When Frank Hayes turned six, his mother gave him a pair of work boots, just like his father’s. They were a deep brown leather with rubber soles and a small steel plate in the toe, and the laces wrapped around metal hooks as they wound their way up the front of the boot, as Frank had seen Dwayne do each morning before heading off to the mine.
He wore those boots everywhere, only taking them off when his mother commanded it. He pretended to be an explorer, climbing trees for the view and kicking over rocks to watch the bugs scurry. He jumped in muddy puddles and dug divots into the yard with the boots’ heels.
During that summer of 1967, as his older cousins began to disappear to far-off places like Vietnam or San Francisco, Frank roamed the woods behind his house on Flatstone Lane, happy to get away from everyone. His parents, after all, had so many rules. Drink water with dinner. Sit still in the car. Never chase the cat. Out in the woods, by himself, he could be just how he wanted. Sometimes, he even practiced cursing–damn shit hell–like his father, Dwayne.
Dwayne worked long hours in the mine, leaving before 8 and coming home at 6. Donna would have dinner waiting, and then Dwayne would head next door to his friend RJ’s house, where he and RJ would mess around fixing up an old ’38 Ford they were slowly turning into a street rod. Donna ran a beauty salon out of her laundry room during the day and spent most evenings doing chores. Frank played outside, with the instructions that he be back by dark and stay off the road.
The woods behind the house were not deep. After twenty or thirty yards, they thinned and opened onto the property of Dennis Ford and his wife Shirley. The Fords were family friends, and Shirley often gave Frank a roll of Life-Savers when he dropped by. She would sit with him on her back porch, and they would watch hummingbirds suck nectar from a feeder she had installed in her yard. Sometimes, she even gave him an IBC root beer.
That Saturday, the 15th of July, Donna was cutting hair and Dwayne had gone to the racetrack in Jennerstown. Frank put on his adventure outfit, which consisted of a brown flannel shirt, corduroy pants, and his boots. He was over-dressed for the weather, but he had to look like an explorer. Everyone knew that your clothing broadcast who you were. Soldiers and police wore uniforms. Hippies wore jeans and beads and ill-fitting shirts. Explorers wore khaki, but this get-up was the best he could do. Heat or no, he was dressed to explore.
Shirley wasn’t in her backyard when he pushed through the bushes and walked out of the woods. Her clothing was hanging on the line, drying in the morning sun. On the other side of the yard, a pile of garbage was burning in a small barren area away from the house. This was not an unusual way to dispose of trash in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 1967. Frank had seen it many times before, but he had never investigated a fire while exploring. He approached cautiously, as he thought a scientist might.
“The natives of this jungle have many ceremonies involving fire,” he narrated. “This is their god, and they must sacrifice to it.”
He moved closer, watching the flames lick at the broken wood of a packing crate, blackening its edges. He circled the fire from a yard away, looking at the refuse as it burned. The trash was piled in a heap about three feet high. As he watched, the flames consumed some of the heap’s foundation, causing the top-heavy pile to tip and fall. It landed near him, and an empty can of green beans rolled towards his foot. He kicked it back to the center of the rubbish, and then he had an idea.
“One of the villagers’ fires is out of control! It is threatening the village! Only your brave hero, Frank Hayes, can save the day!”
He leapt toward the flames, which were low to the ground, and he began to stomp on them with his boots. He could see some bits of paper and cardboard stop burning from his efforts, leaving charred remnants when he lifted his foot. He was extinguishing the flames down to the coals! He was a hero!
His corduroy pants were burning for about twenty seconds before he noticed. A yellow-orange tongue of flame licked its way up his leg, singing his skin and causing him to look down. When he saw that he was on fire, all bravery and heroism failed him. He wanted his mommy, and he darted off towards the woods, towards home.
No one had ever explained fire safety to Frank. He did not know–as he always reminded his kids decades later–to Stop, Drop, and Roll. He ran as fast as he could, which in this case was very fast indeed, and the movement of his legs through the air fed oxygen to the fire.
Donna had just washed Esther Hook’s hair and was preparing to style it when she heard her son’s scream approaching like a train preparing to derail. She looked out the window to see him engulfed in flames from the waist down. She bolted through the door and met him in the yard. He was screaming so hard that his jaw appeared ready to detach. Without thinking, she grabbed the waistband of his burning pants and tore them off of him in an adrenaline surge.
By this point, Esther was behind her with a pot of water she had grabbed from the kitchen, and she poured it on the boy’s legs, then ran back inside to fetch more, which she used to extinguish the almost-gone pants. Donna sensed the movement around her, but she was so busy trying to calm Frank that she couldn’t think of anything else. It was Esther who got them into her station wagon and took them down the mountain to Union City Hospital. Only when they put Frank on the stretcher in the emergency room did Donna realize her son was still wearing his boots.