Greased Lightning

By Jim Landwehr

t was supposed to be just another average day after school. Come home, change into “play clothes,” do the dishes, watch Gilligan’s Island and go out and play. That’s how it was supposed to work. As a seventh grader with a working mother, I had my chores to do, just like everyone else did, back then. Because Mom worked full-time, and we all got off to school on our own, the breakfast dishes usually were left until we got home from school every day. My five brothers and sisters and I rotated weeks so the workload was distributed. We all hated dish duty equally so took turns sharing the drudgery of dishpan-hands-before-play from week to week.

 

Heaven help the person who neglected the dishes before Mom arrived home every day. In addition to the dishes, she also expected the house to be “picked up” which, in the case of a six kid household, sometimes meant that she just wanted a floor clear of all obstructions and no pet-yack on the carpet. Many times my older sister Pat would take all of our winter coats and throw them down the basement steps. It was her speed-clean technique and she often did it while yelling that she wasn’t our maid and claiming that she had warned us three times to hang them up. She was probably correct on all points, with the exception of the three-count which may have been exaggerated by one or two. She was the queen bee though, and the instructions from Mom were that we were to listen to Pat; we all had to pull our weight, or risk getting stung.

Because my mom occasionally had bacon with her poached egg in the morning there was usually a frying pan with a thick coat of white solidified bacon fat awaiting the dishperson a couple of times a week. We all hated this pan because it was a greasy mess to clean. I never liked cleaning pans in the first place, but one coated in pig fat just made it worse.

 

There were typically two methods of cleaning this pan. There was the “spat and splat” method where we would take a spatula and scrape the grease on to it until you had it piled nice and high. Then we’d walk over to the waste basket and give it a good whack and the grease would splat against the side or bottom of the garbage bag liner. This method, while effective, did not produce a pan that was as pristine as the second method, the “melt and pour”.

 

The “melt and pour” was usually conducted while the dish person was waiting for the sink to fill up with suds and hot water. We would typically turn on the burner of the harvest gold electric stove underneath the bacon pan. In a minute or two, the grease would be melted enough so that the re-liquefied fat could be poured into a tin can pulled from the trash. This usually entailed a precarious exchange between a middle-schooler with a hot pad, and a heavy pan of hot grease, and a questionable receptacle. It usually came off without a hitch, and when it did, it resulted in a pan that was much easier to clean by simply dipping it in the sudsy water and wiping the residual grease away.

 

On this given day, I chose to use the “melt and pour”. For me, dishes were a chore to be dealt with as quickly as possible so I could get on to bigger and better things. I got home from school, went into the kitchen and clicked the burner under the bacon pan to medium heat. This would melt the grease good and fast and I’d be done with the dishes in no time. I ran upstairs and changed out of my dark blue pants and light blue golf shirt, the standard parochial school uniform of St. Lukes. Like most boys, I hurriedly pulled my pant legs off inside out and let them fall where they may and then did the same with my shirt. Then I raced to put on my jeans and my hand me down T-shirt.

 

Then, for no good reason I wandered into my mom’s room and started looking at the family photo albums. We had a pile of them and I always loved looking through their thick plastic-covered pages. All of the family camping trips, holidays, birthdays and religious rites of passage were there. I sprawled out on her bed, opened one of the heavy albums up and started paging through. Life is always simpler from a photo album perspective.

 

Look that’s when we were camping at St. Croix with the McKasy family.

 

Oh, I remember that Christmas, when I got that football!

 

Wow, nice beehive-hairdo Mom. Groovy pantsuit too.

 

I flipped through page after page, falling into a dreamland known only as the past. Each page dredged up a different emotion spun from a different memory; The joy of vacation, the anticipation of a Christmas Eve gift opening, and the warmth of a family group picture. Oh to be seven again. No worries about long division at that age, just simple addition and subtraction, which was easy.

 

Oh, look at Pumpkin! So cute. He was such a good dog.

 

There’s a great fish picture.

 

I miss Fat Cat. He was so fat and lazy.

 

The albums drew me in like a TV reality show. TV however, is not real. These pictures had real meaning and were of people that were close to me. A bit like Alice, I had fallen down the rabbit hole known as memory lane, and couldn’t seem to pull myself out.

 

Hmmm, what’s that smell?

 

Holy shit, the bacon pan!!!

 

I pushed up off the bed and spun around and dashed out the door. I leapt down the steps three at a time, took a turn at the landing and leapt down the last four steps on a dead run. I turned from the living room into the kitchen and could hardly believe my eyes. There was a six inch cloud of white smoke swirling on the ceiling. It was surreal. I had gone from picture album memory lane to a scene from Backdraft, in a matter of seconds.

 

My eyes shifted from the smoke its source. The pan of grease on the stove was in a full blaze. The flames shot a foot high from the pan and the smoke was billowing, dieseling out of the pan at an unbelievable rate.

 

Holy shit, am I gonna be in trouble for this!

 

Being a seventh grader capable of thinking on his feet in times of crises, I quickly grabbed a hot pad, knowing that the pan’s handle would be flaming hot. I grabbed the heavy iron skillet and put it in the kitchen sink, flames and all. Rather than spending time looking for the baking soda, I preferred to take the quick, explosive method of extinguishing the inferno by turning on the faucet. This fire needed to be put out by any means necessary so I could begin the disaster cleanup before anyone else got home.

 

This was a very bad idea.

 

It was a little like trying to put out a campfire using dynamite. When the water hit the greasy pan, there was an explosion of steam and smoke that leapt off the pan with mushroom cloud fury. The fire was parted like a flaming red sea where the water hit and the resultant greasy smoke curled upwards in billow after billow. I remember thinking how can so much smoke come from a fire that is in the process of being put out? Isn’t the smoke supposed to stop? It just kept smoking and smoking, most of it steam from the water hitting a pan that was probably on the order of three hundred degrees hot. Steam happens, I guess.

 

After running the water for fifteen seconds or so, the fire was out and I shut the faucet off. I looked up at the cloud of smoke above my head and began to wonder what life at the orphanage would be like. Or, perhaps there was a special place in heaven for boys whose history with fire made them better candidates for the fires of hell?

 

I decided that a quick cover up was the best plan of action. Perhaps using rapid disaster recovery methods I could get by without anyone noticing.

 

My first order of business was clearing the smoke. I opened the windows over the sink and flung open the back door. I went from room to room in the house opening any available windows as wide as I could. I grabbed a kitchen towel and started fanning the smoke toward the back door in desperation. While the large cloud on the ceiling dissipated fairly quickly, the residual smell of the grease cloaked the downstairs like a death pall.

 

Yes sir, there was no escaping it. There had certainly been a fire in this house today and there was no way anyone entering it would not notice. I could spend the next four hours trying to cover up my crime, and it still would be patently obvious, at least to anyone with a nose.

 

My sister Jane was the first to stumble upon the scene of the crime. I met her in the living room and tried to divert her attention from the kitchen crime scene.

 

“It smells horrible in here. What happened?”  she asked.

 

“Really, does it smell that bad?” I asked, hoping to downplay the severity of my bacon flambe’.

 

“Yes, it really does. What did you do, start a fire?” Jane asked as she sniffed the air with an degree of “I’m glad I’m not you” in her voice.

 

 

“Well, yeah, I did. The bacon pan caught fire when I was melting the grease, but it’s out now,” I said reassuringly.

 

We went into the kitchen and assessed the damage.

 

“Ooooo, Mom’s not going to like this,” she said, as if I needed reminding.

 

“I know, I know,” I pleaded in my defense.

 

About that time, Jane stood on a kitchen chair and rubbed her index finger on the kitchen ceiling, leaving a finger streak in the greasy coating that covered the ceiling, a product of the thick smoke.

She started laughing that knowing-laugh kids share when they feel sorry for their errant sibling. My shoulders slumped when I saw the incriminating finger mark and realized that the ceiling would likely have to be washed, at a minimum, and perhaps even need repainting entirely. My fears were compounded by the fact that Tom had just painted the entire kitchen only a few weeks prior. I feared his wrath even more than my mother’s. There was never the threat of physical punishment by anyone, to anyone in our family. Sometimes though, the verbal ridicule and tongue-lashing was worse than any blows we could have taken. In most cases it was well deserved and ultimately served as character building for each of us.

 

Mom arrived at the usual time after work, close to five o’clock. When I broke the news to her, she was justifiably upset. I fully expected her to raise her voice resulting in a miserable evening for, not only me, but the rest of the family as well. Despite my fears, she was surprisingly forgiving. She had a knack for knowing when we were vulnerable and truly sorry and pulled back on the punishment reins a bit. She said it was a stupid move on my part and that she hoped I’d learned a lesson. I admitted I had and told her I’d be using different methods to get rid of bacon grease in the future.

Tom was a bit less forgiving, but only because he had invested the time in painting the kitchen weeks before and now would have to scrub the ceiling.

 

“He did what?” Tom said, when mom broke the news to him.

 

Tom, like our mother showed a bit of compassionate mercy. When he confronted me he reminded me how boneheaded it was, but was glad to hear that it wasn’t more disastrous. In the end, family safety triumphed over the fact that he would have to clean up after his younger brother’s mistake. It wasn’t the first time, and likely wouldn’t be the last.

 

 

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Jim Landwehr enjoys writing creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, and is enrolled in the All Writers’ Workshop and Workplace (www.allwriters.org) He is currently working on a book-length memoir of his travels to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota with his brothers and friends in the late 1980’s. He has had a non-fiction story published in Boundary Waters Journal magazine. His poetry has been featured in Verse Wisconsin, Echoes Poetry Journal, Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine, the Wisconsin Poets Calendar and Heavy Bear online magazine. Jim lives and works in Waukesha, Wisconsin.


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