By Jack Cawthon|
Night was descending as I was ascending Big Puf Mountain, up the torturous, winding road past the scars left by Lester Archabald’s Degenerated Coal Company workings and the timber clear cuttings of the Long Gone Land Company from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. At the top of the mountain, I expected to look down into the darkened valley and see the flickering lights of isolated cabins and a few dawn to dusk lights lining the main drag of Big Puf, clinging close to the crick bank.
Instead, I was startled to see a warm, orange glow rising from the holler. For a moment, I thought that maybe the Golden Arches, having penetrated into all the remote regions of the world, had finally made its last stand in Big Puf. However, the reverie lasted only a moment, as the orange glow flickered and grew brighter; I realized that it wasn’t an artificial light source, but a raging fire of some sort.
The last big fire to strike Big Puf happened several years ago when Hank Hanshaw’s Escort Service caught fire. His business was headquartered in one of the larger houses in town and was known as quite a money maker, especially when the Legislature met in chambers. His slogan, “Service is Our Only Business,” gained him the attention of several feminists groups who campaigned for a severance tax, known as the Bobbitt Act, on what they considered a renewable natural resource.
Hank’s house caught fire in the middle of the night, but the Tri-Holler Volunteer Fire Department arrived in plenty of time to extinguish the then small blaze. However, the “girls” had begun to exit, some dressed only in their night clothes and some “all natural,” as the French say. The firemen became so distracted that some suffered heat prostation as the place burned to the ground.
As I made my way down the other side of the mountain, the fire grew ever brighter, and I feared that Big Puf’s only social institution, excluding the churches, which many folks did, the Over Easy Inn, might be on fire.
The Over Easy is the only meeting location for the Lions, Rotary, Moose, Eagles and other civic and fraternal organization, had Big Puf any of them. As it is, it serves for all layers of the social order, from partakers of strong drink at the bar, to the separated middle section where sewing circles, and other temperance groups can gather, to a far off nook reserved for the town’s intellectuals, occupied only by Arley Cleeter who peruses books before using them for heating fuel. He has often invited me to join him in his book circle, but I hasten to inform him that as I write a column for the Hur Herald, if word ever got out that I was enjoying intellectual pursuits I would lose my credibility with my readers.
I could now see that the fire didn’t threaten damage to any of the structures in Big Puf. Instead, I saw a huge bonfire blazing near the crick bank, far away from any buildings in town. Around it raced several young people, and as I grew closer I saw a couple of them heave what looked like a large sofa into the fire ring. Then, a lawn table was thrown. Suddenly, I heard a loud roar from the crowd as six or seven young people came dragging a VW Beetle down the road. At the edge of the fire, they upended it. A loud explosion erupted as the gasoline tank spilled its contents into the inferno.
In harmony with the explosion, came a plaintive cry. Little Paddy Pratlow was screaming that his car was burning up. The crowd just laughed and there were chants of the disaffected 70s of “Burn, baby, burn!”
I spied Burvil in the commotion and asked him what was going on and why they were burning the car. I had known Paddy as a kid who had been working long hours at the sawmill, and it seemed a shame for the wanton destruction of his prized possession.
Burvil said that this was an initiation for Halley Hanshaw, who I remembered as a smart kid when I once gave a talk on journalism ethics at Tri-Holler Consolidated High School. Halley was planning to attend college, I had heard.
Burvil told me that Halley had chosen a leading university in the northern part of the state. “Fairmont University!” I exclaimed, forgetting for the moment that there was another one nearby. “No,” Burvil replied, “ thet there party one where the kids get to burn down part of the town each year."” And then I understood. The folks in Big Puf were just getting one of their own ready for higher education. I considered it a noble cause, indeed, that so many kids would participate and help a country kid, one of their own, ease his way into the expectations of a large university.
Paddy was still screaming about his car. I patted him on the shoulder and told him that sometimes one must sacrifice for the community good, an expression I had picked up somewhere in college myself. Spying a stray rocking chair, I gave it a heave and joined in the cheers of the crowd as it ignited.
I am certain that Big Puf will hold its own come football season. A good, rousing fire is therapeutic, as the citizens of Rome discovered. Maybe even Big Puf Daddy, who is no slouch on the fiddle, will provide some background music.