{That one time} My dad watched me set my arm on fire

I always looked up to my brother. He was the cool older guy with hot friends who was going to be a rock star. I took most of what he did and said as gospel. As a young teenager, I wanted him to think I was cool and I was prepared to do just about anything to earn that title.

You may remember the time my brother convinced me to get into a dryer and then promptly turned it on. You might think that I would have learned as child not to trust my brother’s suggestions. Ha. If only.

In this fun story, he wasn’t even there to see the outcome of his slyly incepted idea, but my dad was.

fire arm header

We just finished an excellent week at church summer camp (some may recognize it as EFY) and John and I were sharing our experiences on the car ride home. Being in different age groups, we didn’t see much of each other but I was sure to tell everyone I met that my brother was the lead guitarist in the band that played at the talent show. (They weren’t quite as impressed as I had hoped.)

Our conversation turned to Wednesday pizza night. My story about the girl who shoved 13 Starbursts in her mouth wasn’t nearly as compelling as what John had to say, so I let him talk.

“Yeah, this one dude was showing us how you can set yourself on fire and it doesn’t even burn you.”

“What are you talking about? You can’t do that,” I argued, listening even more intently.

“Yes you can! I watched him do it, it was awesome! Someone drew a smiley face on his chest with hairspray and then he lit it on fire. Only the smiley face lit up and then he put out the fire with his arm before it could actually start burning him. But it reeked! The whole dorm smelled like burnt hair.

“How did it not burn him?” The wheels in my head had already started turning.

“It only burned through the hairspray. He put it out before it could get to his skin.”

We didn’t talk much more about it but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Weeks went by and I started school as a sophomore. Every so often I would remember what John had said about the burning hairspray. Once or twice, I even picked up the hairspray bottle and challenged it to a staring contest but I always set it back on the shelf before being brave enough to get the lighter.

One afternoon I was riding the bus home from school and witnessed some genius in the backseat nearly set his shirt on fire while playing with a lighter. A girl sitting across the aisle called him a playful string of slightly profane names, as only a high schooler could, and I, in a state of boredom, chimed in with my hairspray/fire anecdote.

“That would never work, you’d have burns after that,” replied the girl, undoubtedly annoyed that I was encroaching on her chance to be the future ‘Mrs. Shirt-Fire.’

“Yeah huh,” was my clever retort, “my brother saw somebody do it. On his chest!”

“Whatever. Have you ever done it?”

The question took me by surprise. I hadn’t done it. I sure had thought about it though. And for the rest of the ride home, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

By the time the bus made it to my stop I had developed a plan: I would go in the front door and set my backpack down in the entryway of our split-level home. I wasn’t even going to go down into my room in the event that the break in focus would make me lose my nerve. Then I’d head straight up the stairs, to the kitchen, grab the lighter and make a beeline for my parent’s bathroom where I’d use my mom’s hairspray and set my arm on fire. Then, before the fire had a chance to burn my skin, I would use my other hand to wipe out the flame. I played it out over and over again.

My arm seemed like a safe enough decision. Not quite as critical as a chest, and I’d even decided to do the inside of my arm so I didn’t have to worry about the terrible smell of burning hair.

With every step I took from the bus stop to my house I became more and more confident in my decision. This was going to be awesome, a story for the ages. Too bad it was years before the smart phone generation or I’d probably have some great video documentation.

Once inside the house, I dropped my backpack according to plan and began rummaging for the lighter in the kitchen. No luck.

“Hey Dad, have you seen the lighter?” I called from the kitchen.

“Why don’t you check the cabinet with all the candles,” was his reply from his perch on the couch. And then as an after thought, “Why do you need the lighter?”

“I’m going to set my arm on fire,” I said, matter of fact.

A smile crept across his face and he followed me, after I found the lighter, into his bathroom.

“What is your plan exactly?”

I explained the hairspray/chest/fire story to him as he stood at the doorway of the bathroom silent, taking it all in. He didn’t attempt to stop me, maybe he could see the determination in my eyes. His only contribution was suggesting I turn on the faucet. I complied.

arm fire header 2

I mimed spraying the hairspray, lighting the flame and wiping it off several times before I actually went through with it. All the while my dad stood at the doorway like a spectator at the zoo, eyes wide and curious.

Finally, I took a deep breath and pressed the nozzle on the hairspray, generously covering my left arm. Before the hairspray had a chance to dry, or I had a chance to change my mind, I lit the flame. A comfortable warmth immediately engulfed my arm, free from pain. I stared in amazement as the flame continued to travel from the inside of my arm to the outside where the hairspray had evidently reached. Suddenly I smelled burning hair and knew it was time to put this fire out.

Instead of immersing myself in the cold running water, I used my right hand to wipe out the flame. Little did I know that when I had used my right hand to spray the hairspray on my arm only moments before, a good amount had coated my hand as well. So there I stood with my left arm ablaze and now my right hand was equally afflicted, and no longer pain-free.

I just stood there. Staring at my arm and hand on fire. Speechless. From the first spray to being completely on fire was only a few seconds but in that moment a million thoughts raced through my mind including but not limited to, ‘It didn’t work. John said it would work but I’m on fire and this hurts. The burning hair smells terrible, I guess he was right about one thing. Wow this really hurts. I’m on fire right now. I can never tell anyone about this. How do I put this out?’

Thankfully my dad had remained close by and directed my attention to the running water. I quickly shoved both hand and arm into the stream as completely as I could and felt immediate relief. But that only lasted so long.

The burns weren’t terrible but I had to wear bandages for a while. Nothing draws attention in high school quite like big white bandages. You better believe I had to relay the story more than once. It’s a good thing I have a sense of humor and could laugh right along with everyone else.

“Haha I know, right? Who would willingly set their own arm on fire? Haha oh yeah, me!”

As I write this, roughly seven years later, I wonder why my dad didn’t try harder to stop me. Maybe he figured I’d do it anyway and it might as well be in front of him where he could call 911 if the need arose. Maybe he was concerned that I’d burn his house down. Maybe he just wanted to see what would happen.

But the real thing I hadn’t considered until now, is why did I believe that a dorm full of boys at church camp had hairspray?