When I was growing up in the ’50’s and ’60’s, environmental concerns weren’t on the average person’s radar and, in fact, Rachel Carlson’s ground breaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, was the only serious look at pollution and was primarily concerned with the use of poisonous chemicals, dispersed in the ground water supply.
So, when the fall leaves dropped to the ground by the bushel, we raked them up on the curbside into a tidy mound and set them on fire; a blazing heap that chucked out smoke like a runaway barbecue pit. Oddly, the expected acrid cloud was rather pleasant, with an aroma similar to a campfire.
Multiply that single act with designated leaf burning days and you had what amounted to a neighborhood bonfire with nearly every curbside contributing to the fog that spread across the adjacent streets and filled the air with the unmistakable smell of fall.
It’s the smell that, in the sensory memory of those who experienced it, will always be associated with the season. Leaf burning was something that brought neighbors outside to talk and kibitz with one another; a giant social event with a 5-alarm ambiance and a role for everyone to play.
Children did a lot of the raking, if for nothing else than the payoff of diving headfirst into the pile, so it was a chore of joy that was so good we had to do it repeatedly because our leafy playground would end up spread far and wide as if we’d never raked in the first place. At some juncture, the adults took over the operation and the fires commenced. Leaf herders with a constant watch over their fallen flock had to make sure the fire stayed within the confines of reasonable although me and most of my little pyromaniac friends were just prodding the herders into bigger and brighter blazes.
Before there were multiple electronic distractions to dumb down social events for kids, sanctioned fun with fire and smoke was something to look forward to. It plays into every irresistible urge kids have to control the potentially uncontrollable, so what could be better than an entire neighborhood flickering at dusk?
“Hey kids, let’s go outside and play with matches!!”
We weren’t even content with our own fires so we made the ‘flammable tour’, roaming the rest of the neighborhood to check out the fires of our buddies on other streets.
Now, to be honest, this wasn’t a risk-free activity because there was the outside chance that a pant leg might catch on fire or somebody’s house was a little too downwind but those were acceptable hazards to be dealt with if necessary. In practice, the only regular danger we encountered was leaping into the pre-burned pile only to discover some kid-maiming surprise, like a rake or other mystery object. But that’s part of the charm of the unknown and if you were going to get squeamish about a rock in the side of the ribs or a ground steak upside the head, then leaf pile jumping wasn’t for you. We really didn’t weigh the negatives of inhaling tons of toxic fumes because, well, we just didn’t because we were as oblivious as the 1950’s sometimes were. If you didn’t consider the disasterous effects of 3 packs of Lucky Strikes a day then you were hardly phased by pile of burning leaves.
At its peak, the haze just hung in the trees, like one of those World War II movie battlefields covered with artillery smoke. It completely changed the character of the neighborhood and made it, in an odd way, sort of an exotic getaway. I always loved it when the familiarity of home morphed into something else, whether it was 10 feet of snow, an ominous sky before a tornado or, as in this case, scads of little bonfires.
For environmental and safety reasons, nearly all cities have put a stop to that kind of thing and now you see the leaves raked and stuffed in those biodegradable paper bags, lined up neatly on the curb, waiting for trucks to pick them up.
It’s probably a good thing we didn’t have those back then because I’m sure we would have set the bags on fire too. Sorry, Smokey.