Alzheimer’s Anecdotes, Chapter 16: The Burn Barrel Flame Thrower


Burn Barrel? Flame thrower? Hey, with Alzheimer’s disease progressing and my wife having a lifetime habit of doing something unbelievable with fire on occasion anyway, it wasn’t even that surprising.

Okay, I admit it. I’m lying through my nonexistent teeth. It was a little surprising, bordering on startling. Pam has been burning trash at our off grid southern Arizona home for years without incident. It’s therapy for her, allowing her to feel useful. Besides, all it involves is using a long barreled barbecue striker to light things up after a bag of trash is deposited in the barrel. What could go wrong? Right?

Two nights ago, returning from town after getting Pam’s new will signed, battling the rather hateful Chase Bank just to get her name added to that account, and going out for supper at the Outback Steak House, we had not one but two Mojave rattlesnake sightings on our way home, both on Paloma Trail, the dirt road connecting the highway to our dirt cross street. I took a picture of the first snake by truck headlight illumination, such as it was, and have now included that as the header photo for this post.

We spoke in friendly fashion to both rattlers; if they’re not close to the house or outbuildings on our property, we don’t bother them. But it didn’t occur to me at the time that unusual venomous snake sightings are sometimes “spiritual warning symbols” for me these days. I don’t know if it’s always been that way and I just never made the connection or what, but I’ve realized it this year–and two such on one homeward jaunt does count as “unusual”. Considering what was about to happen, maybe I should have wondered about that.

The next morning (yesterday) while I was day sleeping, Pam went out to burn the trash–and no, she didn’t run into any snakes, but she did almost blow herself up.

Relax; the keyword here is “almost”, okay? She’s fine, but she apparently worried all day about how to tell me her brain had messed up that badly, as she knew better.

I know better, too. When I was eleven years of age, our neighbors blew up the two room log cabin they were renting from my father on our western Montana ranch. The fire in the wood burning cookstove had gone out while the family was shopping all day in Missoula. They returned home, and some resident genius (I was never told precisely which family member had done it) decided to use gasoline to start the fire. Except the old fire wasn’t completely out. The resulting explosion blew pieces of the cast iron stove throughout the front room, some of those pieces barely missing the baby on the couch. We saw Dad tearing out of the yard in his pickup truck, heading west. He never drove like that. The smoke pillar looked like a dark version of an atomic blast, towering above the flaming cabin. The cabin was totaled and the family lost pretty much everything material that they owned–but the baby was untouched.

Anyway, back to the Alzheimer’s story with Pam. She got the trash fire in the burn barrel going, but not well enough to suit her–and decided (although, remember, she does know better and wants that point underscored) to throw some gasoline on it. Which is never a good idea under any circumstances, but we are talking Alzheimer’s here.

So she went to our gasoline supply spot, always well stocked because of our regular use of gasoline powered generators to produce electricity for appliances that draw too much for the solar generator to handle, and selected a five gallon can that was about half full. This meant it was light enough for her to carry sixty yards back to the burn barrel…where she opened the spout and poured a healthy splash of fuel on the fire.

F-W-WOOOM-M! Immediate flare-up!

The spout had become an instant flame thrower, heating the entire container and blowing a foot-long flame from the spout. The entire can could blow at any second.

At that point, the wise thing to do would have been to drop the can and get the heck away from there. We have a bare-earth clear space of at least thirty feet in any direction from that burn barrel, atmospheric humidity is still running at 56% as the rainy months tail off, and starting a wildfire would have been unlikely. But the last thing on Earth she wanted to do was to roust me out of bed with the explanation that she had done something stupid with fire. Again.

So what did she do next?

Nothing brings the best out in Pam like a life and death crisis. She will often become a basket case later, but not when the chips are down. She had to stop the fire…and she did. By running around, grabbing a more or less flat rock, and smothering the spouting flame with the flattest surface she could find on the stone. Holding the rock against the flaming spout with her two arthritic bare hands.

It worked.

By the time the flame thrower was once again reduced to being a mere gas can, the spout had “unscrewed” itself from the threads (due to the heat) and sat cocked atop the can, barely on there at all. Or had she first tried unscrewing the spout to separate the flames from the fuel supply before giving that up as a bad idea? Understandably, she has no memory of doing that, but it’s possible she blocked it. In any event, that move could very easily have produced a much larger secondary explosion that might have set her on fire in the process, eh?

The entire plastic five gallon can, still nearly half full, was hot to the touch. Additionally, it was covered in soot, especially on one side, clear evidence that something spooky had happened involving that particular can.

Amazingly, though I’ve seen this before when Pam had to fight fire (we were literally surrounded by a wildfire at our off grid home in the Montana mountains in 1999), there was not a mark of any sort on Pam herself. Not even on her clothing. Not a burn, not a blister, not even a single speck of soot.

But she suffered for the rest of the day nonetheless, trying to work up her courage.

“How am I going to tell Fred?” She asked Allen, our part time hired hand, her close friend and, when she needs one, her confidant. It’s not that I would be mean to her, but I am The Husband. If I’d been the one to make a mistake like that, I wouldn’t want to tell The Wife about it, either. (I would, but I wouldn’t want to.)

Allen figured she should just up and tell me, but he’s also wise enough to know that it needed to come from her spilling the beans, not him ratting her out.

This all came to light after supper this evening. I went outside, armed with a flashlight, telling Allen (who had helped Pam cook supper) and Pam, “I’m going to shut down the generator (which had been needed to power the microwave oven) and top off the gas.”

She knew then that I would find the sooty gas can and ask questions, which I did…and with me playing Mr. Detective in their faces, Allen was finally able to get Pam to talk to me.

“You’re okay?” I asked.

“I know better!” She replied. “Believe me, it won’t happen again!”

And it probably won’t. Not for some years, anyway. Near disaster is usually a really helpful reminder for Pam, Alzheimer’s or no Alzheimer’s. Pam still has free run of the burn barrel. She’s just been advised that instead of asking why “her” smaller two gallon gas can was empty, she should just stay the heck away form the gasoline supply, period. My wife can still handle a barbecue striker, but we’re instituting a strict NGHBP policy (No Gasoline Handling By Pam) here at the Border Fort.

After all, she knows better.