A Man on Fire, Pringles, and Liquor: My First Memory

According to a poll conducted by Scientific American, 25% of people recall a troubling event as their first memory, just barely beating out “childhood antics” and “war.” And just as an aside, clearly the Scientific American poll-takers are sadistic fuckers, as they don’t find war to be a “troubling event.” Like, oh your first memory was your brother coming home from Iraq with his legs torn to shreds by a roadside bomb? That’s hilarious, let’s mark that under “light-hearted family capers.”

Nevertheless, I am part of the 25% of troubling first memory havers. When I was around 3 years old, the gas station two doors down from my house exploded. I guess that happens sometimes? So we all run outside to watch the carnage unfold, and everyone on the block is just standing around, like, yup. That bad boy’s on fire all right, flames are gettin’ real hot. But it was probably the sight of the gas station owner on fire, rolling around on the ground, screaming, attempting to pull his melting flesh back onto himself like some kind of skin cardigan that made me think, hmm here’s an image I’m wildly unprepared for. Oh, it’s just the nice gas station man pleading OH GOD HELP ME as the flames spread to his giant flammable beard, his face seconds away from pooling into a chunky puddle in front of some barely concerned neighborhood onlookers. The fire department showed up, and there was nothing on TV, so we all watched them put him out instead. I shook uncontrollably as the grand marshal of the block party from hell was extinguished.

To this day, certain experiences trigger my first memory. Getting gas – there’s the man on fire checking my tire pressure. Going to Burning Man – there’s the man on fire, wearing steampunk goggles and tripping his fiery balls off. Netflix recommends that I watch Backdraft, Heat, and Man on Fire – there’s the man on fire, who somehow guessed my Netflix password and is filling my queue with the hottest films cinema has to offer.

That night, after all the fire trucks and ambulances left, we went over to our neighbor’s house. The adults were all trading stories; undoubtedly my father was calling everyone and everything involved in the evening’s events an asshole – the guy on fire, the firefighters that put him out, the cop that asked everyone to take a step back, the gas station, fire itself. All of them ASSHOLES. I sat quietly on the sofa, staring at nothing, my very small brain processing how to categorize this first memory for a Scientific American poll-taker in the future.

But what’s the old saying? Every story about a man nearly burning to death has a silver lining? At some point my kindly old neighbor Mr. Girardi sat down next to me and handed me two things:  a shot of booze and a can of Pringles. “Here, drink this, it will calm you down. Here, eat these, they come in a weird can.” Because this was the roaring 80’s, when an adult could offer a 3-year-old a stiff drink and some chips and it was fine as long as their parents were present. Back when things made goddamn sense. So, thank you Mr. Girardi for teaching me that when it comes to processing a troubling event, alcohol is top notch. It’s second only to burying the event deep down inside and screaming yourself to sleep every night.

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