BURN THIS ONE, DADDY! by Michael Bartolomei

February 29, 2012

My Dad didn’t grow up a redneck.  He isn’t a redneck now.  But, for the eight years we lived in rural Washington State, he was a redneck.  It wasn’t a gradual progression.  He didn’t start with flannel and slide into gun racks.  He took a running start from the San Francisco Bay Area and barreled straight down redneck slope until he skidded to a stop in a town called Yacolt.

The man I called Daddy was a 23 year-old boy with two kids and another soon to follow.  My parents packed up their new family and left sunny California for drizzly Washington because…well that is something of a family mystery.  The closest I’ve ever gotten to an answer from my Dad was, “Wasn’t healthy.”

Before the move, my Dad was a strapping 6’1 stud with helmet hair and an unkempt drummer beard. He was the finest his era churned out; bell bottoms, biceps, a collection of vinyl that would make retro nerds weep, a freaking gold Corvette Stingray. Gold. The man was cool as cool.

After the move my Dad was a pudgy 6’1 red neck with helmet hair and a soup strainer moustache.  He wore flannel shirts, he drove a pick-up truck with a gun rack, he mounted Elk antlers above our garage (he would have mounted the whole head but dogs ate the Elk’s tongue before he could get it mounted).  He even let Kenny Rodgers and Alabama infest his beloved rock collection.  From hippie stud to Jeff Foxworthy cover art, what a difference 696 miles makes.

His transformation was not about adapting to new surroundings.  He reveled in the redneck.  If you asked him about it today he would say something like, “That’s just the way it was.”  Nonsense.  All pigs are in shit, that’s their thing.  They walk in shit, they lie in shit; pigs will be pigs.  The phrase like a pig in shit refers to the pig that loves the shit; the pig that rolls in the shit and roots through the shit, the pig that leaps from the fencepost and canon-balls into the shit.  My Dad canon-balled into his redneck phase and he loved every second of it.

There are countless tales of redneckery that I remember fondly; my Dad and I sitting on the porch taking potshots at the neighbor’s dogs with air rifles, our Slip & Slide made out of cheap plastic matting, the time his idiot neighbor buddy came to our house on Halloween wearing an actual Jack-o-Lantern on his head and wielding an axe because he thought it would be funny.  But, there is one grand redneck tradition that stands above them all—burn piles.

When we moved to Yacolt, the backyard of our small brown house was littered with tree stumps and brambles.  My Dad sweated with pick-axe and shovel digging trenches around the stumps to expose the roots.  Once a stump was prepped he would wrap a big chain around it, latch the chain to his Ford F-150 and pull baby pull.  The stump would lurch out of the ground in a shower of dirt and rock and I would whoop and cheer in celebration of my Paul Bunyan Dad and his four-wheeled axe.  One-by-one the uprooted stumps were pulled and piled into a miniature mountain in the middle of our backyard.  When the land was cleared my Dad walked around the mountain dousing it with gasoline he kept in a red and yellow metal can.  He lit a match, watched the blue tipped flame careen into the mountain and shielded his eyes as our first burn pile was born in a burst of flame and smoke.

My Dad and I watched in wonder as searing flames licked and swallowed the surrounding air.  The uprooted stumps belched wave after wave of intense heat.  The fire danced and flickered on the corneas of man and boy.  We were hooked.  This was no experiment.  This was no recreational habit. We were burn pile junkies from the moment stump turned to flame. I glanced at my Dad to make sure my posture and pose matched his exactly. “This sucker’ll burn all night,” he said in awe of his own creation.  I was thunderstruck.  My Dad can build fires that burn forever, I thought.

Burn piles became a regular occurrence in our backyard.  According to my Dad they were needed to keep the brush down.  Brush is defined as; bushes and low trees growing in thick profusion, especially close to the ground.  My Dad didn’t get that memo.  In his book “brush” included old tires, garbage, grass clippings and anything that would melt slow and showy.  When we hit the bottom of the brush barrel we just went deeper. We needed the burn piles and no “You shouldn’t burn that” reprimand was going to keep us from lighting them.

Our burn piles should have ended when my Dad caught the pond on fire.  We had built a fire brazen enough to burn water.  A beautiful monster.  Its serpent tongue flames flicked high into the starry sky.  Torrents of thick charcoal smoke billowed from its gullet.  It was a beast of light and heat.  It was mesmerizing.  It was so mesmerizing that we didn’t notice the greedy gas can luring it away with its vapors, guiding the beast down an invisible highway to hellfire.  Out of the corner of his eye my Dad saw the flame leaping toward the gas like flares from the sun.  “Run!” he roared as he grabbed hold of the can and flung it toward the pond like a flannel wearing discus throwing god of Olympus.

The gas can plummeted from the sky.  It struck the pond.  It didn’t splash.  It didn’t ripple.  The whole goddamn thing just went up in a wall of flames.  The gas can was nothing more than the spit of our beautiful monster and yet it was powerful enough to burn the one thing capable of taming it.  Oh what a burn pile!

About the pond—it was really more of a cesspool; a hideous primordial thing covered in a thick blanket of algae and scum, beneath which lay salamanders and toads and mud dwelling oddities, oddities that probably went on to spawn generations of mutants thanks to my Mom’s unwavering belief that with enough chlorine, Listerine, acid and bleach she could turn the pond into a swimming pool.  The moment the pond turned to flame all the creepy crawlies poured from its edges scurrying through the grass and into the near by woods.  Imagine the scary forest fire scene from Bambi only with mutant amphibians running for their lives.

I should have been terrified.  The pond wouldn’t stop burning.  Its orange red flames cast shadows that darted and leapt across the tree line in a nightmarish dance.  My sister was crying.  My Mom was charging toward my Dad with momma bear fury.  I was pure static charge.  I was on end.  A burn pile and a burn pond!  Legend.  At 5:30 the next morning my Dad woke to find me poking around the burn pile covering the embers with twigs and leaves.  “What are you doing buddy?” he asked.  “This sucker burned all night,” I said.  “Gotta keep it going.”

In the end it was Optimus Prime that stopped the burn piles.

Like most kids, I wasn’t neat.  Often times my bedroom looked liked a refugee boat overstuffed with misfit toys.  On the day the burn piles died my Mom had had enough, it was time to clean.  I begrudgingly dragged my size-fours down the hall and started shuffling toys around trying to make cleaning noises.  Then I smelled the smoke.  He wouldn’t, I thought.  Not my Dad.  I threw on jeans and a flannel and rubber boots and ran outside.  Sure enough, there he was, unloading a wheelbarrow full of brush onto a burn pile with some serious potential.  Judas.

I didn’t say a word.  I just started unloading brush.  “Did you clean your room?” he asked without looking at me.  “After the burn pile,” I said trying to sound Dad like.  “Get back up to the house,” he said.  “No,” I said.  He spun around, curled up his soup strainer stash and bared his teeth a little.  “Now Michael John,” he growled.  My joints locked.  My butt puckered.  He used my middle name.  Not good.  I jutted my little chin high and put my hands on my hips the way he did when he was mad.  He squinted at me Dirty Harry style and marched past me toward the house.

It was an unexpected move.  I didn’t know what to do.  I threw brush to fire and waited.  Before long my Dad came marching down the hill with a scraggly toy in each hand.  “You don’t want to clean your room?” he said.  “Fine, I’ll clean it for you.”  He hurled the scraggly toys into the fire and searched my face for tears.  Instead he found madness.  I wasn’t sad.  I was ignited.  I watched the scraggly toys turn to coals and thought the thought my Dad never saw coming, my room is FULL of brush! 

I ran into my room and scanned the sea of debris with fiery eyes.  Toys that melt, toys that flare, toys that explode!  I wasn’t discerning, the treasure was too vast.  I grabbed as many toys as my arms could carry and bolted toward the burn pile.  Before my Dad could say anything I started humming toys into the fire.  He wanted to stop me but he couldn’t.  He was a boxer against the ropes taking punch after punch after punch.  To my reeling Dad each toy was a handful of money, tossed to flame, lost forever.  I ran back to the house—so much to burn.

I took my time.  I needed the perfect toy.  I needed a statement burn.  I spotted him amongst the ruble, Optimus Prime, the top-dog of the Transformers.  Optimus was glorious; a diesel truck that turned into a rocket launching fierce robot warrior.  What could possibly burn and melt and pop and explode better than that?  I tucked Optimus under my arm and ferried him toward his ashy demise.  My Dad saw me barreling down the hill and tried to corner me like Rocky tried to corner that chicken.  I juked and shuffled and spun but the man had a wingspan that went on forever.  He wrapped me up.  He pulled Optimus from my hands and held him high above his head.  “Go see your Mother,” he said beaten.

Optimus Prime was safe.  The burn pile era was in ashes.  But, its embers burn on in memory.  To this day I am drawn to the flame.  On cold nights I watch flames leap up the chimney and when they leap high enough I think about the Washington years and my redneck Dad and our beautiful burn piles and my eyes scan the room, looking for brush.

Michael Bartolomei grew up on the West Coast (California mainly).  Two years ago he decided to quit his boring corporate job and move abroad.  He currently teaches English in Southern Thailand and in the fall he will be moving to Prague in the hopes of doing the same.  He has traveled extensively throughout South East Asia, keeping a travel blog along the way.  His short story “Larry on the Lam” was published in the September 2011 issue of Writers Digest. Email him at  mbartolomei@gmail.com .

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31 Responses to BURN THIS ONE, DADDY! by Michael Bartolomei

  1. Mary Hayes on February 29, 2012 at 1:48 am

    Wonderful article, Michael! This was so beautifully written–I felt like I was right there in BFE, watching it burn baby burn.

  2. Pete on February 29, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Hey Mike,

    That was great! Your dad would be proud of that one. Hopefully see you in April in Surat, maybe we’ll burn something, or just throw tons of water.

  3. Christopher Kelly on February 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Absolutely AMAZING! I couldn’t stop laughing!!!

  4. Jason Wittig on March 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Sup Dude….I have been following your blogs…good stuff.

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