No. This is not a tribute to Peeta from The Hunger Games. Nor is it about a man who did exceptionally well at something. This is a story about my ex-husband who caught himself on fire.
I am going to try and struggle through this without being mean. I will stick to the facts and not embarrass my children any more than necessary. The fact that it happened and the story won’t die more than sixteen years later is embarrassing enough for them. It is just one of those stories that must be told because IT EXPLAINS A LOT.
People used to ask me why I didn’t like to barbecue, and then not know quite what to say when I would say, “I don’t like barbecuing since my ex-husband caught himself on fire.”
Surprisingly, that is not the only time this story comes up. It comes up in most fire conversations, obviously, but it also has surfaced in discussions of the craziest drives across town, and of the worst phone calls to get while you are at work, and what extremes people without health insurance will do to avoid medical bills. Because this story has all of that. Fire, anger, no medical coverage for an ambulance and a whole lot of stupidity.
(Oops. I said I was going to not say it mean. So strike the word “stupidity” and make it “bad decisions.”)
A whole lot of really bad life decisions.
So I went to work one day and left Carsen, then three, and Luke, then barely one, with their Dad. I worked the night shift at the time at a hotline, and I would go in at 4 pm and get off at 2 in the morning. This meant that Rick was on his own for making dinner and entertaining the kids until their bedtime.
When I left for work, both the kids and Rick were napping and Rick had plans of barbecuing some dinner. Easy stuff. I wasn’t worried that anything could happen…..
It was only about 4:30 and I was already on the phones when a coworker came over to me, quite panicked, and I muted my line. She told me my husband was on the phone saying there had been an emergency. She took over my hotline call for me and I went to call him back.
“What’s wrong? Are the kids OK?”
“You have to come home. Right now.”
As my coworker did, I heard the panic in his voice and I knew something was terribly wrong. My first thought was the kids – something had happened to them.
“What happened? Did Luke fall out of bed? Did Carsen wake up before you and try to paint the cat again?”
“They are fine. I caught myself on fire.”
I can’t really explain the tone of his voice. It is best described as a very much like Samuel L. Jackson’s deadpan portrayal of a man sick of snakes on a plane. Monotone but with emphasis.
“What?????” I was dumbfounded. “Is this a joke? What is wrong with you?”
“No, really. I caught myself on fire.”
“So stop drop and roll, you idiot!” I was laughing. Nervous laughter . I still thought it was so impossible. You can start a fire that might burn you, but how do you ignite yourself and then make a phone call and calmly explain it? It made no sense.
“No, it’s out now.”
“But you can’t just catch yourself on fire….”
“I am not going to argue,” He raised his Samuel L. Jackson voice at me again. “Just come home and take me to the hospital.”
“I am calling an ambulance.”
“No. No ambulance,” He growled.
“Um, you just caught yourself on FIRE. What happened?”
“I was using lighter fluid and I might have gotten some on my hands. …And then I might have wiped my hand on my shirt…. And when I lit a match my whole shirt caught on fire.”
“So then you stopped dropped and rolled?”
“Um, no, so then I took my shirt off.”
“Over your head????”
“While it was on FIRE?” I think I screamed that part a little loud because people at work kind of did the prairie dog in their cubicles and started snickering. So then I whispered, “Are you ok? Did you roll then?”
“Um, no.” He whispered back through what I now know were teeth clenched in pain, which apparently started coming on strong as the shock wore off. “So then my hair was on fire and I am not sure I have any eyebrows left and please stop talking and just come home.”
“I am calling the ambulance.”
“No. We can’t afford it and I don’t want them thinking I am stupid.”
(“But you are stupid!” I said, but luckily only in my head and for the purpose of this post we will substitute the word stupid with “sassy” because that is what the kids call him now. Sassy Rick. Although Carsen’s friends Erin and Ashley did not come up with that most appropriate of nicknames until 10 years later. But it fit him even then.)
“But you are sassy!” I said in my head.
I could hear Carsen screaming now, and not sure if she was screaming because of the sight of her dad on fire or charred or just because he was acting so weird, I decided not to argue about the ambulance we could not afford anymore.
Longest 15 minute ride home ever.
When I got there he was standing outside in the driveway with a screaming baby Luke and a pouting Carsen, sucking her fingers and holding onto her baby doll. “Daddy hurt hisself,” She alerted me.
“I know, honey. Now we have to take him to the Doctor.”
Rick’s whole face and chest and forehead were bald and red and blistery. It didn’t look as bad as I had envisioned – just like fresh-plucked chicken flesh with no hair.
Rick was shirtless and would not put anything on for the ride to the hospital. He had the charred shirt in his hand though – all that was left of the white t-shirt was the collar, the seams across the shoulders and the back. Where the front had been was gone. It looked like one of those ridiculous short shrug sweaters that basically cover nothing but your shoulders and back and make no sense, only charred at the edges where a front should have been.
It smelled awful. Burned hair and shirt and singed skin do not smell good at all.
I insisted that he put out the barbecue and then we argued for a bit about which hospital before deciding on the closest one.
He did insist on driving. Through clenched teeth he told me I would be too slow. When I started the ambulance talk again he shut me up with a sassy death look and made his way to the driver’s seat of the truck.
By this time it was 5:00 in Austin. And 5:00 in Austin, even in 1996, meant traffic. And that meant we shouldn’t really be going anywhere fast. But that didn’t stop Rick! Like a scene out of Little Miss Sunshine, he just pounded the horn and weaved in and out of cars, driving on the shoulder when he had to. On the upper deck of I-35. (If you know the road you know I was terrified.) On the service road of the dodging pedestrians. By the Frank Erwin Center through a red light.
I just shook my head because there were no words.
“Daddy you aren’t supposed to drive like this,” Carsen would say every once in awhile.
I can’t remember where we parked but I am pretty sure it was somewhere in front of the sliding doors to the Emergency Room. Blocking it.
The doctor took him right away. That happens when you come in screaming that you were on fire and disrupting the waiting room.
Burns were cleaned and ointment provided. I sat in the waiting room still shaking my head. I could hear the ER staff behind the glass laughing at the story and Rick’s antics.
They wanted to keep him overnight but the no insurance thing meant that wasn’t going to happen. So we went home as soon as possible and he nursed those wounds on his own for a long time.
We threw the grill away. We kept the shirt as a reminder of what not to do. His eyebrows eventually grew back (the hair just above his forehead never did). My parents bought him a gas grill for Christmas. And Carsen and I have a nice healthy fear of lighter fluid.
Moral of the story: Stop, drop and Roll. They teach you this so you will never have a story like this that can never be lived down.
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