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Raking Leaves and Gasoline

Ahh, the weekend! Glorious freedom. Wonderful opportunity to do the things you can't do during the workweek. On the list this Sunday are two things that really need to be done: The petcock on the bike's fuel tank is leaking and needs repair and the leaves need raking. The morning started off foggy and cold, but the sun has it all warmed up by lunchtime, so armed with a few hand tools and not a little trepidation, out I go.

I position the bike on the flat cinder block in the driveway dirt and the center stand goes down right in the middle. It takes hardly any time to remove the bolts holding the tank in place and to disconnect the hoses and wires. With the tank carefully perched on top of some 2 X 4s on the frame (to protect both bike and tank) I put a rubber hose over the barb on the petcock and position the lever at "Prime" and wait for the fuel to run out of the tank and into the red plastic gas can. Nothing happens. I fiddle with various petcock positions, open and close the fuel fill cap... to no avail. This is perplexing. Gas should be flooding out the end of that hose.

I go inside and wash off the gas that has dripped on my hands, then call my personal Concours guru. Greg answers on the third ring. "Dude! How do I get this tank to drain?" I implore. "Simple," he replies, "Just turn the petcock to "Prime" and it should come flooding out."

"I did that, Man, and nothing happens." "Oh," he says, "That's a sign of a bad petcock."

Well, Duh. I already know that.

Sometimes even the Great Ones come up empty.

"It would be slow," he suggests, "But you could try siphoning it out through the fill. You wouldn't get it all, but you could get most of it."

"Okay," I respond. "I'll figure something out."

Remembering I have a little squeeze bulb type siphoning device down in the basement, I head back outside. It takes hardly any searching to locate the thing - I'm down to about five boxes of junk now, and it's in the third one.

Back at the bike, I connect one of the siphon tubes to the hose on the petcock and start squeezing the bulb. Nothing. I pull it off and connect the other one - same result. This ain't working.

I decide to just siphon it out of the top - I put one of the bulb hoses into the fill opening. A couple of squeezes and, Voila'! Fuel begins to flow. Uh, make that, drip. I squeeze some more, but it doesn't seem to help. If anything, the drip decreases in volume. I am getting some fuel out, but at an agonizingly slow pace. It could take two days to empty the 7.5-gallon tank at this rate. Then I notice the leak around the bulb. Oh, goody, now I'm going to get gas all over the place anyway. What a revoltin development this is. I pull the siphon hose out of the tank and toss the whole messy thing into the ditch at the end of the culvert, then go inside to wash the gas off my hands.

Back outside, I study the recalcitrant petcock and decide to see if I can get a better look with the hose pulled off the barb. I pull it off, and WHOOOSH! fuel floods out the end of the barb, splashing all over me and the bike! Thinking I finally have it working, I hastily slide the hose back on the barb... and the flow stops. Argh.

I go back inside and wash the nasty gas off my hands.

Back outside. Okay, Plan C. I carry the plastic gas can to the nearby ditch and find a spot where it will sit more or less level. Then I carry the bike tank over there, prop the front end of it on the side of the ditch, and move the gas can around to where the mouth of it is right under the petcock barb. With everything carefully balanced, I slowly move the petcock from "On" to "Prime". Fuel begins to trickle, then flow - down the side of the can. Holding the tank with one hand, I maneuver the can until the mouth is in just the right spot, and then prop it in that position with rocks. The fuel continues to pour, and now it's going into the mouth of the can! Yee haw! Success!

I go back inside to wash the gas off my hands.

Back outside, the fuel continues to flow but it's obvious it's going to take a while. Not wanting to meddle with something that is working, I leave it alone and busy myself with putting the side panel and seat back on the bike, and then cover the bike - I know there's no way I'm finishing this job today.

With the bike all secured for however long it'll be, I turn my attention to the six inches of leaves that litter my yard. This isn't accomplished without some drama, however. The reason for that is... the dog.

Lola, my Jack Russell terrior, (we call her that because in addition to being a terrier, she is also a terror) has been well behaved during all this fuss with the bike's fuel tank, spending most of her time sitting and watching me with a quizzical look on her face. But, the instant I start raking leaves, she transforms into a raging demon. Apparently she perceives the rake as some sort of threat, or maybe as a playmate, or as an animal to be subdued. Whatever, she attacks the rake with vigor, barking, snarling, leaping on it, latching onto the tines with her powerful jaws and giving it a good shaking. (My rake has plastic tines, which apparently don't hurt her teeth.)

At this point, I want to make a few observations:

1. It is not a good idea to rake leaves with a Jack Russell in the vicinity. The reason is,

2. It is very difficult to effectively rake anything with a 14 pound ball of energy and muscle trying to jerk the rake out of your hands. It's amazing how strong she is for her size - I weigh well over 200 pounds, and I'm confident that anyone weighing less than 200 will be lifted off their feet and flung about like the tip of a cracking whip.

3. It is not a good idea to attempt to out maneuver such dog by trying to rake where the dog isn't, especially in close proximity to a precariously balanced fuel tank that is draining into a relatively small opening. One such feint results in both rake and dog bumping said can, and, well, you can imagine the rest. Abandoning the rake to it's fate, I leap to the tank and can and right both, reposition them, and get them balanced again.

Then I go back inside the house and wash off the gas that had spilled all over my hands in the process.

By then, the tank is almost drained. I help it along with some strategic tipping... and notice that the gas can is within a fraction of an inch of full. Wait a minnit here! This is supposed to be a 10 gallon can, isn't it? And a seven gallon tank is gonna over fill it? Well, it does, and once again gas streams down the side of the can - and my hand.

"Hell with it," I mutter, and carry the dripping tank to the end of the culvert. I set the tank down gently so the petcock is suspended in midair past the end of the culvert and let it continue to drain, the fuel pouring down into the pile of leaves I just raked into the ditch, thinking all the while that I could have done this in the first place, but being environmentally conscious, I didn't want to pollute the good earth. Oh well, at least most of it is in the can.

I stash the sealed can in the outbuilding where it will be safe, and go back inside the house to wash spilled gas off my hands.

Back outside, the tank has stopped draining. Hallelujah! Now I can get on with the next step.

I carry the tank to the porch, place it across the porch railing about halfway along where it'll be high enough I can work under it without having to stoop, and go to work on the petcock. Easy removal - two screws pop loose and when they're out, the petcock falls into my hand, along with a generous helping of gasoline.

The filter is intact, and clean - no evidence of rust at all, and only a couple of specs of debris. It appears I have a pretty clean tank.

I put the petcock in a safe place to drain and dry, and move the tank to the end of the porch, behind the old lawn chair, then go inside to wash the gas off my hands.

The smell of gasoline tends to make me somewhat nauseous, and I have had about enough of it for now. I decide the petcock repair can wait for another day, and go back outside to rake more leaves.

The instant I pick up the rake, Lola the terrior pounces on it again, jaws locked on the tines, feet planted, head shaking. This ain't gonna work.

I amble over to the porch and find the end of the cable, call Lola to me, and snap the cable to her collar. Tied to the porch, she shouldn't be able to reach where I'm raking. As I head back toward the rake, she dashes after me, only to be brought up short. Hate to do it, but, hey, it's the only way I'll get anything done.

I spend the better part of the next hour raking the area around the bike in the lower half of the circle drive, part of the lower side yard, and a wide path alongside the ditch to act as a firebreak, piling the leaves in the ditch as I go. I also rake the shoulder of the road that dead-ends on the east side of the house. Nothing left but bare grass (in the yard) and gravel (in the drive). The pile of leaves in the ditch is huge, over 3 feet high in places. Ever the cautious one, I look up to make sure I won't be catching anything on fire. There's a tree limb up there, but it's way up there, about 10 or 15 feet. No way the flames will reach that high. Up by the culvert, the power line, telephone line, and TV cable cross over, but they are over the drive, not the ditch. We're cool.

Now, before you tree-huggers out there get all worked up about me burning leaves and polluting the air, let me explain how it is here in Arkansas. There ainít no law agin it. Itís perfectly legal. Besides, whatíre you gonna do with all these leaves if you donít burn Ďem? And donít try to give me that stuff about the leaves forming a protective mulch over the tender young plants and things and keeping them safe through the winter. Take a walk through a genuine oak forest and tell me how much grass and stuff you see on the floor. A layer of oak leaves is certain death for all plant life that isnít able to stand up and shrug them off.

As long as I can remember, burning leaves in the fall has been a tradition. Actually, out in the sticks, they used to burn the whole woods. Did the same thing in the spring, sometimes, too. Lots of the old timers had this theory that it was necessary to burn everything off every year to get rid of the briars and brush and ticks and chiggers. Never mind the fact that we still have all those things anyway. I never really paid it much attention, but while Iím out here today raking leaves, it crosses my mind. Could the old timers have been right? Letís apply some deductive reasoning here.

Do we still have ticks and chiggers, in spite of all that burning? Sure we do, a lot of them. But, they arenít everywhere. Most yards donít have Ďem, and what do we do in yards? Why, we rake and burn, of course. Hmmmm.

It occurs to me that there may be a parallel, another example of how man can control a species through extermination. Letís take the passenger pigeon, for example. When I was young, I read about how they used to be everywhere. Stories of how they were so plentiful their migrations would darken the sky. (I donít want to think about what they did to the ground!) Itís obvious that the passenger pigeon attained such huge numbers by having no natural enemy, nothing to control them. And, it also appears that, going hand-in-hand with population, the lack of control also allowed them to grow in size. I mean, a pigeon big enough to carry passengers! Iíve never seen a picture of one, but that would have to be one big bird!

Then, along came man with his shotguns and birdshot, and the passenger pigeons began falling like rain. From darkened skies to nary a one to be found in just a few decades, from what Iím told. Hard for me to fathom that we were able to eradicate a species of birds with the relatively narrow coverage of a shotgun blast, but canít seem to get rid of ticks by blanketing the hills with fire, but there you have it. Itís probably a good thing we are burning as much as we do Ė if our ancestors hadnít started the process a few hundred years ago, imagine how overrun with ticks weíd be by now. And, if they also grew in size! My God. By now weíd probably have ticks big enough to stand flat-footed and rape a turkey, and thatís a frightening thing to contemplate.

But, I digress.

When I first came outside the temperature was in the low 50s, but it has risen to more than 60 degrees. I've shucked the sweatshirt and now work in a short-sleeved tee shirt, but I still seem to be sweating. All this raking and thinking is hard work! My upper body is getting a workout. Nice day - if this was summer, I'd have a cold beer. What the heck, may as well. I get one out of the fridge and sit on the steps a few minutes and pet the dog, then start on the upper part of the drive and surrounding lawn. This is in close proximity to the dog, though, and here she comes after the rake. I stop and lead her up to the steps and around the pillar there, effectively shortening the cable about 10 feet - that oughta keep her far enough away and let me rake in peace again.

I soon have the ditch on the upper side of the culvert full of leaves. Now both ends of the culvert are buried in a huge pile of leaves. I am careful not to pile them so high in the area under the cedar trees beside the upper ditch because their limbs are lower than those of the big oaks, and probably more flammable.

By this point, Lola is tired and has given up fighting and biting the cable. She lies on her belly in the dirt with a forlorn look on her face, nothing moving but her eyes as she watches the hated rake scratching and grating across the ground, just out of reach.

Turning my attention to the front yard, I first rake leaves away from the house and the flower bed, moving them out toward the street in front of the house. Then I rake backward from a point midway between the house and street, figuring I'll get too big a pile to move if I try to get the whole area at once. This creates a long windrow from just west of the front of the house to the ditch on the east.

It's deceptive how many leaves are scattered over a lawn; I now realize that all these leaves aren't going to fit into the ditch at once, not the one on the east side, which is already as full as I dare pile it, and not the one on the north side, which will have to be filled with the leaves from the north side of the lawn before I can move the windrow up there. I decide to leave the windrow alone for now.

At this point, I deem it prudent to start burning. Conditions are favorable - light southerly breeze wafting gently across the ditch which is aligned south to north. Not enough breeze to make things get out of control and blowing in the right direction to keep smoke away from the house. But before I start, I need another beer.

Back outside, I check to be sure the wind is still favorable for burning. It's a "go".

As one who enjoys burning my ditches at both ends, I drop a match on the southernmost leaves in the lower ditch, walk to the northern end of the upper ditch and drop one there, and then relishing a well-earned break, I put the rake over my shoulder and stand in the street about even with the lower driveway to admire the fire and keep an eye out for any wayward sparks while I finish the second beer.

Now things start happening waaay too fast.

The attentive reader will recall that the leaf-laden ditch before me had earlier been the site of several gasoline related incidents:

1. I had discarded the leaky bulb siphoning device, doubtless still containing a good bit of fuel, in the ditch, right at the edge of the culvert.

2. I had drained the tank, and knocked over both tank and gas can, spilling considerable gas in the process, in the ditch very near the end of the culvert.

3. After the can was full, I had completed the draining of the tank by letting it pour down into the ditch at the end of the culvert.

4. After all this gasoline was poured into the leaf-lined ditch, I then raked a huge pile of dry leaves on top it all.

One might wonder what all this means. Well, I'll tell you.

Gasoline evaporates readily. Not a problem in open air, but... piling more leaves on top the gas-soaked ones already in the ditch no longer left the gasoline in the open. Factor in a light southerly breeze moving just fast enough to slowly push air through the leaf pile - and into the culvert - evaporating gasoline as it passes through. This results in a vapor-rich atmosphere inside said culvert.

Along come the flames. With the wind at its back, the southern end of the fire burns rapidly. Within moments, the first flames are reaching the area where the tank sat on the gas can. The three-foot high pile of leaves I anticipated burning with a six-foot flame suddenly roars up twice that height. Open-mouthed, I watch as the orange tongues of fire lick at the oak branches above. There will be no new leaves on those branches come spring.

There must be a vapor-rich atmosphere inside the leaf pile a couple of feet farther along, too, because that whole area suddenly goes up in a roaring flame that is just short of an explosion. The heat is intense, and I stagger backward to avoid being scorched. The flames are huge, and I watch in horror as they lick at the power, phone, and cable lines above the drive - the breeze is just strong enough to push the flame over that far. Clusters of burning leaves fly high into the air.

Now the mix inside the culvert goes off. The explosion makes a muffled, WHUMPF! loud enough to attract attention two blocks away, scaring me so bad I jump backward and drop my beer. The south end of the culvert blows the burning leaf pile out in a pattern reminiscent of the cloud of smoke that comes out of the barrel of Elmer Fudd's shotgun, only bigger and hotter and full of all kinds of burning debris - everything from glowing ash to fiery brands to whole, burning, leaves. The cloud rises and spreads alarmingly, falling into the street, blowing back into the drive and over my bike, and into the yard beside the ditch.

Simultaneously, the north end of the culvert blows out a big cloud of leaves in a similar fashion, many of them burning. They cascade down over the yard, in the street, the leaves farther up the ditch, and into the lower limbs of the first cedar tree, which immediately burst into flame.

The TV cable melts in two right above the driveway and falls into the street, draping across my left shoulder. The insulation on the power line is on fire.

It occurs to me that I have a crisis on my hands.

My yard, my leaf-littered back side yard, is on fire. As dry as these leaves are, it is going to spread quickly. The yard is carpeted with leaves right up to and against the house. The house is in danger.

The cedar trees beside my house, under which the car is parked, are on fire. My car is in danger.

Lola has her cable tangled under a car tire, right next to the burning cedar. Lola is in danger.

I'm standing beneath electric wires that could break at any moment. I am in danger.

I leap into action. I run to the south, away from the wires, and into the smoke-free area. I jump across the ditch into the yard, and frantically start raking a firebreak between the house and the burning leaves. I keep asking myself where the water hose is, and the answer keeps coming back, "You idiot, you winterized the outside hydrant and stretched the hose out on the ground to drain - it's buried somewhere beneath all these leaves, possibly even the burning ones!"

I also keep mentally kicking myself for buying a damn plastic rake, because the flames are so close to the house I'm having to rake into the fire and the tines are melting and getting shorter with each swipe. It's starting to look like an even bet that I'll run out of rake before I get enough firebreak cleared to save the house.

By now, the neighbors are starting to notice my plight. John comes running from across the street with his own leaf rake, hollering about the water hose. I shout back that I can't find it, and keep raking. He joins me with his rake, thankfully a metal-tined one, and between the two of us, we get the firebreak completed ahead of the flames. The house is safe, at least for the moment.

"Get your car out of there!" John shouts at me. "I don't have the keys!" I yell back. "Well, go get 'em and move the car!"

I drop my now-useless rake and sprint for the front porch. The near cedar is crackling and burning. I can't tell if the other one is on fire yet or not. Poor Lola! She can't pull the cable out from under the tire and is right under the burning cedar! I dive for her, and she dodges me. Dammit, dog, this is no time to play! I grab her by one leg and flip her on her back, grab the cable, and unsnap it. She scampers for the front porch.

I follow Lola and run into the house. The keys aren't on the entertainment center where I always leave them! Where will they be? Into the bedroom I run - they're on the dresser. Grabbing them, I dash back through the living room, smashing my shin on the end table by the couch. It hurts like hell, my vision blurs and I see little flashbulb-like spots, but I limp, hop, and stagger on out the door, across the porch, and to the car. Both cedars are definitely on fire. The heat is intense. Yanking open the car door, I dive inside and stab the keys into the ignition, fire it up, and jerk it into gear.

I never thought that a long row of dry leaves could behave like a trail of gasoline and ignite at one end and burn clear to the next very fast, but just try turning your back on one for a short time and see what happens. The windrow I created across the yard at the north end of the house is on fire from the ditch to west of the house, and it crosses the drive right in front of the car. I have no choice but to drive through that wall of flame, so I floor it and plow ahead into the fire.

I have to turn hard to the right to follow the drive out of the yard, and as I come out of the driveway I have to hook a hard left to avoid going straight across into the four-foot deep ditch in front of John's house. But, the old car's power steering takes some time to pump up when it's been sitting, and it's as stiff as can be - I'm going pretty fast from dashing through the fire and between the speed and the unresponsive steering I don't quite make a complete left turn. The Oldsmobile smashes over the stop sign and nose-dives into the ditch as I stand on the brakes. It's in kinda crooked, the right front buried into the wall of the ditch, tail in the air with the left rear tire off the ground.

Not having taken time to put on the seat belt, I bounce off the steering wheel pretty hard, taking a blow to my chin. I turn the ignition off, and heave the now uphill door open and start trying to crawl out. I hear a siren.

Some man I don't recognize grabs the door and holds it open while another stranger helps me scramble out of the car. Where did these people come from? A yellow fire truck is coming over the hill - these guys are fast! Or, maybe this little nightmare has been going on longer than I think.

The fire truck wails to a stop behind the upraised tail of the Olds and two men jump out and start unrolling hoses. Lola is at their feet, snarling and barking, all fierce and protective. She grabs a water hose and starts shaking it, but it looks like she's met her match. I hear other sirens, and there are police cars and pickups with flashing lights on their dashes coming down the street. Men pile out of the pickups and join the firemen with the hoses. Water starts spraying over the burning cedar trees and what's left of the fire in the ditch and the windrow in front of the house.

In a matter of minutes, it's over. The ditches are soggy blackened messes. The yard, both front and rear, are soggy blackened messes. The cedars... the poor, tall, stately cedars... they are now tall, stately, dripping, blackened trunks with truncated blackened limbs. Not a sprig of green remains on them. The two pine trees by the road in front of the house are badly scorched and browned, but not charred like the cedars on the east side - I hadn't even noticed the pines being on fire. My bike sits beneath its cover - that, too, is black and dripping. The water is effective, though. All fires are out. The smell of wet smoke hangs in the air. It's gross.

The Olds rests nose down in the deep ditch, the front fenders rumpled and bent, the hood buckled. You can hear liquid gurgling under there somewhere. Totaled for certain.

My head hurts, my jaw hurts, someone says I'm bleeding from a cut on my chin, my left shin hurts so bad I can hardly stand on it, and I feel sick to my stomach.

One of the firemen says they got there just in time - the fire had crossed the firebreak John and I had raked and the flames from the cedars were licking at the roof of the house. "But, we saved it for you," he smiles.

I mumble, "Thank you".

As my heart rate begins to slow down, I notice the woman from across the street is talking to the cops. I hear her say something about "gas can" and "leaves" and I think I hear the Bull Shoals cop say, "arson". He walks to the ditch and starts poking around in the wet rubble by the culvert, casting hard looks in my direction.

The other officer on the scene, a deputy sheriff, picks up the beer can I dropped when the culvert exploded and pours out some beer. It's obvious the can is still cold. He walks over to me and asks to see my driver's license and to step over to his car to take a breathalyzer test.

I'm starting to think this could get messy.

Who says you can't go