I ran through the playroom and into the main section of the house - which was illuminated by a waving orange glow. The kitchen was on fire, flames licking up the walls. My mother was standing in the centre of the small space, throwing water at the flames.
I don't remember whether I acted from instinct or some half-remembered instruction, or whether my mother had shouted an order, by I do know I ran back to my room and returned with an armful of blankets, which we used to smother the flames.
The inner walls of the little house were made of a very soft partical board called tentest, which was great for accepting thumbtacks and which made for even better kindling. They looked like hell by the time the fire was out, but I looked on the damage with a lot of pride. In a real emergency, I had acted, not panicked, and I knew that most eight year-olds would not have done the same.
Despite this near-disaster, fire was and would long remain an old friend and a faithful servant to me. My folks had pulled up stakes from our home in suburban town of Two Mountains outside of Montreal and moved us to the outskirts of Sudbury, where my great-uncle Ray and my father put up a small house after clearing a big enough space out of the forest. Money was tight, so we did without such bourgeois luxuries as running water and electricity.
The structure was shaped like a fat ell. At the far end of the narrower section were three cells, deliberately designed without internal load-bearing walls, for easy conversion into a single room at a later date. They were about six by six feet square, each one outfitted with a lower and an upper bunk, the upper perpendicular to the bottom.
I was already a reader and had no choice but engage in that pastime by the light of candles and oil lamps. In my hand, matches were a tool, not a toy, needed the for light, for heat, and for igniting the Coleman camp-stove we used for all of our cooking. (It's really quite amazing how much one can do with a two-burner stove and no oven.)
Not that I was introduced to fire only when we moved to the country. In fact, the first time I remember making a fire, we had only recently moved to the town of Two Mountains (now called Deux Montagnes), which would have made me five or six years old.
My parents were unusual in many ways, not least of which was the condidence they had in their own judgement, rather than in rules or experts. And so it was I was permitted to wander in the woods on my own when I was three, my younger brother was an expert cyclist when he reached that age, and I first drove on the 401 at the age of twelve.
Similarly, when I got curious about fire and matches, rather than sternly forbidding me to play with them, my father instead found a big ash-tray and a few of packs of matches and sat down with me. He showed me how to light a match, explained the consequences of not putting one out, and let me at it. Never one to forbid fruit, he instead believed that, when he judged his child was ready to learn (which usually meant, when that child expressed an interest), the best policy was to teach, rather than to forbid.
And so it was, one spring or summer day, that there came a rather panicked knocking on our front door. I think it was my mother who answered it.
"Yes?" she said to the frightened-looking neighbour who stood on her stoop.
"There's a small boy, making a fire next to your house," he said.
"Oh," said my mum, "that's Geoffrey. He's just experimenting."
"Yes," said my mum, but the neighbour's fear convinced her she should check on the progress of my experiment, just to be on the safe side.
And so she found me, happily feeding twigs into an impressive blaze, which I had built against the concrete side of the house. The flames licked a couple of feet into the air and - much to my dismay - she decided this particular investigation into the nature of fire had gone quite far enough and so extinguished it.
I was outraged, of course. I had been very careful and believed (and still do!) that I had everything was under control. I explained as much, but my mother was firm. "Experimenting" was all fine and good, but the results had to be kept to a certain size.
I often look back with not a little awe at the things my parents let me do when I was a small child. Lord knows, I'm not sure I will be able to do the same if ever I have the privilege to be a father. And yet, I am glad they did what they did - or rather, that they permitted me to do the things I did. From allowing me wander forests on my own or make fires, to letting me take the wheel of the car, to making firm noises at concerned librarians ("Of course Geoffrey can take out Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire! Geoffrey may only be nine, but he has my permission to borrow any book in this library that interests him!" (As it turned out, Gibbons was more than I could chew; I returned the (abridged) version to the library some time later having read only the first chapter . But I digress.
I'm glad my folks had the confidence in their own judgement necessary to allow them to let me learn at my own pace, to experiment and to grow, when I was ready to do so.