En Fuego

Author’s Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and forgot to post it. I was reminiscing about my dad and have no idea why these particular memories surfaced, but I patterned the piece after one of my favorite Bonnie Neubauer exercises called “The Dump” where you just randomly write about a one word topic. My word prompt was “fire” and I didn’t realize how may times I could associate my father and myself with burning things – I wonder what that says about us!

I.   One of the craziest things to happen to me in a car happened with my dad. It was the summer of 1995 and Daddy and I had been out running errands and were headed to McDonald’s to pick up ice cream on the way home. Don’t ask me why but we were in my ’89 Ford Escort bomb of a car, and just as we drove past the landfill, I smelled something very strange, something akin to burning meat. Just as I asked my father about it, smoke started pouring out from under the hood and he calmly answered: “that’s us, I think we’re on fire.” Everyone on the other side of the highway could tell we were in deep trouble so they yielded to us as we made a completely illegal left turn into a gas station. Looking back,  I know it was because there were fire extinguishers at the gas pumps, but at the time I was scared to death that we’d all spontaneously combust. Daddy put the fire out as I ran inside and asked the attendant “could you please call 911? My car is on fire.” How I was that polite and calm is beyond me. The fire department was only ten minutes away, but it was an all-volunteer station so it took them almost a half hour to get to us. We had to have the car towed and Mama came to pick us up — the mechanic cleaned out the engine block and determined that when we had the alternator replaced, a piece of plastic was left on the engine block and melted, sparking the fire. It was wild, but I was so thankful I was with my dad that night because his quick thinking saved me and my car from a far worse situation.

II.   One of my earliest memories is of my father building a fire in the fireplace — there really isn’t anything remarkable about that, but what sticks in my mind even after all these years is that he used coal to get the fire started. He stored it on the hearth in an old diaper pail, and I vaguely remember thinking it was weird to use shiny black rocks to start a fire. He always got his hands filthy between the coal and the newspapers he used to kindle a fire, but I think using coal was a much easier way to build a hotter, longer burning fire than just by using newspaper. Of course, today you’d get carted off by the environmental police if you even thought about burning coal but back in the early 80’s it was a perfectly acceptable way to heat your home and gave me an early memory of my father that I cherish to this day.

III.  One of the most interesting science fair projects my father ever helped me with was the first one we ever did. Daddy was a chemical engineer for 42 years, so even though he was a bit of a ringer, I can say without exaggeration that my science fair projects always kicked ass. I think it was fun for him to be a part of my science education and my projects have given me so many wonderful memories of time spent with him. The only one we worked on at the house was when we built a homemade calorimeter to test the caloric content of certain foods. We used a coffee can to build it and the only foods I remember testing were hot dogs and rice cakes, but I’m sure there were others. I had to look up how a calorimeter works on the Internet (sorry Daddy!) to refresh my memory but it all came back to me once I did. One calorie is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree so we created this machine that allowed us to burn different foods and measure the change in water temperature. What I remember the most is how bad rice cakes smell when you burn them. It’s a wonder we didn’t set off the smoke detector. Come to think of it, that could be why we started using his lab the following year.

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