Monday, May 6, 2019

Nurse the Hate: Spontaneous Human Combustion

You don’t hear much about spontaneous combustion these days.  I’m not talking about the inner workings of an engine.  I am talking about someone bursting into flames and leaving nothing behind but a small pile of ash and a discolored patch where they had stood.  Spontaneous HUMAN combustion.  Maybe with climate change this has become less common.  It seemed to happen every now and again in the 70s and early 80s, in what I think was a pinnacle for unexplained occurrences.  That was the time of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Moth Man sightings.  In one year at Garwood Middle School we lost two kids to spontaneous combustion, though neither at the school itself.

This kid named Mark disappeared one week in October.  There was a hastily called assembly where the students gathered as a stammering vice principal gave way to a shell-shocked science teacher named “Mr. Y” that attempted to hammer out how an otherwise normal kid could just burst into flames while sitting in a bean bag chair playing Atari “Missile Command”.  It didn’t make much sense to me and made even less sense to Mark’s Mom who went from “steadily sniffling” to “openly wailing” when Mr. Y made the point about how when Mark burned it was mostly from the inside out.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  I began to consistently monitor my own temperature hoping I wouldn’t burst into flames in front of everyone at the cafeteria.

I had forgotten about it the way kids do.  Children are resilient in that way.  One day the buzz is about Mark catching on fire for no reason and the next is about if there was going to be a food fight on Friday.  We really knew how to live in the moment back then.  I was doing a group project with this girl named Jaime.  We were building a scale model of the Globe Theater.  How that helped me understand what Shakespeare was all about, I don’t know, but that was the assignment.  It was me, Jaime, and this guy Jim that was really handy.  Jim built balsa model airplanes, so essentially the project was Jaime and I watching Jim build this replica Globe Theater (with working trap door no less).  We were a few days out from finishing and Jaime didn’t show up at Jim’s house for our final push.  We couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone at her house and she didn’t show up at school on Monday. 

On Tuesday our teacher, Mrs. McClintock, called us up to her desk.  She was a big woman with bad teeth with an affinity for The Royal Family.  She lowered her voice.  “Boys…  You will have to finish the project on your own.  Jaime isn’t coming back.”  What?  Jim asked.  “Did her family move or something?”  Mrs. McClintock was stymied.  “No…  No…  It was like what happened with Mark.  She’s gone.  She’s gone.”  At this point I was freaking out.  “Jaime burned up like Mark?”  The whole class stopped what they were doing and stared at us by Mrs. McClintock’s desk.  All the kids started talking to each other, wild animated conversations.  Mrs. McClintock struggled to regain control.   There was so much noise that our vice principal came down the hall to sternly take over. 

“Quiet everyone!  Quiet!  Yes, Jaime was found burned up inside her bedroom last night after roller skating.  There is nothing to worry about.  I have been in touch with The Authorities, and they said these are extremely rare occurrences.  You all have nothing to worry about!”  It was at this point I saw his eyes drift over to Mrs. McClintock.  They exchanged a glance that said to me that they were both worried.  Very worried. 

Yet, things calmed down like they always did.  We put up pictures of Mark and Jaime in the entrance hallway of the school.  There was a brief ceremony where the pictures were dedicated, and the band played Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”, hardly appropriate but it was the only song the band had learned competently to that point.  Mark’s parents were farm folks.  His Dad had a collared shirt on that fit, yet he still looked uncomfortable.  His mom just sat in the wooden fold out chair and cried.  Jaime’s parents stood stiffly.  Her father put his lips together so hard that they turned white.  He wore a black suit and had shiny shoes.  I remember how the glint of the tuba reflected on the shine of them.  And then it was over.  We went back to doing things 6th graders did and forgot all about them.

I was thinking about the entire episode today.  It was tragic, but maybe most tragic because those kids just got forgotten.  No one ever brings them up to me anymore.  It is easy to understand why people forget about the past, especially when it is so painful like that.  It’s human nature to move on, to put that in a box and seal it off, try to minimize the pain.  Then again, maybe the reason no one brings it up is because I just made it all up.  It’s hard to say.  Even I’m not sure if it happened or not at this point…


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