Burning Questions

R. G. G. PRICE is the author of many light pieces which have appeared frequently on these pages.

Seeing a fire-eater on television the other night made me suddenly realize how far this old and highly respectable profession has dropped out of my life. I suppose that if I haunted circuses and fairs more, I might find the world is full of fire-eaters, but in the more highbrow entertainments on which I have spent my maturity, they have been edged out by fire-walkers. On tropical hillsides, in the gardens of Western hostesses, and in university laboratories fire-walkers give pleasure not just to the kind of conjurer manqué who enjoys exposing mediums but to anthropologists, psychologists, and suspicious dermatologists, who search their feet for signs of fireproofing. In comparison, people who merely chew fire are tickling the groundlings or aiming at the lower intelligence groups or the very young.

When I could just read, I was given a comprehensive manual of magical entertainment. It started off with simple card tricks and ended with descriptions of large-scale apparatus capable of making a fullgrown blonde disappear. When in its systematic way it reached tricks with red-hot pokers, the instructions read bleakly, “Coat the tongue and upper throat with soap.” My parents found me gingerly licking a cake of the stuff, every taste bud in revolt. I suppose that after this early and rather depressing experience, I tended to assume that the secret of red-hot pokers was probably the secret of fire-eating, and transferred my admiration for sheer skill to other fields, like juggling with hats.

Contemplating this branch of expertise after all these years, I found myself wondering, not how it was done, but what effect doing it would have on the practitioners. Take, for example, etiquette in fire-eating society. The male performer invites the female performer out after the show. He cannot really afford the place she chooses, but he is only young once. They decide on something flambé, and the waiter wheels the flame-crested trolley up to their table. Is it approved behavior for the host to scoop up a spoonful of flame and taste it and nod approvingly, as one is under moral pressure to do with the sample from a bottle of wine? At the end of the meal does he produce his lighter, from which she inhales with satisfaction, while she shyly strikes a match from her jeweled box and pops it between his lips?

When they marry, there must be problems behind the scenes. What can it be like being their child? “That’s enough calories between meals, so put the magnesium down.” “Keep away from that bonfire. You know what the dietician said.” “How many more times do I have to tell you that you eat just the flame of the candle, not the wax?” Later there will be trouble in the school laboratories over using Bunsen burners for illicit guzzling, and at the athletic track any ceremony involving running with a flaming torch may get Junior disqualified for nibbling.

One of the textbook varieties of juvenile delinquency is pyromania or fire-raising. The normal healthy boy simply sets fire to buildings because he dislikes the owner or wants to see the fire brigade turn out. But the boy growing up in a fire-eating family will be in danger of burning down structures simply to try the taste. In large towns these leanings will be kept under control by the calculatedly nonflam construction in most modern buildings. The rural fire-eater is going to fare better. Wooden houses and barns and combustible crops provide temptations which only an ethically outstanding upbringing is going to keep him away from.

One thinks of those show business people in the manipulative rather than interpretative grades — the acrobats and sword-swallowers and tightrope walkers — as handing on their crafts from generation to generation. Some of these families probably go right back to the light relief at medieval courts. But what about the freak, the deviant, who does not want to follow father and mother and grandmother? Career counselors will find themselves put on their mettle, I thought as I mused over the difficulties of finding other occupations for flaming youth. Analogically minded advisers might suggest fireworks manufacturing. I doubt whether any firm is going to employ a beginner who is always slipping off to gorge on the stocks.

Would there be a place for fireeating in medicine? Surely a surgeon who could cauterize a wound by breathing into it would simply be putting operating theater techniques back to before the invention of the electric cautery. Another objection is that his mask would have to be asbestos. In religion? A hellfire preacher who could belch flames at dramatic high spots in his sermon would certainly rivet the attention of his congregation, but my guess is that the gimmick would pall and there would be wrangles over the insurance cover for the pulpit.

When generals are described as fire-eaters, this is only a metaphor as far as I know. I cannot think offhand of a single first-class strategic mind with the knack of chewing lighted tow. Army selection boards would probably turn down fireeaters on the grounds of infringing blackout and alerting the enemy, of endangering ammunition, and of conduct unbecoming to a military man.

I cannot see much future in business either. I suppose it is possible to imagine a creep who ingratiates himself with the boss by doing tricks with fire when his life is at a low ebb, say during the afternoon after a heavy meal with a heavy client; but a creep needs other abilities, including, above all, the ability to drink, and I am not sure how this would tie in with fire-eating. They might well be incompatible. There are, of course, many, many other careers, and I will simply take one at random: taxidermy. I cannot see that fire-eating would ease a taxidermist into a higher income bracket. No. I am afraid the boy would simply have to forget he had any special skills, and if suppressing his inherited powers caused personality deformation, the career counselor could pass the case over to a psychologist and turn to something easier.

There is, however, one avenue open to the lad who wants to strike out for himself and yet not resist the fire-eating urge. He can use his gifts as the basis of a profitable cult, something for rich widows to do as a change from cards, gossiping, and collecting jewels. He would need a hint of the occult, a hint of undenominational life-enhancement, and a hint of the search for health, so his approach would have to combine the mage, the swami, and the fashionable physician. He should be able to make a bit on the side by selling flameproof lipstick and even tooth fillings with high melting points.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the gypsy urge in the heart of the fireeater’s child — the noncomformity, the desire not to be a chip off the old block. I remember the turn I watched on my screen, and its smooth, habitual look makes any thought of social embarrassment or family problems in connection with it preposterous. I expect the only thing that ever clouds the serenity of fire-eaters is hiccups.