A Gas Heater and Flammable Pajamas

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I was in elementary school when I caught fire.

The morning started out like others in the nearly unheated two bedroom house I shared with my mother and older sister. Every morning during winter I did the same thing in my completely flammable pajamas. A bathroom metal gas heater heated half our house, running through the night until we left for school.

Blistering hot by morning, everyone knew to not touch it. But the house was cold. North Louisiana winter winds blew under the pier and beam foundation and penetrated every nook and cranny of the old bungalow house. No insulation to buffer us.

My morning method was to hold up my nightgown over the heater, warm up, then hurry to dress. Until that morning.

The heater itself was once white, now aged to ivory from heat.  It had oval slits in the front of it like scary eyes lit by orange and yellow gas jets. Somehow one of the flames lept forward, or the artificial fibers of my gown combusted. Flames lept up my pink flannel nightgown; I began to scream and run in circles.

My mother heard my screams and saw the glow of flames reflected on the painted bathroom wall.

I was in full panic.  These were the days before flame retardant sleepwear and “stop, drop and roll” safety. Mother caught me, smothering the fire by rolling up the fabric tightly with her hands.

That cold morning we escaped with minor burns and stayed home in shock. I crawled into bed dressed in a fresh nightgown and didn’t get up until supper. I didn’t sleep. There was no sleeping when the acrid smell of burnt clothing and hair resisted the cold fresh breeze squeezing in the windows.

My perennially absent father was a welder, a union pipefitter. He constructed trifold heavy-duty steel mesh screens to keep me from any more flames or gas heaters. Not that I was getting within a mile of them after what had happened. The screens were useless for anything else, and after a while was relegated to a space in storage. When my mother passed away fifteen years ago I almost brought them home with me.

I left them there. My father had made incredibly heavy and strong, not something one would find a use for in an ordinary life. They’d either remain intact, repurposed until the world ended or pitched in a scrapyard. I didn’t need a reminder of how quickly a quiet, very cold school morning almost became the last day of my life.


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