(Spring 1992, Bowling Green, Kentucky) The Society for Creative Anachronism was re-creating medieval life at Beech Bend Park, nestled in a woody curve of the Barren River. Two female friends had pitched their tents with other sword-wielding, baggy-pants celebrants. They invited me and "Adam" to join them for one evening's campout. Since both were lovely blondes, as well as charming companions, we readily agreed. They provided us with faux-medieval garb that would enable us to blend into the crowd. A tabard and baggy pants were enough for me, but Adam wanted something more.
Every SCAdian practices a skill, be it cooking, singing, craft, or energetically whacking each other with duct-tape-covered swords. Adam wanted to go all the way. He can juggle, which was a start, but not quite impressive enough. He decided to breathe fire. Adam had seen this stunt performed with pure grain alcohol. But he'd never done it, he was too young to buy alcohol, and the liquor stores closed at 11 pm. Still determined to blaze with glory, he went looking for a substitute.
Let's see... what flammable liquids can a young man buy in a Kentucky Wal-mart at 11:30 pm? There were several choices, none good. Adam settled on Coleman stove fuel. It was clear, and didn't smell too bad. He could pour it into an empty wine bottle for period realism. Adam decided it was close enough.
Back at camp. "C'mere, I've got something to show you," Adam told one blonde friend, and led her behind a large cloth tent. Nearby stood a group of men in chain mail armor, warming themselves around a fire. They could see Adam, but I couldn't.
Seconds later, a deep "WHOOOM!" burst from behind the tent, accompanied by a gout of orange flame. "Whoa!" cried all the guys around the campfire, turning to applaud. But their applause died. Through a double layer of tent fabric I could see this... afterglow. "Holy shit! He's on fire!" the mail-clad men yelled, and ran over to pound out the flames blazing around Adam's head.
What Adam hadn't realized was that unlike grain alcohol, stove fuel gives off copious fumes. As he swigged the fuel, some trickled down his chin. Fortunately, he'd shaved off his goatee the day before. As it was, fumes wreathed his head and fuel trickled down his throat. In the ensuing conflagration, he managed to scorch his eyebrows and the hair off the back of his head, while hardly touching that on top. Rivulets of flame ran down his neck, and he suffered chemical burns in his throat.
Adam was still standing, and at first thought he was not seriously hurt. But the burns started to sting, and I led him to the chirurgeon's tent. They quickly ascertained that neither medieval technology nor modern first aid would suffice, and I drove Adam to the hospital in a horseless carriage. The burns on his neck healed without serious scarring, his hair re-grew, and the octave he lost off his voice came back in about six months.
Five years later I went to another SCA gathering in a different city, accompanying the same female friends. A long and entertaining day concluded with a belly-dancing demonstration around a bonfire, accompanied by throbbing drums. I turned to the stranger standing next to me and commented on how exciting the event was.
"Aw, this is nothin', man," he replied. "If you think this is exciting, you shoulda been here five years ago. Some crazy dude set his head on fire!"
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Reader W. McGloin says, "I have serious doubts about the authenticity of this
story. The tale states, 'flame ran down his neck,' but Coleman fuel burns
with an invisible flame. The only visible sign is a rippling effect, such
as the mirage one sees on a road on a hot day. Therefore, no fireball, and
only the clothing and idiot would produce visible flames."
Submitted by: Jim G.
Reference: Personal account, Spring 1992