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Dust Devils

by Linda Jenkinson

When my children were young, I learned that sometimes you literally have to have a fire lit under you to appreciate how dear those close to you are.

We moved to the country looking for a safer, less stressful life for ourselves and our two young children. Our rural Minnesota house sat well back from the road. There was ample room for Nicki, our three-year-old, and Lance, our six-year-old, to play safely on the five-acre plot of land that surrounded our house.

One warm summer morning the kids were watching an old episode of Little House on the Prairie, “Barn Burner”. After it was over, they asked if they could go outside and play.

Dust Devil
“Sure,” I said. I intended to work in our garden after I washed a few dishes. As I stood at the sink, I saw a dust devil at the end of the barn. It was the first one I had ever seen up close. It looked like a very tiny tornado. It swirled for a few moments and then disappeared.

Just as I was turning my attention back to the soapy dishwater, another dust devil caught my eye. It was almost a twin to the first. It flew in the same spot, it was the same size, and it lasted about as long. Although I was new to dust devils, I had heard that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, and I was pretty sure that dust devils didn’t either. I thought maybe I should go outside and check on the kids.

When they didn’t respond to my hollers, I planned to search the outbuildings. I started in the largest, the barn. Our barn was full-sized, but empty except for a few hay bales the previous owners had left behind. As I walked towards it, I saw another wisp of gray drifting out of the side door and my nose picked up an odor. Was something burning?

My heart beat even faster as I realized the dust devils I had seen from my kitchen window more likely came from smoke than dust.

As I sprinted to the barn, I began calling for Lance and Nicki, but no answer. As I walked through the barn door, my fear came to life. There, in the middle of the floor, was a smoldering pile of hay. Yellow fingers of flame were just starting to push their way through the pile, and the smoke grew denser as it wisped to the open window.

My children were nowhere in sight. I had to find them and ensure they were safe, but I also had another hard decision to make. I had to decide what to do about the fire.

We lived 10 miles from either of the two nearest fire departments. Our rural address linked to the one in the east, but our school district linked to the one west of our home. Which fire department was our fire department? Should I chance trying to extinguish the fire or should I call one of the fire departments? How much time would I spend giving either fire department directions? Could I wait the 15 to 20 minutes it would take them to arrive?

I decided that the better, more immediate choice was to attempt putting out the fire on my own. We didn’t have a hose long enough to reach the barn, so it would have to be with buckets.

By now, my calls to the kids must have sounded frantic, but they still didn’t show up or answer back. As I raced to the back door to get a bucket, much to my surprise, Lance and Nicki were on their way out and even though it was a warm day, they both had put on their winter parkas. They had stuffed their coat pockets with matchbooks. My 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son had started the fire, and they were on their way back to the barn to make it bigger!

I barked at them to take their coats off and go sit in the living room until I came back in.

Luckily, I snuffed out the fire with four trips back and forth from the house water spigot to the barn. The first bucket drenched the fire, but I wanted to make sure it was out for good. After the fourth bucket, I stirred it and saw no sign of smoke or embers. I went back inside to face my two wayward children.

The mixture of emotions coursing through me was bizarre. Still shaken from the experience, relief that my children were unscathed washed over me. I realized how serious their injuries could have been. Even though I kicked myself for not keeping the matches out of their reach, I still trembled with anger. They knew better than to play with matches. I was so angry I was tongue-tied, which was good because I didn’t trust myself to scold them. Instead, as calmly as I could, I told my children I would be working in the garden and they had better watch television and not move until I came inside. Neither of them uttered a single word. On my way out, I looked at the clock. It was 11:30.

Weeding row after row of vegetables helped me calm down. After some time, I heard Nicki’s quiet little voice behind me.

“Mama... Mama?” I turned to look at my little daughter. “Lance wants to know if we can make some peanut butter samwiches.”

I looked at my watch. It was 2:00 p.m. Though dismayed and guilty for forgetting their lunch, I felt tremendously grateful that I had these two beautiful, healthy children. I hugged my little girl close. “Sure. Let’s go in. I’ll help.”

They never told us why they started the fire or what they expected would happen. Although we were never sure if they got the idea from Barn Burner, we learned to pay attention to what our children watched on television. We found even family television often benefited from discussion or an adult explanation. We also kept the matches in a locked container, high out of their reach.