I used to light fires….
I am not sure how old I was the first time this happened, but in the crazy atmosphere of youth fueled by substance abuse, I often found myself hiding from the wreckage of my behavior.
I had to switch friends and change the places I would go to avoid a beating. But inevitably, I found myself alone.
At 14 I was removed from my junior high school and placed in an alternative school for students that struggled in regular, classroom settings. The school itself was a transformed barn, located in the heart of a picturesque campus of a nearby college, and surrounded by specimen trees, rolling landscapes, horses, and it was attended by a group of poorly adjusted students who ran off into the woods to get high on any, and every occasion.
Most of the boys were longhaired and dressed in jeans with and a concert t-shirt of their favorite band. Some wore tie-dyed clothing, and some (like me) dressed slightly darker.
There were fewer girls, and my memory of them is hazy, but they never spoke to me, and even while roomed with the refuse of students from different neighborhoods, I still felt out of place. I attended this school at the second half of the year, but after a meltdown, I was removed during the beginning months of the following year.
I was only 15 years-old…..
Charged by two small, square pieces of paper, which were blotted with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), I sat quietly outraged over the abuse from a fellow student, who, as a result of watching a documentary on Charles Manson, decided to stand in front of a mirror and carve a swastika into his forehead. However, while lost in his eager game of shock value, the student failed to realize that objects, such as the reflection of lettering in the mirror, will appear backwards and upside down.
And so was the swastika carved in his forehead.
Nevertheless, his point was made. He was sure to have me see the swastika because I came from a Jewish household.. He made sure that I recognized the button pushed into his black leather biker jacket, which was a pin symbolizing Hitler’s youth.
And while I wanted to respond and punish him for this…I was too afraid.
I wasn’t afraid of a beating; I had been beaten several times before.
I wasn’t afraid of him or his Nazi bullshit. I was more afraid of the humiliation from other students.
I felt broken and pained.
In my thoughts, however, I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, retrieved my small knife, and pushed the steely blade into the throat of my fellow student.
I envisioned myself attacking him from behind and crashing one of the classroom chairs over his head. I felt most alive in my ideas of vengeance—but I didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger. I did not have the words or the courage to express myself; so instead, I took my dose of acid and settled in for a long mental trip.
Approximately two periods later, my world turned into a demented version of itself. My visions of anger and revenge boiled into perverted thoughts of incredible violence.
I could hear the imaginary laughter and the voices that come with the temporary schizophrenia which is brought on by an overload of LSD. Then suddenly, the mad world I called my own had melted into a bizarre tirade.
Instead of cutting into the flesh of the other student, I cut into my own.
I carved inverted pentagrams into the tops of my hands and upside down crosses into my arms. The slices were not deep. They were more superficial and attention-seeking, but they were deep enough to bleed and leave the red-blooded outlines of the numbers “666” etched into my skin.
When asked by one of my teachers (I think it was in science class) I stood up and posed in the position of Jesus on the cross. I hung my head, pitched to the side, and exposed the bloody markings in my skin as I shouted, “I am the god of hell fire!”
I made sure to do this in front of the other student with the backwards swastika carved into his head. I made sure he knew that I was as crazy as he was, if not crazier. I made sure to explain that while in the race for attention and shock value; I was ahead of him.
Standing up, red-faced and watery-eyed, the bangs from my long brownish-blonde hair dangled over my crazed facial expression. Perhaps, I was drooling….I can’t be sure, and the blackness from my enlarged pupils overtook the otherwise brown in my eyes.
After a brief moment of awkward silence, followed by the marijuana-induced laughter, which came from the student with the swastika, I turned and looked at him.
Holding my position, I faced the boy who taunted me with blood leaking from my arms and I quoted Charles Manson.
“You can’t kill me…..I’m already dead!”
Then I turned to the middle-aged, slightly balding teacher, whose expression remained frightened as he stood in the front of his classroom, and I screamed, “Hail Satan!” at the top of my lungs.
There is more that followed, but rather than glamorize my rebellion, I will remain with the story.
Needless to say, this was my second to last day in any sort of public, or alternative classroom setting.
My next step was home schooling…
I was home alone and left to my own devices. Like most in our society, my parents worked. They were struggling to grow a business, turn a profit, and create a future.
But while they worked, I sat at home and grew bored. There was nothing to do, and even if there was, there was no one to do it with. Everyone else my age was in school, so I drank to keep myself occupied.
I chose to drink gin, not because I enjoyed the flavor; I chose it because someone I knew stole several jugs and hid them in my bedroom closet.
At this point in my life, I was mostly unwelcome in different crowds. I had lost most, if not all of my friends, and in my drunken loneliness, I would sit on the roof of my house and watch the traffic head north and south along Merrick Avenue.
From my rooftop, I looked at the large vacant lot across the street from my house. The lot was an old, empty airfield with tall, dried grass. There were different trails and places with stolen vehicles that were left by some of the local car thieves.
As a young boy, this lot and the trails that led to a large sump with a sandy bottom and a course for dirt bikes was my playground.
As a teenager, this lot was the place where I hid. I hid from my parents; I hid from the police, and I hid from an entire town.
I hid from my fear and insecurities. I hid with beer bottles and stolen bottles of liquor. I hid with drugs and a pack of cigarettes.
But with so much time alone, and too much time to think, I sat on the roof of my house and sipped from a small flask. Then I came to an idea, which was nothing more than something to cure the boredom.
Climbing down from my roof and into my window, I grabbed a pack of matches. Then I proceeded to walk outside. I crossed the street, and then I walked over the mound of dirt that surrounded the large vacant space. I moved in, and struck a match. Then I lit the entire book of matches into flames.
After I tossed the matches into the grass, flames lifted almost immediately.
Then I ran back into my house, climbed back on the roof, and I stayed there until the fire department came.
I was bored…..
I did not think about the risk or the safety of the firemen or the policeman on call.
In some cases, I would start a fire after they left.
And same as before, they trucks would arrive and put out the fire. I did not think about the consequences of my actions. I certainly did not consider the firefighters as men with families. I was unaffected and saw my behavior as a symbol of my emotion.
I didn’t see it as life threatening or dangerous…
Recently a New York City Police Officer died tragically because of a fire lit by a 16 year-old boy. Turns out, he was just bored, and while playing with a book of matches, the teenager set his mattress on fire.
I assume he never thought about the consequences. I assume he never expected the fire to get out of hand, or more accurately, I suppose he never thought the end result would lead to a man’s death.
I expose these truths about myself to give an in depth look as to why someone would do something so careless and destructive. This is not written to bring pity on the teen, or suggest he is less guilty. This is neither a statement of support nor a judgment.
This is an explanation.
I saw this young boy on the news the other day. As he emerged from the precinct doors, the boy laughed at the media attention.
A man died….and the boy smiled.
A family mourns…and he smiled
There in the race for attention and shock value, he smiled.
Now he has to pay the consequences.