It is not often that I have had the chance to put out a man on fire in my previous occupations. When I worked for a neighbor in Tennessee, acting as the ditch-digger assistant to his backhoe service, there were no chances at all for life-saving. I did get to play with jackhammers and dynamite. He taught me the frightful synergy of tamping a blast hole with diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate long before Oklahoma City.
Subsequent jobs had few chances for heroics, though I did learn concrete-forming, burger-flipping, photo-processing, and waste water lab testing. The one time a rack of super-heated test tubes full of grey water and sulfuric acid exploded all over my lab manager, he pretty much saved himself by diving into the safety shower. He sustained no serious injuries, but we all learned a valuable lesson about saying the phrase “things can’t get any worse” out loud.
Now, when I worked as a balloon delivery driver, that was my biggest opportunity to be a hero. Along with wrangling a dozen helium balloons at a time in high winds, I got to make deliveries to birthday parties, massage parlors, and gross anatomy classes. One time, I even got a chance to put out a flaming handyman.
The balloon service was preparing to move from its quaint but cramped quarters in German Village to Main St. in Bexley, the Beverly Hills of Columbus. (Say that to yourself a couple of times: the Beverly Hills of Columbus. Savor the cognitive dissonance.) A few of us twenty-somethings were painting and prepping the walls while the owner’s handyman was stripping the old wooden desks.
Now, this handyman was a curmudgeon and a proud graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. It sounded like he had been the keynote speaker and valedictorian of the class of ’32 as he shared the highlights of his speech. The theme was Common Sense and how “you college boys” don’t know anything about the real world and surviving in it. It wasn’t an overly complicated topic, but he expanded upon it with anecdotes and examples to make it clearer for those of us that were reality-impaired.
We really didn’t engage with him, but he just kept talking as he slapped the noxious chemicals on the varnished wood, scraped it off, and discarded the flammable gel on the canvas drop cloth. A fairly even coat got spattered on the legs of his jumpsuit, too.
Eventually, he took a break.
A smoking break.
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. Right there, in the middle of the furniture stripping project, he did this. With a cigarette in his mouth, he lit one of the matches. I reconstruct the next few steps from the explanations he had to give to several people afterwards.
He struck the match.
He realized that he was in the midst of a large amount of open and flammable chemicals. Being a worldly man, he knew that this was a dangerous situation and he should really take this outside.
Because he wasn’t some snot-nosed college kid, he was smart enough to not set himself on fire. He stood there silently congratulating himself on his exceptional Common Sense. I don’t know how he did this, but it was a fraction of a second too long.
The match singed his fingers and he dropped it. It set the gel on the drop cloth around him to a small but steady flame. The legs of his grey-pinstripe coveralls caught fire in less than a second.
A good deal of shouting, flailing, and stomping ensued. I don’t know if it was just good planning or I had seriously expected this to happen, but I knew exactly where the fire extinguisher was. I hurried the ten to twenty feet to the big red cylinder on the floor. I popped the cotter key off that sucker and dowsed everything that was burning with a thick cloud of fire suppressants.
The handyman looked crestfallen, but no longer aflame. The atmosphere, previously tainted with blather and contempt, was now filling up with smoke, toxic fumes, and the bitter taste of the extinguisher. Formic acid settled onto the back of my tongue and stuck. My coworkers rushed to throw open both the front and back doors. It was a short contest between the evening breeze blowing through and the steady cloud rising from the smoldering goo on the floor. Eventually, clean air tipped the balance.
That’s about the time the fire alarms went off.
This was a new building to us. No-one had mentioned a built-in alarm system or how to turn it off. We rushed to the circuit box and started throwing switches until the noise finally stopped. We chuckled among ourselves, relieved that we were all alive and hadn’t burned down the building. I said something along the lines of: “Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if the lines were still connected to the fire department?”
That’s when we heard the approaching sirens.
Four or five firefighters in full gear came in the front door. The owner returned from his errands through the back door. It was a very uncomfortable fifteen minutes for the handyman.
When asked, I gave a fairly neutral version of the facts, even though the “stupid college kid” in me wanted to rub his nose in smoldering furniture stripping gel. I had done plenty of stupid things before. I have done a few stupid things since. I’ve been lucky that after the flames were out, nobody ever threw me under the bus.