January 26, 2021 | Rome, Italy

Pyro

By | 2018-03-21T18:45:29+01:00 July 23rd, 2011|Area 51|
Detail from "Disastrous Daring" by Norman Rockwell.
I

n early July, we read that Sunday would be the hottest day of the year, maybe even the hottest day ever, or at least since the dinosaurs, a wild and lengthy time our comic book daydreams invested in daily. I was busy tossing a tennis ball on the front porch when my neighbor Byrne came by with details he’d picked up from his father, a physicist (a man, I guessed, who did a great deal of physical fitness). “Tomorrow the whole planet is going to boil!” announced Byrne. He sounded out boil as if his lungs had been moved to his mouth to suit the needs of immediacy.

But before tomorrow we had planning to do. Byrne immediately decided to convene a posse. “We’ll go to the roof with tin stuff and magnifying glasses,” he said.

I immediately agreed, not knowing what tin and magnifying glass had to do with the hottest day in history except that Byrne wanted to create “a tin laser beam” that would incinerate local houses (those that hadn’t already been boiled away.) He told me he had once “murdered” an ant with a magnifying glass, which I didn’t understand but scared me.

Washington, D.C. is hot in summer. The swampy city broils itself for weeks on end, making good on the quip “frying pan into the fire,” another verbal mystery that then eluded me. I’d stand in the kitchen waiting for the frying pan to sink into the fire, or at least express an interest in doing so, but it never did. “You’re a pyromaniac,” Byrne told me, stealing a word from his father’s dictionary. Since it sounded like one of many small dinosaurs, my favorite imaginary pet, I nodded in agreement.

The next day the posse gathered at 10 a.m. under the alley telephone pole near the hornet’s nest beside the “chink,” our name for the crack in the pavement under which demons lived. Byrne arrived carrying two steel pot lids, a tiny magnifying glass, an oral thermometer, and a baseball cap (“I’m not getting my brain fried again,” he told us, making the other posse members, me and Little Tony, who lived next door, wonder when his brain had been fried before). I brought a dull table knife and a packet of Jell-O, neither of which impressed Byrne. Little Tony, both extremely little and very practical, brought four used D-batteries — “So the hottest heat can recharge them!” Byrne said Little Tony was idiotic, since the hottest day ever would just boil the batteries. “Cool!” replied Little Tony.

The next step was finding a perch on the garage roof of Little Tony’s house, the easiest one to reach since we could crawl over the grape trellis that Mrs. Little Tony had put up near the carport. By the time we’d settled in, about Noon, the day was already snarling.

“What’ll happen is that the sun will destroy Mercury first and then it’ll spread proton beams and make these beacons that’ll enter the atmosphere and bake the lakes and rivers and then all the buildings will be on fire and…” He ran out of energy and began building his tin laser. He jammed the magnifying glass into the pot lids. “Just watch!” he said. We did. Nothing happened. He explained it wasn’t boiling yet.

But my thermometer was. I held and twirled the silver bulb. “It looks like a … thing,” said Little Tony, the closest any of us could get to the word “penis.” But the thing registered 112 degrees, and an hour later registered 120. By 3 p.m. the red vein grew so excited the tip exploded, little gobs of mercury on the roof.

“It’s happening!” shouted Byrne. “The planet is boiling!” He put on his baseball cap. I sprinkled Jell-O on my arms (against deadly rays). Little Tony just perspired.

There we sat, awaiting the worst, houses and streets on fire. But the worst refused us. When I asked Byrne why, all he said was: “Shut up, Pyro…” Little Tony said he was hot and bored and wanted to go home to read comic books. Byrne shooed him away.

By late afternoon, Byrne’s father the physicist, taking out the trash (part of his fitness routine, I guessed), spotted us. “Boys, it’s 101 in the shade. Get down from there!”

Byrne said he had no intention of moving until the world boiled or everything caught on fire. “What’s on fire is my temper,” said Byrne’s father, and Byrne reluctantly climbed down. “Bye Pyro,” he said.

I sat alone for a while with the Jell-O box, knife and broken thermometer. I thought about false alarms and atom bombs; about ants and physical fitness; about how people exaggerated — after all, the frying pan never leapt into the fire. I finally left the hottest day ever to its own devices, which turned out to be no more or less than preparing for a hot tomorrow, and more tomorrows after that, until the tomorrow came in which, through chance or study, I finally learned the real meaning of pyromaniac and physicist, only half-appreciating the orthodoxy while preferring to linger — then as now — on the sweet imprecision of my dinosaur yesterdays.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner
Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.

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