Thomas Wictor

Fire burns, but…

Fire burns, but…

Last night I had a dream that was brought on by hate mail. It was a very unpleasant dream, but it led me to finally understand why I’ve been so doggedly building up the planet’s largest collection of World War I flamethrower photos. Hate mail caused the dream, the dream made me go through my postcard collection to see if I could find something, and finding it suddenly opened my eyes. Fire burns, yes. That’s only part of what it does.

In my dream I went back to San Francisco to re-enter college and get a postgraduate master’s degree in creative writing. I was my present age, and I knew that this was the dumbest thing I could do. I’d already failed as a writer, so this would be a huge waste of money and time.

At the University of California at San Francisco, I was in the process of enrolling when suddenly I had to urinate. Set into the wall was a wooden outhouse.

I went to use it. As soon as I started, the door flew open. A crowd of Palestinian men stared in at me.

“You’re not supposed to do it standing up!” the leader shouted. He had a thick black mustache and popping eyes. “You’re supposed to sit down!”

I tried to close the door, but they grabbed it and held on.

“You’re a rapist!” the leader shouted.

I finally yanked the door closed and finished. When I went out into the hall, I was furious. They were trying to turn me into a Sitzpinkler, and because I refused, now they were accusing me of being a rapist.

Out in the enrollment hall, I ran into my brother Pat.

“Did you tell those Palestinians that I’m a rapist?” I demanded.

“Of course not,” he said. “It was _________.” He gave me the name of one of our neighbors. I don’t think she’d want to be associated with this.

“Where is she?” I asked.

Pat wordlessly pointed to a stranger, then he pointed to another and another. I was about to start shaking him by the shoulders when suddenly a demonstration began. A group of college-aged women stood at the front of the enrollment hall. One had a bullhorn and a piece of paper.

Can I have your attention, please?” she yelled. “We’re about to read the names of the college rapists, so could everybody please sit down and be quiet?

I climbed up on one of the tables and started screaming at her. “Who do you think you are? You’re lying! Not a single man on that list is a rapist! You’re just angry because I didn’t knuckle under!”

She read names while I bellowed at her.

Then I was sitting at a table with a Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s deputy and Carmen, the Cardinal Ghost. She was twenty-five, the age she was when I met her.

“These women are accusing me of being a rapist,” I told the deputy. “I want them all arrested.”

There was a bowl of croutons on the table. The deputy—a muscular blond man with a heavy mustache and mirrored sunglasses—took a handful of croutons from the bowl and began idly arranging them in patterns on the table, completely ignoring me. That made me so angry I wanted to kill him. I turned to Carmen for help, but she looked like she was made of plastic. I couldn’t tell if she were real or not.

Then another Carmen walked up to the table and began verbally assaulting me, saying all the things that Ordinary Martin the Ron Paul toady said the other day.

“You’re a total failure. You’re a weak, pill-popping loser. It’s pathetic to see a grown man beg his dead father for attention.”

Her face was so contorted with hate that she looked like a Japanese Noh demon mask.

I couldn’t figure out why she hated me so much. We hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years, and she was the one who ended the relationship.

Then I realized that none of it mattered. I had no connection whatsoever to Carmen, I wasn’t going to get a post-graduate master’s degree in creative writing, and it made no difference that Palestinians and women with bullhorns wanted me to be a Sitzpinkler or they’d accuse me of being a rapist. I was much closer to the end of the race than the beginning, which meant that I was free from worrying about any of it. Then I woke up.

The dream left me with an emotional hangover, so I decided to see if I could find a photo that I was sure I had. I recently bought the military passport of a German soldier from World War I. His name was Bruno Zahlten, and he was born in 1886. The person who sold the passport didn’t realize what he had, so he didn’t advertise it correctly. I got it for next to nothing.

Bruno Zahlten was a flamethrower pioneer.

After four months of training, he joined the 6th Company of the flamethrower regiment on May 27, 1918, at the relatively advanced age of thirty-two. He was attached to Assault Battalion No. 18 and fought right up until the very last day of the war, November 11, 1918. Having survived, Zahlten was discharged from the army on December 23, 1918.

His passport is signed by Deputy Officer Freesemann. I have a photo of Freesemann, which he sent to his wife. He was a staff sergeant at the time.

He’s missing the tip of his right index finger and was without question a firefighter in civilian life. Older firefighters were recruited into the flamethrower regiment due to their physical fitness, their familiarity with spraying equipment, and the fact that they’d overcome the natural human fear of flames.

As I was looking for my photo of Deputy Officer Freesemann, it suddenly struck me why I’ve always been fascinated by flamethrowers. Fire burns and kills, but it also cleanses and tempers. It makes substances harder yet more flexible. It never bothered me that I collected photos of men who potentially burned other men to death, because the reality is that they usually didn’t. When the Germans began using flamethrowers, entire bunker systems surrendered without a fight. As a German general pointed out, the flamethrower is the only weapon that becomes more frightening the more the enemy is exposed to it.

With this insight into my motivations, I was able to better understand one of my favorite songs, “Grace,” by the late Jeff Buckley. He was a man with terrible “daddy issues,” since his father was the singer Tim Buckley. Critics accused the son of being a pallid imitation of the father, who died of a heroin overdose at twenty-eight. On the night of May 29, 1997, Jeff Buckley walked into the Wolf River in Memphis, fully clothed. He drowned, his death at the age of thirty ruled accidental.

“Grace” is a real cri de coeur. It floored me the first time I heard it. After the revelations of today, I realize that it’s my life set to music.

There’s the moon asking to stay
Long enough for the clouds to fly me away
Oh, it’s my time coming
I’m not afraid
Afraid to die

My fading voice sings
Of love
But she cries to the clicking
Of time
Of time

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

And she weeps on my arm
Walking to the bright lights and sorrow
Oh, drink a bit of wine
We both might go tomorrow
Oh, my love

And the rain is falling
And I believe
My time has come
It reminds me of the pain
I might leave
Leave behind

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

It reminds me of the pain
I might leave
Leave behind

And I feel them drown my name
So easy to know
And forget with this kiss
I’m not afraid to go
But it goes so slow

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

Wait in the fire
Wait in the fire

* * *

I thought my wait in the fire would never end, but I emerged cleansed, tempered, and in a state of grace. The pain was left behind after all. That’s why I’m not afraid of anything anymore and why nothing—especially ordinary Martins—can hurt me. You’ll never guess what the surname Zahlten means.



From a reader.

And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried.

—Zechariah 13:9

In this verse, to “try” means to test, as in a quality check.

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