The Great Curtain Conflagration of 1963

1963. A year that saw so many changes in the world: JFK was assassinated, the first American conquered Mt. Everest and General Hospital premiered on television.

It was also the year of the dreadful Great Curtain Conflagration.

I’ve already confessed to having had a love affair with science when I was a boy, and in 1963, I was a mere 5 years old. That didn’t stop me from wondering how the world worked and what would happen if A, B and C were combined under high temperatures and pressures. In fact, it was the year of my scientific awakening and of my first glimpses into the wonders of the scientific method.


I hadn’t yet constructed my subterranean science lab at this point, so of necessity, my experiments were performed “on the fly”. I carried out much field research in my backyard and in the adjacent woods – making honey trails for ants to see if I could get them to march off a cliff, catching butterflies in nets and imprisoning them in my beloved “killing jars”, and digging up the back yard in multiple locations in search of the ever-elusive fossil record of prehistoric life in Yonkers, NY.


This regimen of nature study was all well and good and quite educational, but I found myself with a thirst – nay, a hunger – to dabble in the physical sciences. I wanted to learn about temperatures and pressures, about elemental chemistry and about why a body in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force.


Once again it was a Saturday, this time in October. There had been an uncharacteristic cold snap going on for the last few days, as a result of which my father had already replaced all the window screens in the house with the storm windows, heavy bastards that only he could lift and install. They may have been bulletproof, I’m not sure, but I do remember even my older brothers having trouble carrying more than one at a time.


Of course, Dad carried two in each hand. Superman had nothing on Dad.


So here I was sniffing around in my brother Mickey’s bedroom on the first floor, a marked contrast to my palatial penthouse suite on the second. While mine took up a full third of the second level of the house and even had a full bath just outside the bedroom door, Mickey’s room was a little 10’x12′ cubicle down the short hallway from the kitchen and living room.


It did seem to suit his monk-like ways, however; I often think that my own solitary nature was strongly influenced by Mickey’s habits. He had acquired a love of all things Asian by, perhaps oddly enough, having served in the Army in Korea as an electronics specialist. He had learned Judo at the hands of a 120-pound-soaking-wet, five-foot-nothing ROK instructor who, if the stories Mickey told were true, would toss his 5’11”, 200+ pound frame around the dojo like a ragdoll.


But Mickey went beyond the physical aspects of Oriental life and delved into their philosophy, finding in Buddhism his True Path. He had just returned from service in 1963 and had brought with him a cornucopia of books, figurines, incense burners and other ephemera that at the time could only come from overseas.


Spencer Gifts wasn’t selling that kind of stuff at the time.


Between Mickey’s stories about the mysterious Far East and the undeniable allure of the strange items in his room to a 5-year-old, it was fated that I would be a frequent visitor to his “temple”. Of course, I would put little paper hats on his Buddha figures and wrap his incense in Scotch Tape, all in the quest for scientific knowledge, you understand.


So on this chilly October day. I had managed to occupy my ADHD mind until around 2PM. Mom and Dad were in the house but Susie and David were both out somewhere doing who-knew-what. That wasn’t important to my juvenile mind.


… the fact that Mickey was also absent from the house was.


I made a bee-line to his bedroom and began my ritual investigations of his treasures. I patted Hotei’s belly for good luck; I checked under the bed for the latest Playboy (negative results); I found his pipe and took a whiff of the Cherry Blend tobacco pouch, sitting next to the wooden matches that …


Whoa, wait! Matches? MATCHES?!? Yowza – the Mother Lode!

There is nothing like fire for bringing fascination and excitement into a young boy’s life. Since the first caveman lit the first fire in his cave, little boys the world ’round have been seeking to emulate that first joyous experience, and here, at last, was my chance.

I snuck a peek around the doorframe – Dad was in the basement running the table saw, and Mom was in the kitchen. All clear.


I took the first match out of the large cardboard container and struck it smartly against the rough edge. It flared with a power and majesty that until now I could only imagine, but at this moment was an actual witness to. I held the match as I marveled at the changing colors of the dancing flame, but all too soon the show was over. I shook the match out as I had seen Mickey do so many times, tossed it in the wastebasket and reached for the next match.


Somewhere along the fifth or sixth match I became aware of a … a noise, I guess it was. A crackling, very distant and faint but still discernible. I shrugged it off and lit the next match, still fascinated by the simple physics involved in having a chemical activated so simply, and …


Oh! The wastebasket! Oh, sh*t!!!


Yes, one of the extinguished matches that I had tossed in the trash container proved not to be as extinguished as I thought and had caught fire to some scrap paper. It was a small fire at this point, still contained within the metal basket, so I wasn’t unduly alarmed. I thought briefly and my still-developing brain came up with a simple solution –


Put the fire out with water.


I started to run toward the kitchen when I realized Mom was in there and would no doubt have some concerns over my latest experiment. She had proven how emotionally-charged she was after the last experiment, the one with the duct-taped family cat and the cherry bomb. I couldn’t rely upon her to have an objective, scientific view of my activities anymore.

Thinking quickly I sauntered into the kitchen, la-de-da, “Hi, Mom”, took a glass from the dish strainer on the counter and filled it with water.

Boy, I’m thirsty!


Mom smiled and went back to dropping her unfiltered Chesterfield ashes into whatever dinner she was making.


I power-walked down the hall, back to Mickey’s bedroom. The flames had grown a little. I threw the glass of water on the fire, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. Odd, that …


Sweat now formed on my brow, just a light sheen but enough so that I knew I was now sweating. What to do? Tell Mom? A moment’s reflection on the outcome of the taped-and-exploding-cat experiment once again showed me the only course of action now possible.


I power-walked back to the kitchen. “Gosh, Mom, I’m REALLY really thirsty!” Back to the bedroom. Toss. Flames are getting higher – they’re now over the rim of the trash-basket and showing no sign of being affected by water, a liquid which, by all written accounts in science journals previously consulted, should have extinguished the fire.


So much for peer-reviewed literature. I made a note to cancel my subscriptions to Scientific American and Popular Science and cursed the day that A Boy’s Treasury of Modern Science(pub. 1953) was ever published.


Power-walk back. “REALLY REALLY REALLY thirsty!” Bedroom. Flames.


By now the flames had decided that they were bored living in such a confined environment as the metal waste container and had decided to set out in search of more fertile ground, in this case, the heavy curtains hanging on either side of the bedroom window. They were beginning to catch rather nicely, or so the calmer, more observant part of my brain noted. Meanwhile, the emotional left side of my brain was saying




That’s when Mom, her maternal instincts no doubt triggered by concern over my dehydration, decided to peek around the doorway to see if I was alright.


They claim that mothers can often read their children’s minds. I found this to be true, because she let out with a scream that EXACTLY mirrored that of my left-side brain –




I have to admit, even in the midst of this potential tragedy, I noted that HER rendition was MUCH superior to mine.


She tried to open the window but, due to its Brinks-like construction, utterly failed.


MIIIIIIIIIKE!!!!” she called my father, knowing he could handle anything with his superpowers. He came up the basement stairs three at a time, whacking his head on the low overhead beam in the stairwell in the process. He gained the room, took one look at the wastebasket and at our now-red-tinged profiles, dashed to the storm window, flung it open (his manly muscles straining nicely in the process – I would swear I saw his Brachioradialii getting vascular!) and tossed the flaming basket and now-fully-engaged curtains out the window into the backyard.


Mom was panting and puffing and making little squeaky noises – “Oh …uh…ew…“. Dad was looking first out the window then at me, with a look that would itself have put out that fire. He dashed out to the yard and sprayed the garden hose on the still-smoldering ruins, still glaring up at the bedroom window, his soot-streaked face and glowing bruise on his bald head giving a nice study in color contrasts.


I tried to blend into the paint in the corner but was unsuccessful.


Albert Einstein once said,

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

Nice to know that I’m on a first-name basis with one of the greatest scientific minds ever.


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