In which our correspondent learns the dangers of combining a steel door covered with scrap paper with a butane lighter....
Maybe it’s just a midlife thing, but I’ve recently been reminiscing about some of the stupider things I’ve done over the years.
One night during my first year in college, I was sitting in the dorm hallway talking with my friend Pat. It was about 3 a.m., and we were both exhausted and punchy.
At one point during a lull in the conversation, I noticed a nearby door covered with dozens of pieces of paper.
Most students personalized their doors with posters and photos, but this guy (I think his name was Bill) went overboard. There must have been a hundred pieces of paper taped to Bill’s door. They were so thick they overlapped all over each other.
“I wonder,” I idly mused, just to have something to say, “if you lit the bottom there, if the fire would burn all the way to the top....”
The question hung there. Finally Pat went into his room, came out, and tossed me a small packet of something. I automatically grabbed it and looked to see what I was holding: a disposable lighter.
“Nuh uh,” I said, and tossed it back. End of the matter, I thought. What could we talk about now?
Pat considered the lighter for a couple moments, then got an evil smile and strolled across the hall to Bill’s door. He stood before it, looking it up and down.
It was a steel door in a steel frame in a concrete and cinderblock building. The only combustible items around were the posters and photos.
Finally, Pat struck the lighter and lit the bottom edges of a few of the lowest pages. I could have made an effort to stop him, but didn’t.
I didn’t know much about Bill — nice enough guy, kindy quiet, said hi in the hallways when we passed — so there wasn’t anything personal in the vandalism. It was purely a science experient for me, the sort conducted by idiot college freshmen at three in the morning.
To my disappointment, the whole front of the steel door didn’t get completely engulfed in flames. It was kind of a disappointment, actually. Each little fire would burn a few inches, then fizzle out. Pat had to keep lighting different pieces of paper all the way up the door to keep it going.
“Try that spot there,” I said, pointing out a bit that hadn’t burned yet.
(Obvious disclaimer: Hey kids! Don’t try this at home! Really!)
When we finally had a good blaze going on the front of Bill’s door, with a dozen or so spots burning, Pat looked at me and got that evil smile again. I knew bad things were about to ensue.
Pat jumped forward, pounded on Bill’s door with his fist, then bolted into his own room and slammed the door.
I decided maybe it was time for me to be toddling off to bed. I nosedived into my room for a good night’s rest as well.
The next morning I was woken up by the dorm monitor knocking on my door. Pat and I were wanted at the Dean’s office in an hour to answer to an accusation of a hate crime — terrorizing a homosexual student.
“Bill is gay?!?” I asked.
When the hall monitor left, I strode down to Bill’s room. I knocked on the door, which was stripped of all papers and covered with scorch marks.
Bill opened the door, saw who it was, and flinched. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “You’re gay, right?”
Bill (with great dignity): “Yes. Yes, I am.”
Me: “Well, why didn’t you say something before? If I had known you were gay, that right there would have been enough to stop me from setting fire to your door just because of how people might interpret it.”
Bill: “You didn’t notice most of the pictures were ads from GQ, of male models standing around in their underwear?”
Me: “...um... No, not really. I guess I thought you just liked nice clothes or something....”
I spent the next half hour chatting with Bill, explaining there was nothing personal in what Pat and I had done, telling him the story pretty much as I’ve told it to you just now, and apologizing every other sentence because I honestly felt bad about what Pat and I had done, and about how Bill had interpreted it.
By the time I left, Bill and I seemed to be on pretty good terms, better actually than in the days when we just passed each other in the hallway and said hi.
Then I trudged across campus to the Dean’s office to accept my fate. When I got there I had to wait a few minutes while he was inside with Pat. They weren’t very happy minutes.
The office door opened and Pat strode out, red-faced and furious.
“I’ve got kitchen duty for the rest of the semester,” he said, then stormed away.
I went into the Dean’s office and closed the door. The Dean sat behind his desk, glowering.
“I understand you set fire to another student’s door last night?” he said.
So again I went over the whole situation pretty much as I described it to you just now, ending with how I had already stopped by Bill’s room to explain and apologize.
The Dean stared at me for a moment, then allowed himself to smile.
“I know. Bill called just before you got here to tell me,” he said.
It seems Pat had gone into the Dean’s office and played the indignant anti-gay card, figuring at a religious college he could use outraged traditional morality as a defense. His efforts got him several months cleaning dishes in the school cafeteria.
Not only did I just get a slap on the wrist for setting the fire, but before I left the Dean loaned me several of his Ravi Shankar albums. It turned out we were both George Harrison fans and I’d always been curious to hear more music from India.
So in the end it wasn’t completely the stupidest thing I’d ever done, I guess.