A Man on Fire, Pringles, and Liquor

According to a poll conducted by Scientific American, 25% of people recall a troubling event as their first memory, barely beating out “childhood antics” and “war.” And before we get started, just as an aside, the Scientific American poll-takers must be sadistic fuckers, as they don’t find war to be a “troubling event.” “Let’s see, it says here your first memory was a drone strike obliterating your village’s orphanage. Interesting, interesting. Not exactly troubling. Let’s mark it under ‘light-hearted capers’.”

I can’t recall my childhood antics. I remember saying “Jesus Christ” in front of my mom when I was too young to be using the phrase “Jesus Christ” as an expletive. And I remember her threatening to end my life for saying it. I don’t think that qualifies as a “childhood antic.” I don’t know what that is. 

But a troubling event as a first memory? I have one of those. One night, when I was around 3 years old, the gas station two doors down from my house exploded. I remember hearing a boom that sounded like the world was ending, then my family dragging me out of the house and closer to the kill zone. We all ran outside to watch the carnage unfold, and everyone on the block is just standing around, like, yup. That bad boy’s on fire all right. Flames are gettin’ real hot. 

But it was probably the sight of the gas station owner on fire, screaming, attempting to pull his melting flesh back onto himself like some kind of skin cardigan that made me think, “Here’s an image that I’m wildly unprepared for.” It’s just the nice gas station man pleading for his life as the flames spread closer to his giant flammable beard. His face seconds away from pooling into a chunky puddle in front of some barely concerned neighborhood onlookers. 

The fire department showed up, and there was nothing on TV, so we all watched them put out the gas station owner instead. I remember a police officer telling us all to take a step back. I remember the fire engine lights reflecting off the front windows and storm doors up and down the block. I remember shaking uncontrollably as the grand marshal of the block party from hell was extinguished right there in front of me.

To this day, certain experiences trigger my first memory. Getting gas – there’s the man on fire checking my tire pressure. Going to Burning Man – there’s the man on fire, wearing steampunk goggles and tripping his fiery balls off. Netflix recommends that I watch Backdraft, Heat, and Man on Fire – there’s the man on fire, who somehow guessed my Netflix password and is filling my queue with the hottest films that cinema has to offer.

The gas station owner was okay. Later in life he appeared on an episode of Judge Judy, the defendant in a trial unrelated to being lit on fire. I walked past that gas station every day on my way to school. The pumps were removed, and the attached garage remained open for both auto maintenance and a practice space for a former Misfits cover band that I was unceremoniously kicked out of. I should explain.

The year was 1995 in suburban New Jersey. It was the summer between 8th grade and my freshman year of high school. I had decided that school was bullshit, no one likes you when you’re too smart, and that the 80’s punk band The Misfits, fronted by Glenn Danzig, and very much not a thing at this point in time, offered all of the insight that I needed. If you’re unfamiliar with The Misfits, imagine Elvis was the lead singer of The Ramones, and they performed songs about Frankensteins and Draculas while also dressed as Frankensteins and Draculas. My friends who introduced me to this new world of horror punk were so diehard that they decided to start a Misfits cover band. They needed a drummer so I auditioned, despite having no knowledge of how music worked besides some unsuccessful childhood piano lessons. But I could shittily bang out the beat to London Dungeon on their drum kit. And what I lacked in skill, I made up for with a desperate desire to be a part of something, and a love of punk rock songs about sexy vampire women.

Somehow it paid off, I was asked to join the roster, and Necrosis, the Misfits cover band composed of 12 – 13 year olds, was born. (Please note: we were not aware of the Necros or Neurosis at this time.) My bandmates gave me a snare drum that they found on the side of the road, which was thoughtful, but also a hint that I should be practicing on my own. With the help of my copy of a copy of the Misfits Collection I on cassette, I attempted to teach myself the concept of rhythm. 

We learned the aforementioned London Dungeon, along with Where Eagles Dare, and Die Die My Darling. My role as a drummer seemed to play second fiddle to my role as someone with access to a computer, a rudimentary version of the internet, and the ability to download and print Misfits tablature. We recorded a demo tape, which I played for my parents to assure them I wasn’t just huffing paint in my friend Greg’s basement everyday after school, but was instead kind-of practicing with my band. But mostly we’d play a few songs and then devolve into a tribal wrestling showcase. Instruments were carefully placed on their stands before we slammed each other into the concrete floor and support beams of Greg’s basement. This was punk rock. This was everything. It didn’t last. 

One night, the band materialized on my front porch to let me know that I, the drummer that kind of knew how to do the drums, the gatekeeper to whatever the internet was in 1995, was fired. The band was moving in a new direction, featuring original songs and a drummer that could keep time. My printouts were no longer necessary. Necrosis was no more. We didn’t talk much after that. 

Months later, I heard familiar punkish sounds emanating from the garage attached to the gas station that blew up when I was a small boy. My former bandmates had a new practice space two doors down from my house because their new drummer was, you’re not going to believe this, the son of the gas station man that nearly burned to death! And he knew how to play the drums! And he had access to a garage! And I hated him. And I hated them for kicking me out. But I was in high school and had, to quote Danzig, “some kinda hate” for basically everything. I could hear them practicing if my bedroom window was open, and while I would never admit this at the time, they sounded better than they ever did when I was part of the band. Eventually my hate subsided when I learned that they had broken up, as teenage bands often do, and I lowered myself into the warm bath of the music genre taking the suburban scumbag nation by storm – nu metal. Your Korns and Powermen 5000’s and what have you. I threw my roadside snare drum in the garbage and bought a pair of Adidas track pants. I didn’t listen to the Misfits again for years. 

But let’s return to simpler times – like the night that the gas station exploded. After all the fire trucks and ambulances left, my family and I found ourselves in our neighbor’s living room. We never really interacted with our neighbors, which is why I remember this so vividly. The adults were all trading stories. Undoubtedly my father was calling everyone and everything involved in the evening’s events an asshole. The man on fire, the firefighters that put him out, the gas station, fire itself. All of them assholes. I sat quietly on the brown sofa in the brown room, staring at nothing, my very small 3 year old brain processing how to categorize this first memory for a Scientific American poll-taker in the future. “So John! Tell us, what was your first memory?” they ask, clipboards in hand. I look off into the distance, a bouquet of smoke and gasoline fill my lungs. “Hellfire,” I whisper. 

At some point my neighbor Mr. Girardi sat down next to me and handed me two things:  a shot glass full of booze and a can of Pringles. Like, “Here, drink this, it will calm you down. Here, eat these, they come in a weird can.” Because this was the roaring 80’s, when adults could offer a 3-year-old a stiff drink and some chips and it was fine as long as their parents were present. Back when things made goddamn sense. So, thank you Mr. Girardi for teaching me that when it comes to processing a troubling event, alcohol and snacks are top notch. And thank you Necrosis, for teaching me that if you want to play the drums in a band, you should learn how to play the drums, or have access to a gas station that’s not on fire. 

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