PJ, Mitch Buchanan, and the charred gravestones

Disclaimer: If, like my parents, you have an angelic misconception about me and want to stay in the dark about any non-Baptist-compatible events that I may or may not have been a part of at different times in my life, you may want to close this page and turn on the History Channel to rewatch this episode of American Pickers. 

At the beginning of my senior year as an undergraduate at Mississippi State University in the fall of 1999, my high school friend PJ moved to Starkville to continue his higher education. PJ rented the right side of a weird 3 level duplex on a hill in a quiet (before he got there) part of the Cotton District. This was where I spent as much or more time as I did at my own depressing apartment for the next 2 years. It seemed like there was always meat on the grill and a cooler of barley pops on ice. If there wasn’t, the safe bet was that somebody was inside lying on the couch nursing a hangover beside a Styrofoam takeout container containing the remnants of a midnight craving for hot wings from the place just on the other side of the city cemetery that would deliver the tasty treats, avoiding sunlight like a red-headed vampire, and watching the daily marathon of In the Heat of the Night on WGN. Large times were had at that house on the hill on a regular basis.

One night, not unlike most other indiscernible nights on the hill, found us with a small gathering of folks, having a laid back evening, eating and drinking as juveniles of that age are prone to do when somehow, yet unknown to any of us (wink, wink), an abandoned couch that had been on the rear patio of the house, which had no door leading out to it, all of a sudden burst into flames. The fire quickly engulfed the entire couch, and the flames spread to a nearby cedar tree before we could react. The only firefighting tool we had access to was a water hose that was on the opposite corner of the house from the fire and was about 50 feet too short to reach all the way around the house to battle the blaze which had by now gotten out of control.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, my slug-like reflexes kicked in, and I sprinted into the house as fast as an elderly man with a walker. I snatched the cordless phone from the butter compartment in the door of the fridge and began to dial 911. As I got 9 and the first 1 dialed, this guy from Alabama, that we only knew as Bama, yelled, “Throw me the phone, Rub!” (Rub was a nickname given to me as a high school freshman.) I underhand tossed him the phone with the precision of an elementary school softball pitcher and yelled back at him, “Hit 1 and talk to ‘em!” He did, and they agreed to come see if they could lend any assistance. By this time, the fire had spread into the abandoned cemetery behind the house, and everyone from the apartment complex next door had come out to witness the potential tragedy.  As I was directing the group of ladies who had formed a sort of bucket line to hide all the  potential potable liquid evidence that could be used in determining if the sobriety of those present could affect the investigation into cause of the fire, the most amazing spectacle of firefighting skill was taking place right in front of my eyes.

Another of our friends at the little soiree was less in charge of his mind/ body combo than others. I’ll just call him Fred to protect his identity because he has since been a finalist on The Bachelorette and has found some success as a musician in Nashville, much to the surprise of those of us that knew him back then. Anyway, Fred grabbed the water hose and took off running around the house to battle the borderline wildfire that was rapidly consuming the overgrown cemetery. In cartoon-like fashion, when the hose stretched as far as it could, Fred’s momentum caused his feet to run out from under him while the hose restrained his upper body, and he landed on his back with a thud. He then scrambled to his feet and ran back to the front of the house where he grabbed a red Solo cup, filled it with water and commenced performing a one-man bucket line. We all stood there in dumbfounded amazement as we watched him drunk-running a Solo cup of water, which was sloshing out with each step, around the side of the house toward the fire. As he got close to the fire, he tripped over an old wire fence that hung low to the ground and spilled all but a few drops of what water was left from the cup. That didn’t deter him, though. He flung the drops toward the fire and turned to run back around front to refill his cup. I’ll be danged if he didn’t trip over the fence again on his return trip. The rest of us were on the front patio struggling to get our stories straight by then while we watched his futile efforts and laughed our faces off. He repeated this trip three more times, including falling going and coming, before the red, flashy fire trucks pulled into the driveway. That performance earned Fred the nickname Mitch Buchanan for its similarity to the opening credits of Baywatch where David Hasselhoff runs along the shore, presumably to rescue someone in distress.

The firemen hopped out of their big red flashy noisemakers carrying what looked like an 18 wheeler mud flap stuck on the end of a shovel handle. They then proceeded to flap the fire out with the calmness of the professionals they were. Five minutes after they arrived, the fire was out and PJ had the head fire-flapper-toter inside showing him mounted deer heads and talking hunting. Someone else was outside giving our collaborative statement to another of the firefighters about how some random homeless guy was walking behind the house headed to the apartments down the hill, and he must’ve dropped a cigarette on it or something because we had no idea how it could’ve started otherwise. The firefighters were all cool guys and were probably bored on a Friday night. So, I suspect our little emergency gave them something to do to break up the monotony. In any case, they didn’t question the obvious absurdity of the story cobbled together by a bunch of impaired college kids and took their leave without calling for an arson investigation, thankfully. I’m fuzzy on the details of what happened after the firemen left, but I assume the get-together quickly disbanded before our luck was stretched beyond its breaking point. That night was one of many spent having the time of my young life on the hill in Starkville, but it was thankfully the only time a random homeless person tried to burn down the town and frame us for it.

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