December 9, 2010

Where There's Smoke, There's a Traumatic Childhood Memory

They don't call them "Hot Wheels" for nothing.

My first brush with arson happened when I was 6 years old.  I was reminded of this story recently because I told it at my cousin Rick's wedding during my best man's speech, and figured it'd make for an entertaining post.

When Cousin Rick and I were kids, we had the standard fascination with certain brands of toys that lots of other kids our age had, because TV told us we were supposed to like them, and TV was never wrong.  We begged and pleaded and held our breaths for frightening amounts of time in order to have our parents buy us all of the must-haves, and between us, by the time we reached age 6, we had an impressive collection of Thundercats and GI Joes and Ninja Turtles and Transformers and so on.  But the true crown jewels of our little Tree-Fort Knox were the Hot Wheels.

For those of you who don't recall or were poor and thus had toys that consisted of discarded soda cans and sticks tied together with your mom's bad hair extensions, Hot Wheels were a popular brand of toy cars that launched in the late 60s but really took off in the toy market in the 80s.  They were constructed of rotating plastic wheels and sturdy metal bodies that really brought out a nice bruise when you'd whip them at your buddies.

There wasn't really much that you could do with them, per se.  I guess they were supposed to be collectibles, if you wanted to start early on the path to being that guy who never took his toys out of their original packaging and lovingly gazes at them in his basement while smelling faintly of cheese and failure.

You could cajole your parents into buying you an elaborate and hard-to-assemble stunt track, where the aim (according to the commercials, at least) was to send your cars careening around a bunch of bank turns and loops while your multiethnic friends high-fived each other in the background and yelled things like "Totally awesome!" and "Radical!"  But the tracks never worked; either the pieces wouldn't fit together properly and leave gaps that would trip up the cars or the cars wouldn't have enough momentum to get all the way around the loops and would fall to the ground, along with a little bit of your faith in TV consumer marketing.

Mostly, though, Cousin Rick and I just vroomed them around our bedrooms or crashed them into each other or sent them hurtling off bookcase cliffs to their doom on the carpet below.

Amongst our shared collection of dented Chevys and three-wheeled Porsches, there was one in particular that Cousin Rick brought to the table that I loved.  It was a bright orange monster truck with giant rubber wheels, adorned with red and yellow flames.  It was like God's Hot Wheels truck.

Sadly, Cousin Rick always made it clear that the truck was his and his alone.  If I ever tried to take it on an imaginary journey off a ramp and over the daunting walls of Castle Greyskull, he would freak out and snatch it from my overjoyed fingers.  Nevertheless, I was a persistent child (some say "stubborn," whatever that means), and would constantly try to sneak it away while he wasn't looking.  On that particular day, I made my move.

Cousin Rick was not as philanthropic as I might have hoped.

He snatched the truck, along with my happiness, away from my pudgy digits, babbling on like Gollum doting on his Precious.  Reasoning that if he wasn't playing with it, then no one would play with it, Cousin Rick decided that the best course of action was to put the truck somewhere out of reach.  In this case, it was in a light fixture high up on the wall.

There he placed the truck and, satisfied, he plopped down next to me and we resumed our youthful reenactment of Cannonball Run.

Eventually, though, for some reason, the upper floor of the house begin to slowly fill up with smoke.

We heard a scrambling noise bounding up the stairs, and suddenly, my aunt Luann burst into the room, proclaiming that the house was indeed afire, and that we would be right to make haste and exit its soon-to-be-smoldering remains.

She scooped each of us under one arm with relative ease in one of those "distraught mother military presses a 2-ton truck off of her pinned child" moments, and, much like hard-nosed 1970s Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka, hauled us out of the house like two frightened, fleshy footballs.

Before we knew it, Rogers Street was jammed full of firetrucks and cop cars.  Neighbors poked their heads out of their front doors or came down to see what the ruckus was, rehearsing their "I seen the whole thing!" speeches for when the local news crews arrived.

Tense minutes passed.  I was terrified, certain that the Hot Wheels collection I had worked so hard to accumulate was melting into an unrecognizable pile of Chinese-produced metal and plastic with every second that went by.  Eventually, a fireman came out of the house and strode towards my aunt, holding something in his closed fist.

He stopped in front of us, said to my aunt, "I think I've found the problem," and opened his hand.  There, still kind of awesome despite the carnage that had befallen it, lay the charred remains of the orange monster truck.

The fireman walked away, wondering why he was spending his time fishing toys out of light fixtures and why his life wasn't more like the years-away-from-being-released firefighting opus Backdraft.

Left alone, swathed in the embarrassment of having her home look like the end scene of an action movie, Aunt Luann glared accusingly at Cousin Rick.

Who, in turn, placed the blame squarely on my shoulders.

I never ratted Cousin Rick out, because even then I knew, snitches get stitches.  For years I carried the secret with me, only choosing to air it out to the world in my best man's speech.  It wasn't exactly like revealing Nixon to be a crook, but it was good to get the story out nonetheless.

Looking back, though, I like to think that the kickass monster truck ascended to Heaven, where God runs it through His holy Hot Wheels stunt track, where the loops are totally sweet and our beloved truck never falls off.  Ever.

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