The Day We Set The Woods on Fire

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The first four years of my life I was raised by baby sitters, maids and house keepers, because my birth mother died of advanced breast cancer when I was eighteen months old. My brother Berry Lee (Bubba) was thirteen years old and my sister Marilyn was almost five years old. Our Dad (Pop) was emotionally devastated but had to continue his busy medical practice to support us and to provide as much parental support as possible. Our maternal grandmother lived with us for several years, but her home was in Little Rock, and it didn’t work out for her to stay on a permanent basis. I believe there was significant tension between Pop and her regarding our care. By the time I was four Pop had met, courted and married Athie West who became our step mother. Since I was too young to remember my birth mother my new Mom filled this void in my life, and it was not until years later I was able to understand the significance of her sacrifices.

Mom had no prior experience at parenting, and she wanted only the best for us. She knew about dresses and frilly things for girls and seemed to have no problems with Marilyn, but for me it was different. I am told as a child Mom kept me spotless in appearance and usually wearing the latest in children’s clothing. Whenever I got  dirty playing outside I was quickly cleaned and dressed in another outfit. I must have assumed this was the way it was supposed to be for boys. I don’t remember complaining about it or thinking I was different from other little boys. This all changed when I was seven years old and the Anthony boys moved into the neighborhood.

Beryl Franklin Jr. (Berlie) and John Lee were the only sons of Beryl and Oma Lee Anthony. There were 2 older daughters, Patsy Sue and Carolyn. The Anthony’s were part owners of a family timber business in South Arkansas and North Louisiana, and they moved to El Dorado from the small town Calion in the mid-1940’s. In addition to other holdings the Anthonys owned a large sawmill in Calion which supported an adjoining community of sawmill employees. There was a company store which sold all the necessary household supplies and groceries for the community. That store later became a source for John Lee and me to obtain cigarettes for our smoking pleasure at the ages of nine and seven years respectively. Needless to say our parents did not suspect or know about this for a long time.

Berlie and John Lee played a huge role in my growing and maturing experience as a young boy. We rode bikes together, played baseball, football and basketball depending on the mood and the season. We wrestled in the grass, mud or whatever happened to be on the ground at the time with no thought from either of our parents of trying to clean us up. We would hunt and fish together at Calion near the sawmill, and were probably under the watchful eye of some adult without knowing it. Berlie was a year older than I, and I looked up to him for his great wisdom and worldly experience. John Lee was two years younger and occasionally, because of his inexperience and immaturity, Berlie and I would exclude him from our deliberations. If Berlie wasn’t available, then John Lee became my best friend.

I’m not certain of our exact ages, but somewhere around age seven or eight, I was introduced to cigarettes by the Anthony boys and primarily by John Lee. The cigarettes never made sick, but I do remember feeling I was a big man when I would light one up. I am pretty sure I could look and talk tougher whenever I had a Lucky Strike in my mouth. Even though this was an era when smoking was common-place and Pop even smoked cigarettes, I did not dare let him know I was smoking. Bubba was in college at the time, and he was an excellent athlete. I knew  he had never smoked cigarettes, but this didn’t matter to me. I asked him once if he had ever smoked, and he said he tried it and it made him sick. Since it didn’t make me sick, I was sure this was my indication I was supposed to smoke.

One morning near lunch-time John Lee and I were in the wooded area adjacent to their home and decided to make a small campfire in order to make our smoking more enjoyable. Perhaps we had in mind making some coffee which is what we had seen John Wayne and some of his side-kicks doing in the movies. As I recall there was a slight breeze which made the lighting of the fire a little more difficult, but when it was well lit caused it to burn better and faster. By the time we added a few small tree limbs and pine straw we had a roaring fire, and thought perhaps we needed to reduce it a bit. The more we tried the larger the flames grew, and as I was trying to stamp out the fire I saw John Lee start crying and he ran towards home. He decided to leave the fire control to someone older and wiser. Not sensing I was up to the task I gave up and also started running home which was two blocks away. Before I reached our front porch I heard the sirens of a fire engine and assumed it was headed our way. I don’t know why but I ran to my bedroom, pulled off my britches and climbed into bed. Mom saw me and said, “What are you doing and what is that siren I hear?” My response was, “I don’t feel very good, and I don’t know anything about the siren.”

The wooded area was not completely burned, but several large beautiful pines were destroyed. I wasn’t punished for my misdeeds, but John Lee’s parents were not as forgiving. He got a significant spanking because of the fire. His Mom and Dad always thought I was so sweet I couldn’t have possibly thought about starting a fire like that, so it must have been John Lee’s idea. I never let them think otherwise and still have a little bit of guilt concerning my silence.

I have wonderful memories of those days with the Anthony’s, and am grateful they were a big part of my early maturing process. By God’s grace and mercy we did learn cigarettes and smoking were dangerous to wooded areas and to health, and we quit smoking within a few years. The Anthony boys turned out well. Beryl Franklin became a U.S. Congressman from the 4th District in 1979 and served faithfully for seven terms. John Lee became President and CEO of Anthony Forest Products and made a significant contribution to the growth of the timber industry in South Arkansas. In that role part of his responsibilities involved the planting, growth management and harvest of pine trees on tens of thousands of acres. He more than made up for the few trees we destroyed in our fire. I just wish I had confessed my guilt concerning the fire to Mr. and Mrs. Anthony. I doubt they would have spanked me.

Dr. John

2 thoughts on “The Day We Set The Woods on Fire

  1. I love it! I still miss Big Beryl and Oma Lee. And John Lee.

    Confession time. I, too, smoked in elementary school. Yep… Madison Murphy and I were best friends and he smoked. So, I had to as well! That lasted the second half of the 3rd grade through the fourth grade. But, at 35 cents a pack, I couldn’t afford to buy cigarettes AND Flying Magazine each month! So, I quit purely for financial reasons.

    I assume you are talking about the woods behind the Anthony house on Madison, down the hill and across the street for your old house? I’ll always think of you three when I see those big tall trees behind those houses.

    • Those were the woods! There is a house there now but still some huge trees behind. It took me a little longer to quit smoking since we had a “supplier” at the sawmill in Calion. When we had to purchase them, they were 20 cents a pack for us, which we thought was outrageous! Thanks for your encouragement, Todd

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