Dried palm branches are highly flammable.
In retrospect, Hooter knew that he knew that because it was the dried branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday that fueled the burden
burner used during the annual healing service; the ashes later used for Ash Wednesday.
He wasn't thinking about that just now, what with being thankful that the fire in the Sunday School classroom was quickly contained. It was little Hector, who knew exactly where the extinguisher hung in the hall; his dad was a volunteer fireman.
A quick casualty count included a couple of ceiling tiles, the kids' artwork, a store-bought map of Jerusalem, the paint job on the north wall of the classroom, and the sheaf of dried palm branches, of course.
“It was just a flash fire,” assured Hector, “No big deal; it would have probably gone out on its own.” Assorted parents and pals were a mite more skeptical.
“Hooter McCormick,” demanded Aunt Pinky, “How in the name of Sam Houston could you have burnt the Sunday School class to a crisp?”
Rather than point out that no one was much hotter than room temperature, Hooter simply replied, “It was sunshine and Lent, I reckon.”
Every year, just before Ash Wednesday, the boys would get around to talking about what they were giving up for Lent. As the years went by, the sacrifices became more thoughtful, and well, more sacrificial. At least for most of them.
“I'm giving up chocolate,” Izzie said sadly.
“Good for you,” said Peetie, “But twinkies don't have chocolate in them, do they?” Izzie just grinned.
“How about you Peetie?”
“Boys, at my age, there's plenty of what I used to could do that I have to give up over time and against my will. Instead, I'm taking something on, going to try to get more serious about Bible study, not just read the words, but try harder to understand them.”
All the rest of group nodded.
“What about you Hooter?”
He could barely bring himself to say the words. “I'm giving up Copenhagen.”
There was silence all around. Even Cousin Charlie, who had known Hooter the longest, couldn't remember a day in their lives when Hooter didn't have a can of Copenhagen in his possession if not his lip.
“You're serious?” a couple of them managed.
“Yep. That quack doctor cutting the skin cancer off my face says it'll heal quicker without nicotine in the system for at least a week before the surgery,” said Hooter. “I've got my doubts about that. But, Bugsy's been harping about it, and I reckon I can't expect her to listen to me about staying away from what I know's bad for her if I'm not willing to try to do the same.”
“Bless your heart,” said Lonnie, aiming a stream of Mail Pouch at the coffee can. And he meant it.
So, the first domino leading up to the Sunday School fire really was all of those years Hooter had spent in the sun, which the doctor said led to the skin cancer.
“Didn't you ever once think to use sunscreen?” accused the doctor.
“Frankly, no. We were always busy focusing on the inconsequential stuff, like getting the work done before the daylight ran out,” said Hooter. “Besides, you burn, you brown, and you don't burn again until the next spring.”
The doctor rolled his eyes, “Mr. McCormick that makes no sense at all. You see, ultraviolet light…”
This was exactly the kind of ignorance that kept Hooter from seeing a doctor about the spots for so long. It was Claire and Bugsy who finally convinced him. That and he'd grown weary of strangers asking him what all those spots were.
“How ‘bout you, Lonnie?” wondered Hooter, eager to shift the focus of attention.
“I'm not sure whether it's giving up or taking on,” said Lonnie. “I'm going to try to be more patient, more positive.”
“You mean you're not going to be a grump anymore,” chided Hooter.
“That would be another way of saying it.”
“Well, that's a heroic sacrifice,” said Peetie, patting him on the shoulder, “what with that new dog and all.”
The new dog in question was a stray that showed up and took an immediate liking to Lonnie and his feed store. The boys had christened him Flash. Lonnie called him lots of things that were less than Christian. The two couldn't have been more different.
In relative terms, Lonnie was good sized. Flash was no bigger than a decent-sized rat. Lonnie was contemplative and deliberate in action. Flash was all about impulse and speed. As a sportscaster once said of NBA player, Darrell Armstrong, and his manic energy level, “He could make coffee nervous.” That was Flash—now you see him, now you don't, always one step beyond well-earned discipline.
The Next to Fall
Sinners and addicts, being what they are, find it easy to justify compromise. In Hooter's case, once the skin cancer surgery was over, he figured he could stay true to quitting Copenhagen, while still enjoying the occasional nicotine kick. All he had to do was roll a cigarette.
Hooter had always enjoyed the occasional cigar or pipe, more than anything to irritate people who were annoying him, like those who asked him about the spots on his arms and face. Or the young man behind the counter at the Lubbock convenience store where Hooter bought his roll-your-own makings on the way home from the hospital, who asked in a horrified voice what the big bandage on his face was all about.
In hindsight, that was the next to last domino.
If Hooter hadn't taken to rolling his own cigarettes, there wouldn't have been any cigarette papers roaming around his pockets. Which led to the last domino.
Say what you will about his methods, Hooter was an inspired guest Sunday School teacher for the kids. He'd come up with all sorts of experiments and object lessons that they could relate to.
Perhaps jumping the Holy Season a tad bit, Aunt Pinky had asked Hooter to put his periodic interest in sleight of hand to good use and come up with something to teach the kids about the coming of the Holy Spirit. He had just the thing—flash paper. It ignites easy, goes up in a fast flash of flame and is gone. Hooter even had a special metal device you could hide in your hand. You wadded up flash paper, put it in a small tray that was next to a flint wheel like those on cigarette lighters. The spark from the wheel ignited the flash paper, making a flame leap from your hand. Small sheets of the stuff look remarkably like cigarette papers.
Everything was going like clockwork. Hooter related how it was that the Disciples waited for the help Jesus promised in His place. He quoted Acts 2:3: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Then he jerked the flint wheel on the device hidden in his hand. Out shot the flame. Ohhhh, went the kids.
Since Hooter had inadvertently mixed the sheets of flash paper with some cigarette papers, though, there was a simmering, secondary flame that Hooter hadn't counted on. The convective properties of metal being what they are, Hooter suddenly felt like a hot coal was burning through his hand. That's when he flung the device, which unfortunately landed in the sheave of last year's palm branches. Poof!
“…So, that's how it happened,” Hooter explained to Aunt Pinky and the others gathered to assess the safety of the class.
“Young man, you're just lucky no one was hurt. You let this be a lesson to you,” huffed Aunt Pinky.
“Oh it is, Aunt Pinky,” said Hooter. “Next time, I'm not going to the doctor.”