Monday, September 04, 2006

Population 800 - Homecoming: The Bonfire

Homecoming almost upon us, and it is big here. It is very, very big. It is the biggest thing that happens in town all year. This was new to us. We had memories from growing up, of course. We decorated class floats with crepe paper, and there was a dance, which we may or may not have gone to, and a game, which we may or not have attended. (This is not the editorial or royal "we". I'm including my husband. Over the years we've compared notes on the whole phenomenon.) For us, Homecoming had been something, but not too much.

But here, the week leading up to the game is essentially carnival for the High School. The students are in the building and I understand that there is at least some formal instructional time; but what is mostly going on is theme dress up days, and contests between the classes, and pep rallys, and general horsing around. The seniors officially get time off to collect fuel for "The Bonfire".

Let me tell you about our first bonfire. We had only been in town about three weeks, and we figured this was a good chance to start becoming a part of the community. So Friday night we wandered down to Main Street to watch the procession. In this case, the "torchlight" procession. There weren't too many people on the street. (we learned later that most folks just head straight for the park). We could hear the high school band before it sort of straggled around the corner (this is just an informal warmup for the real parade). When they came into view, they were led by some cheerleaders carrying torches. Obviously homemade torches. These things were wood sticks topped by empty coffee cans. Well, not exactly empty, because there were flames coming out the top. We didn't think too much about this at first, but halfway down Main Street one of the coffee cans fell off the stick and rolled under a parked car. The odd thing was, we seemed to be the only ones who were the least bit concerned about a flaming coffee can under a parked car, a car with a gas tank. Someone did sort of casually go fish the can out, and it is just possible that the flames were out by the time the can hit the curb. I have noticed, though, that we haven't seen any torches in the years since.

Anyway, cheerleaders, band and some pickup trucks filled with Seniors headed to the park, with the rest of us falling in behind. At the park we found a 15-20 foot pile of wood with an honest to goodness outhouse on top and a pretty sizable crowd gathered around. That baby must have been soaked with kerosene, because it went up fast and it went up hot. The crowd stepped back a few paces. It was a mild evening with a light breeze. There was a dry cornfield about 30 feet away. There was not a fire truck in sight. And after a couple of minutes the crowd turned around and walked away, over to the football field to hear some words from the coach and the players. And then everybody went home, and the damn fire was still burning.

Now bear in mind that we had just moved from California, which had been in the middle of a drought, where the least spark was cause for concern, where wildfires had been burning less than 25 miles from our home. Need I say that we found the entire evening highly unnerving and unsettling?

We've calmed down. Now the Bonfire is the part of Homecoming I like best (Though I still feel that people should hang around it a little longer. If you're going to have a really big fire, you might as well watch it awhile). But it is a friendly sort of evening, with lots of little kids running around, and I usually bump into folks I haven't seen in months. Sadly, the supply of genuine outhouses seems to have been fully depleted, but the kids do a plywood mock up, just to carry on the tradition. One year they snuck in firecrackers. The Administration has successfully discouraged a repeat of that, so far at least. One year the fire did spread, but only a little bit; and it seems to me that the Volunteer Fire Department has had a truck around since then.

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