the kitchen.
I no longer laugh when I think of Sid frying his bacon. He was lucky he didn’t burn the house done, and so was I.