I must have been 10 years old when we were experiencing a heat wave that lasted for more than a week. I couldn’t wait to get out into the fresh air to go to school that morning. I remember walking and carrying my books when I met a boy who was also going to school. His face looked familiar but we had never spoken before that time. While we were walking and after some small talk, he said, “Let’s go through that lot, it’s a shortcut.” I recall the path had grass and weeds that were overgrown with stalks that were almost as tall as we were. The path became narrower as we walked through the lot and there was a house bordering it closely on the left side. When we came to a small clearing he stopped and took something out of his loose-leaf book that I recognized as a “sparkler” that people light on the 4th of July and he stuck it in the ground. ‘’You’re not gonna light that now, are you?” I said. “Yeah! Why not?” he answered, sort of challenging me with his tone. “I’m leaving!” I said as I turned and went back out of the lot to the sidewalk. I couldn’t help thinking how dumb it was of him to even think of lighting a sparkler in that dry lot. I walked to school and what happened there will stay in my memory forever.
I was sitting in my classroom and from the open windows I could hear sirens as they came closer and closer until they were blaring right there on our street. I remember hearing that loud clanging bell and the cavernous sound of the fire engine truck, which was so close that it vibrated the air inside our schoolroom. I knew the fire had to be nearby and I couldn’t help thinking that he set the lot on fire and maybe the house next to it was burning also. As if all of this wasn’t enough, our school “fire alarm” went off, and we were told to line up for a fire drill to evacuate the building. Scenarios of doom ran through my mind, like they caught him running out of the lot and when they accused him of starting the fire, I could just hear him lying to them, blaming me for doing it. The whole thing was overwhelming; I imagined the police taking me out of school...him pointing his finger at my face...me being locked up, my picture in the newspaper, and the entire school and our neighborhood ostracizing me for something that I didn’t do.
As I waited in line during the fire drill, my mother’s words, in Yiddish, came to my mind, “Gib achtig fahr ah bilbil!” “Be aware of a frame-up!” She meant from evil people.
Well, nobody ever came looking for me, and I never walked on that block again. I didn’t want to be seen there so I went up an adjacent street each day... However, I was left with a malady due to this ordeal. Whenever I heard the sound of sirens, I was always scared, until many years later when I went back to that day in my mind to face what I feared. I also, for the first time, visited my old neighborhood to see that lot and if the house next to it was still there, and it was, and there was never a fire, and the tall stalks and weeds were now neatly trimmed grass. I could have avoided years of anguish had I then gone back to look.
Now when I hear the sound of fire engine sirens in the distance, I like to listen for the bell, which for me has become a sound of freedom from fear. At times, facing a frightening experience and thinking positively can be liberating, like going through an annealing process to change things for the better.
I recall an adage I was taught, even before I was 10 years old, that I still follow the teaching of to this very day: “Always choose your friends wisely!”...Thanks Mom!
By David S. Weinstein