I, too, set a building on fire as a teenager

About a week after my 13th birthday, I accidentally set an abandoned building on fire. I can’t speak to the experiences of the two 12-year-old boys in Lewiston, who, in seemingly unrelated cases, set devastating fires to buildings that people lived in, but I can speak to my own.

Two friends of mine—one just about to enter the military and another only a year older than me—and I started spending time in a building that contained what were once the offices and supply rooms of a lumber yard. We broke into it a couple times and decided that it would be cool to clean it up and to use it as a place to go and get away when we wanted to, largely because we were bored and raised on movies like Stand By Me and The Goonies.

On the third or fourth time we entered the building, my two friends were downstairs when I had stumbled upon a room that was filled with various chemicals and acids, containers of which were literally stacked several feet high in a corner. I took one of the containers of acetone off of the stack and I filled a spray paint cap about an eighth of the way up with it and lit it on fire just to watch it burn.  I had long been fascinated by fire, particularly its powerful and forbidding nature, and I can’t underscore enough that my reasoning was as shallow as I just indicated: I did it simply to watch it burn.

Before I began to feel comfortable in my incredibly lanky teenaged body, I was very clumsy. This manifested itself when I stood to pick up the cap and move it to a nearby table and, in doing so, knocked over the can of acetone. The container spilled and immediately ignited upon coming into contact with the fire. It propelled the canister across the floor, spreading a small lake of fire everywhere. My pants also ignited and as I frantically put them out, I yelled to my friends for help.

There was an old mattress lying around which we tried to throw onto the fire to smother it, but it did little to stop the blaze. The fire quickly began to spread toward the collection of chemicals stacked in the corner, so we ran out of the building, got onto our bikes and fled. One of my friends stopped at a store and told a cashier to call 911. I would later find out that thanks to the quick-thinking of that friend, the volunteer fire department arrived quickly and stopped the blaze. I got home in the early afternoon, said nothing to my father, and hoped that everything would somehow blow over

I waited.

There isn’t a lot that I remember about the conversation with the police, but they arrived while we were eating dinner. I do recall them being very nice though despite their friendliness, I remember them telling me, “Depending on how this turns out, whether charges are pressed, you might be taken out of your home and put into state custody.” And while that never happened, and while charges were never pressed, I remember half-expecting to be suddenly taken from my home at any given moment for the following three or four years. Terrified, I continued to wait for the other shoe to drop.

That this incident occurred—let alone the fact that the arrival of the police was the first my father heard of it—made me nervous for my dad’s response. Surprisingly, upon the departure of the police he was the calmest I had ever seen him. He told me that he was happy that I was okay, and asked me how scared I was about all of this, and suggested that said fear would be punishment enough. While it felt like I was getting away with murder at the time, in retrospect I feel as though this was one of his few parenting victories. Throughout the remainder of my teenage, I never again tempted the fire gods.

This is not to make one suggestion or another about how I think the boys in Lewiston should be penalized. Again, I can speak only to my situation, in which I did monumentally stupid thing. I was fortunate to not be responsible for the loss of people’s homes and to walk away without being charged.

The variables regarding how my situation occurred are many. For one, I was a young boy and young boys can be, for whatever reason, possessed by the seductive nature of fire. And young people have little context for wrapping their heads around consequence, let alone the physiological capacity to do so.

Further, I was one of many kids who had little oversight at home. My parents separated when I was 12 and my mother went to go live in a suburb of Boston. I went to go live with her. While she was substantially more invested as a parent, my experience as a country boy in the city left a lot to be desired, and I persuaded her to let me live with my father. I do not doubt that he loved me very much, but my dad was relatively hands-off when I was a kid to the point where I do not remember much about him before having moved back to Maine. It fast became clear that he knew little about parenting, and for much of my teenage our relationship was that of two roommates more than it was about the guidance and authority facilitated by a family structure. By no means am I wagging a finger at singe parent households, but in mine, the single parent didn’t really understand the parenting part very well.

Boredom was also a factor. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in my town, particularly for young people who weren’t focused on athletics. A lot of kids were faced with situations in which they had to fend for themselves. Really, the only thing that kept me out of trouble as a kid was work, and to do so as much as I did, I certainly violated a number of child labor laws. This came at the detriment of my schooling, and when I got into the groove of working, I felt less inclined to participate in more constructive extracurricular activities as I got older. It is also worth noting that the jobs available to young people are largely based in the service economy, and in my experience, service jobs put one in proximity of a monumental amount of drugs, alcohol, and a number of people with more than a small handful of personality disorders. These environments aren’t particularly positive ones for kids to grow up in, but working in kitchens kept me out of abandoned buildings, so six-in-one, I guess.

Finally, as I entered high school, I observed a total disintegration of leadership on all levels throughout my teenage. The Impeachment hearings were going down, suburban kids were starting to ramp up the devastating art of mass destruction known as the school shooting, teachers were having trouble keeping their hands off students both locally and nationally, and the sins of the Catholic church were coming to light at long last. While I never set anything on fire again, and while I was working all of the time, I certainly did a number of other monumentally stupid things throughout my teenage and I did so thanks in no small part to feeling as though it’s not like anyone is actually in charge of this mess.

And so while the past week of fires has stoked the anxieties of people living in Lewiston, it has made me look into a window into my past. In truth, I have no idea how these young suspected arsonists should be handled as, in retrospect, I am unsure of how my very different situation could have been handled more constructively. I am reminded that once in a great while, or even more frequently than that, a number of factors come together to create a perfect storm of coincidence and unfortunate circumstances. Looking back at it all, I feel incredibly lucky to have made it out of my youth relatively unscathed.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.