Everything I know, I learned from school assemblies. Precious events, assemblies were brief and wondrous interruptions from the drudgery of normal schooling. We’d have quarterly awards ceremonies, choral concerts for major holidays, and visits from various government agencies and awareness groups looking to impart some fresh horrors to our young minds.
Most effective on me were the anti-smoking campaigns. Somewhat less effective were the anti-drug seminars and warnings about playing on train tracks. Least effective were the abstinence assemblies that started in middle school. Something about watching a crew of Jesus freaks talk about saving their bodies for marriage only made me want to engage in premarital sex more.
And then there were the firefighters. They would march in, decked out in fire-resistant gear, with tales and prophecies of houses up in flames. Do you know what to do if you wake up to a smoke alarm blaring? I still remember most of their instructions. First off, don’t touch the doorknob. If there’s a fire on the other side, it could be hot enough to burn your hand. Touch the door. If it’s warm, or you otherwise can’t escape your room due to flames and smoke, keep the door closed and put a wet towel under it. (Where do you get the wet towel? Have one ready every night for just this purpose, I suppose.) Open your window and shine a flashlight or wave brightly colored cloth out to potential rescuers. If you do get out, have a designated meeting spot with your family. Never go back inside for pets. If you catch fire, stop, drop, and roll. Are you testing your smoke detectors every month? Do you have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen? Are you unplugging electric heaters and keeping a clear area in front of fireplaces and blowing out candles before you go to sleep?
There are a lot of ways your house could catch on fire. One of the least likely is arson—the deliberate act of setting fire to property. So naturally, that was the one I fixated on.
I had a lot of trouble falling asleep as a kid. I used to listen to books on tape—D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Harry Potter, The Hobbit—well past my bedtime. When that didn’t work, I imagined various scenarios where I would have to stay completely still, willing myself into a dreamless sleep. Maybe my parents would come in and check on me, so I needed to pretend to be asleep. Or a group of bandits had broken into our home and would kill me if they realized I was under the covers. And when that didn’t work, I imagined I was awake for a reason—I was on guard for arsonists who wanted to burn our house down.
In my head, they were a bit like the burglars in The Sims—they would appear, with a bit of musical flourish, at the edge of our lot. And if you didn’t wake up and call the cops immediately, they’d make off with your TV, your computer, your refrigerator—or, in this case, light our house up in flames. The arsonists had no motive. They were just a random, in-game disaster that you had to be ready for.
Then one night, our neighbor’s garage actually did catch on fire. An old electric heater, they said later, threw a spark. He was a long-distance trucker, and his cab and a large oil tank were out in the driveway. My parents and I watched from my bedroom window as firefighters came to put out the flames. If the fire reached the oil tank, we theorized, the whole thing could explode. There goes the neighborhood. We couldn’t escape; the firefighters were parked up in our driveway. All we could do was watch.
They did put it out, obviously—that’s kind of their whole thing. And it turned out that the oil tank was empty, so there was no risk of a catastrophic explosion the likes of which Vermont had never seen.
As an adult, I don’t worry about arson too much, or even really fires, despite the fact that my apartment building, with its aging electrical wires, could probably go at any moment. Maybe I stopped imagining arsonists after my neighbor’s fire—that’d be nice and clean narratively. Or maybe it’s the lack of school assemblies! Let’s get my office to contract the NYFD for a quick seminar on fire safety and see if I start having nightmares.
If I can’t fall asleep tonight, I’ll try imagining an arsonist for old times’ sake. I’ll lay completely still, trying not to breathe too loudly lest I miss the strike of a match or the trigger of a blowtorch. I’ll sniff the air periodically for smoke. And if I catch a whiff of anything, I’ll be ready. The firefighters made sure of that.