Nelson: Burning man

Jerry Nelson Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

My wife and I were motoring through the countryside recently when a distinctive aroma permeated the car.

“Yuck!” exclaimed my wife, “What’s that smell?”

This has happened so many times over the years that my response has become automatic.

“It’s not me!” I exclaimed. But this time I was telling the truth.

“Somebody is burning trash,” I said, taking a deep whiff. I rolled the fragrance around in my mouth and smacked my lips. “I detect strong overtones of newsprint mixed with subtle notes of glossy supermarket circulars.”

I took a second whiff. “There are also nuances of plastic bread wrapper.” Closing my eyes in concentration, I intoned, “Sara Lee. Honey wheat, split top. A 20 ounce loaf.”

A skeptical look spread across my wife’s face. You would think that by now I’d be accustomed to her Doubting Thomasina act, but seeing my wife’s disbelief impelled me to defend my statement.

“You didn’t know that you’re married to a garbage fire aficionado?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. Small surprises are what keeps a marriage vibrant.

Like many prodigies, I displayed an early aptitude for fire. One day when I was a tyke, I was playing out in the grove with some relatives when an older cousin produced a book of matches. She asked if I would like to see some of the tricks that she had learned. I had always been fascinated by fire. I didn’t need to be asked twice.

My cousin showed me how two matches could be welded together by holding the head of an unlit match against one that was burning. She then gathered up a lock of her long blonde hair and authoritatively informed me that matches can be used to eliminate split ends.

An alarmingly large flare-up was followed by a flurry of frantic head-swatting. My cousin was forced to explain her ragged hairstyle to her parents and my olfactory memory was permanently seared with the aroma known as “burnt blonde.”

As on many farms back in that era, we had a burn barrel that sat near our house. Every so often we would trundle our combustible household garbage out to the barrel for incineration.

Someone had to tend the fire and make sure that everything got burned. I volunteered for burn barrel duty whenever possible. Not many jobs include playing with matches as a requisite.

Dad was always worried that the fire would escape the confines of the barrel and spread to our farmstead, so we only burned trash after it had rained. I came to associate the cool chill that follows a nighttime thunderstorm with the tangy aroma of smoldering trash.

There’s an art to incinerating trash in a barrel. For instance, you don’t want to put hard-to-burn items such as thick, glossy catalogs on the bottom. It’s best to start out with something that burns rapidly and feed the more indigestible items to the inferno once it reaches “the core of Hades” level.

The fire had to be stirred – usually with a long stick – as it burned its way through the trash. It often proved too tempting to let all those flames go to waste, so frankfurters and marshmallows were frequently roasted on the end of the stir stick. There are few gastronomic delights that rival a chunk of processed meat that has been thoroughly charred over a garbage fire.

Sometimes the fire was slow to “catch.” We were allowed to use liquid accelerants, but only the weeniest ones. Gasoline, we were told, was strictly verboten. This was like telling a person that a particular fruit is forbidden.

There was a very good reason that gas was banned. Gasoline is extremely flammable and is therefore extremely dangerous. Nobody should ever use gasoline to start a fire unless your plans include an extended stay in the burn unit.

Being a typical boy, I had to learn this the hard way. I was manning the burn barrel one weekend when I decided to speed things up by using a little gasoline. I splashed a dash of gas into the barrel and “shot” a match at it, mimicking the method my cousin had demonstrated.

After numerous attempts, a lit match abruptly connected with the gasoline fumes. A loud “whump!” thumped through my chest as a roaring orange fireball erupted from the barrel. I later discovered that my level of fright had been such that my underwear could have just as well been tossed into the blaze.

Once I quit shaking, I checked for damages. As I suspected, my eyebrows had gone missing and my bangs were suddenly much too short.

And I recognized an unforgettable aroma. That smell known as burnt blonde.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.

Jerry Nelson