everyday burnings
by keith c. pounds

Do you have any burns? Ever been burned in your life?

When I was 8 or so, I made lime aid, and forgot to wash my hands. I went outside to play and the sun burned me, giving me blisters all over the backs of my hands, the length of each finger. And you know how you get a scar from a burn; they say that nerves have a hard time growing again through scar tissue, and when I drop hot water on the tops my hands, it takes me a long time to feel it. And when I tell that story, people tell me about burns that they have received, you know, a tour of the minor body traumas. Well, I have other scars, scars that I can show you.

And I have something to tell you about burning, only it doesnít boil down like coffee. There are other kinds of marks like the ones I describe.

I used to live in San Antonio TX, and one thing that is true is that it's hot there. It's so hot it burns you up there in San Antonio, people get hurt there. It's so hot that the soles of your shoes will melt on the pavement, and that it's not unusual for it to be 112 degrees for days, for more days than you can think about, let me tell you. And what you people here might not know is that things work differently there. Things work differently because it's so hot. But the people are the same, they do the same kinds of things as we do here. People get hurt down there in San Antonio.

It was morning and I was working as a tour bus driver in Downtown San Antonio, Hot San Antonio, and I drove this big bus thing that had been tricked out to look like a trolley car. Now there had not been any trolleys in San Antonio that I had a ever heard of, and seeing how I was educated to give a tour of the oldest part of San Antonio, I guess, you know, I would know. But there I was, I was driving this big bus-converted-to-trolley thing, something which had made that conversion for the sheer purpose of pandering to tourism, you know, kind of this authentic marker, an identifier that you can find coast to coast, rides that have some historical significance, or rides that tell you about the historic significance of things. If you jumped aboard mine, I would drive you slowly around the square, in front of the Alamo.

You see, if you have never been there, the Alamo is a singularly unimpressive building, surrounded by impressive buildings, old and new all around the Plaza. The Alamo is situated at one end of a plaza whose pecan trees dwarf the structure. It is, of course, a sacred site, as I was reassured, and there were no fewer than two police stations close by, and a fire department right behind it.

Beyond the Alamo, on my trolley, I take you on a winding tour of the downtown, including La Vailleta, the little city where all those docile Texicans worked and lived in the old days, and I would drive you down and show you the brick hotel moved three blocks in five weeks, many years ago, and by the Alamo dome, where the San Antonio Spurs play, and which features regular WWF events, and I would drive you by Old Houses, ones from the turn of the century, wooden, remarkably, with huge awnings over patios, painted blue, sky blue on the tops, to keep the wasps and the birds from making nests.

This was the tour that we were on together, the only air-conditioned tour of downtown San Antonio, which was a big deal, since it's HOT in San Antonio in the summer time, it's hotter than the desert down there, and my office was in the side of the Rivercentre. You might have heard about the river in San Antonio, some kind of ridiculous artificially-fed concrete moat around which to build restaurants and convention centers, provide the occasional dunking for a drunk. And hulking square over this is the Rivercentre mall, impressive by architectural, as well as capitalistic, standards, if not for sheer size, then for sheer audacity as it hulks beside that so sacred of Texan shrines. And I had a neat little office in the side of the massive mall, just around the corner from the Alamo, and I would sit there, in a nest of brochures, with an admittedly perky haircut, waiting until the scheduled time would arrive so I could hop up on the bus/trolley and tool people all over downtown with a microphone:

ďOn your left is the Mission San Antonio de Vallerta, established in 1718, blah blah, known as the Alamo with blah blah, Davey Crockett, blah blah, Santa Ana, blah blah, Ripleyís Believe it or Not Wax Museum, blah, blah," and so on.

And one day I stood there with some tourists who were taking a panoramic picture of me in front of my trolley, and I was instructed to stand there and wait for the picture to finish, but there was this sound, a human sound, human but I couldnít tell what it was, it was horrible and from my vantage point I looked out into the plaza, among the hundreds of tourists that are almost so natural that the seem like flocks of birds, and they were all running, half away from the Alamo, half toward it. All of them looked horrified, and as my mind struggled to connect an image to the sound, I could only think of a man, trapped beneath a bus, and as I ran around the corner I saw a man on fire, walking toward the Alamo, hands outreached, screaming, screaming, "Shoot me!" My first thought, even before I knew what was happening, was to look for the movie cameras. This couldnít be true. But it was, and that thought hit me like a revelation. I learned later that he had set himself on fire, and as he burned, the fire shot above him like he was a burning house, his skin hanging off of his arms in sheets like the wings of some broken angel.

Holocaust—holokaustos burnt whole—A sacrifice consumed whole, a thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life. I was, I think, 8 years old when I first heard about the Holocaust. I was at a park with my best friend, and we were staring at a tattoo on the arm of an old man. It was from the Nazis, he said. A brand, a burn that marks you forever.

But what about burnings that donít burn you whole? Everyday burnings. When you brush up against something that leaves a part of you shriveled, something permanent, a mark with a history, a burn with a voice. Those experiences are hard to write about, to describe. Seeing a man on fire is an easy thing to describe. But here are the everyday burnings, the scars of life in hot San Antonio:

Back when George W.ís daddy ran the country, I went to high school in San Antonio. There was a lot of stuff going on in San Antonio, more than was supposed to by the sanctioned, Texas alumni network of white-bred approved public morality. But that is just it, the veneer, the hot tight finish of some fictional reality that tries to make it all seem okay. It was at my high school, and in my community, that I learned about the different degrees of hate, and the kinds of marks they make. There were these guys, boys but men, who would pile into trucks on the weekend and go looking for homosexuals on the weekend to harass, and none of us, not me at least, believed them, really, when they came back and boasted of cracking skulls or smashing windows. There was a park where gay people were supposed to go, you know, and five years later, a man was killed, a friend of one of my teachers, murdered because he had a gay pride bumper sticker, down there in San Antonio. But that had to be extreme, and sure, in Texas funny bumper stickers get you followed, and it is the state that until the 1970s it was still legal, in some circumstances, for a man to murder his wife, and it is the state where you can lose your job in some schools as a teacher if you say the words "homosexual" or "AIDS." Homosexual. AIDS.

And I am not sure why it hurts when you hear those stories, that when they told me, a few years back, they had caught two gay men, tied them inside a port-a-potty, and left them in the courtyard at my high school . . . .

Who gets the burns in everyday burnings? Who suffers the most? Do the scars go unseen and unmentioned, or do they disfigure and make you gasp at the sight of them? And when does it happen? When we canít look beyond the surface and see the people behind the stories? And I was a kid in high school when I had my job touring the crown jewel of Texas, the Alamo, and its vicinity, and itís a beautiful city, at night it lights up and you can see it from the hills where I lived, the city, wrapped as it was in tourism, history, commodities, and hate.

The man who burned himself alive in front of the Alamo lived. He hard burns on over 70 percent of his body, and was certified as crazy by the media, and his family. And you think about the scar tissue, and scars from burns, and I wonder when those scars turn to calluses, or callousness, that make us insensitive to the world, to the stories of hate, to the everyday burnings. And I think if I showed you my scars, those would have to be taken into account, you know, on the official tour, hereís where I was burned by the stories of hate, here was where I was burned by the polices in the schools . . . .

« previous