Burning down the dump

It was the mid-70s, probably the summer that my youngest brother, Mark, was twelve. One evening, he and his same-aged friend, Bruce Bellinger, headed to a preferred place for play: the dump.

The dump was one block over and one block down, in a field, at the end of a short two-track path. It was loaded with items that were dream-finds for any young boy—not to mention a good place for some deeply desired devilry.

Upon arriving as tandem riders on Bruce’s one-person bike, that evening’s mischief came in the form of a full pack of matches that someone left behind. With some dry leaves conveniently collected against the junk, the boys lit the entire pack at once in the leaves. Up into huge flames went the leaves, fulfilling their dream . . . then up went the dump, igniting their nightmare.

Scared, um, witless, they leaped onto Bruce’s bike and high-tailed it out of there. To their chagrin, Mr. Flahive, who lived across the street from the dump, was in his front lawn. He put the scenario together in a flash and headed inside to call the fire department, then to his car.

Mark and Bruce sped one block up and one block over, past our house and on to Bruce’s, which was one more block over. Stopping in the yard, they didn’t have time to hatch a plan before two things happened: Montague’s fire siren screamed and Mr. Flahive came driving by.

“You boys set the dump on fire!” he blared, and kept on driving. Mr. Flahive was a wise man, who knew our parents, and he likely figured that since the boys knew that he knew, they would confess to their folks. Mark and Bruce were not total nitwits; they headed out to do just that.

When Mark arrived home, Mom was across the street at her frequent haunt, Kathy Sobers. Dad was in his own frequent haunt, our garage. This arrangement of our parents might have saved Mark’s life.

Still scared, um, witless, Mark entered the garage. He mustered his confession: “Dad, those sirens going off? Bruce and I just burned down the dump.”

Who knows if it were the sincerity of his confession, or if Dad just wanted to get on with whatever project he was into, or the hand of God working a modern-day miracle, but Dad’s reaction was the answer to a frightened kid’s contrite cry: “Just don’t do it again.”

Just don’t do it again? Are you kidding, Dad? If Mom were home, it would have been, “You did what?” Whack! “What were you thinking?” Whack! “Didn’t I teach you not to play with matches?” Whack! Whack! “When are you going to start using your head, the way I taught you?” Whack! Whack! WHACK!

Mom was the one who meted out the punishment, who often said that Dad was too easy on us. Still, Mark heard Dad’s words and waited for more. No more was to come. He had avoided the noose. He quickly agreed with Dad’s summation, “Okay,” and ran for freedom.

What of Mom finding out? For the sake of Mark’s hide, she would not hear his confession until the statute of limitations on burning down dumps had expired, a decade later.

What of Bruce’s fate? The poor kid’s guardian angel must have still been at the dump, observing the dowsing of the fire fiasco, because Bruce received the more expected result: one month’s grounding.

Finally, what came of the dump? That land had the best ending of all. As city manager, Dad worked with his lifelong friend, Henry Roesler, who was the administrator for Lutheran Homes of Michigan, to get senior apartments for Montague. The dump was cleaned up and turned into the perfect spot for folks like our grandmother, Dad’s mom, to spend their latter years. As Dad would frequently make the walk, one block over and one block down, to see his mom, that piece of land wound up being a loved location for three generations of Eilers.

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